Why Staying in an Abusive Relationship is Worse than Leaving
By: Amy Thomson
Victims trapped in active abuse are conditioned and intimidated to cling to the thought that silence is their protector. They are coerced into keeping the circumstances hidden under threat of escalating violence and punishments for non-compliance, and initially the silence – and even defending the abuser – is met with rewards of small gifts, gestures and praise.
The realization that the silence is putting them at a higher risk comes at different times for everyone. As they are pulled deeper into isolation, they begin to find that the protections and rewards they used to receive in exchange for silence fade away into the background and are replaced by coercion, intimidation, fear and cruelty.
Yet, victims are torn by indecision when they are granted small moments of affection as their abuser exploits their emotions and manipulates them into believing things will be better if they stay. It makes it hard to focus on the danger unfolding around them.
Damage caused by remaining in an abusive relationship can be physical, emotional, financial and spiritual. Even if they do not experience all seven methods of abuse, the effects compound over time, weighing them down with trauma that can be life-threatening.
Emotional Impact of Staying in an Abusive Relationship
Depression – Absorbing trauma over an extended period of time can alter the ability to cope and burden victims with a feeling of loss, hopelessness and despair. Increasing trauma can cause withdrawal from others, inability to focus and in more severe cases, suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Even a single traumatic event can cause PTSD. However over time, trauma conditions unhealthy emotional responses and manifests in nightmares, chronic anxiety and panic disorders, obsessing about the event(s) and avoiding situations that trigger memories associated with trauma.
Destroyed Trust and Severed Interpersonal Relationships – Victims become incapable of trusting their capability to judge others’ character and lose the ability to trust others. In response, they can also withdraw from family and friends – both from shame and fear of judgment, criticism and doubt.
Dissociation – In milder cases, this is usually described as being “spaced out.” Dissociation is being disconnected from the surrounding environment. Described by the American Psychiatric Association as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment,” dissociation can be so severe as a result of trauma that the person experiences a break with reality severing them from connection to both the physical environment and internal emotional responses.
Stockholm Syndrome – Some victims develop Stockholm syndrome as a survival tactic without being aware that this is occurring. Psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer described this to DomesticShelters.org as “a powerful and loving connection people who are oppressed develop for their oppressors” and refers to it as “another manifestation of trauma bonding.” This means that the victim will be burdened with denial that prohibits them from recognizing the abuse and can often result in them defending the abuser and playing a de-escalation role in the dynamic. Other experts view this a way to survive in oppressive environments that they have little or no ability control.
Physical Impact of Staying in an Abusive Relationship
Disturbances in Meeting Physical Needs – Changes in appetite and sleeping habits can have detrimental effects on overall health. Dramatic weight loss/gain, eating disorders and chronic insomnia all affect metabolism and risk for obesity and other diseases. Chronic lack of sleep has been correlated with poor memory and diminished capacity to function normally.
Unexplained Physical Symptoms (Not Linked to Assault Injuries) – Tiredness, aches and pains and weakness can be experienced seemingly without cause. However, when lacking physical injury, these symptoms can manifest as signs of extreme levels of stress. They can progress into illnesses and other disorders if left unchecked but are signals from your body that the emotional stress is taking its toll.
Onset of Medical Conditions – Diabetes, high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and heart disease, headaches and other diseases can be linked to sustained trauma over time – even if the abuse experienced had not escalated to physical abuse.
Dependency on Drugs or Alcohol to Cope – Substance and alcohol abuse is fairly common with victims and survivors of abuse regardless of whether this was caused by forced administration of drugs as a form of control or as a way to cope with the overwhelming stress in the environment around us. Dependency on drugs can increase risky behaviors and compound depressive illnesses.
Financial Impact of Staying in an Abusive Relationship
Denial of Access to Family Finances – The abuser may not allow you to work as a way to further isolate you or hinder your ability to move freely and care for children and other expenses. They may also maintain strict control over your paycheck, bank accounts and credit cards.
Loss of the Use of a Vehicle – This is also used to isolate you and prevent you from leaving without having to ask permission from the abuser to use the car.
Destroyed Credit – Often, abusers won’t allow you to pay bills and other financial obligations which can not only result in defaulted loans and suspended registration on vehicles, but utility shut offs and evictions as well.
Homelessness – This can be experienced both during active abuse and as a result of leaving. During active abuse, being homeless forces you to be reliant on your abuser for survival and makes it more difficult to leave.
Spiritual Impact of Staying in an Abusive Relationship
Shame – Many congregations still do not know how to properly and effectively address domestic violence within their congregations. Often, clergy and other members in the congregation engage in victim blaming and influence the victim to believe they are at fault for the abuse they are experiencing. Clergy may press the victim to stay with the abuser, citing the victim’s role and duties for the reason.
Isolation – In addition to the isolation used against the victim by the abuser, lack of support within the religious community can further isolate the victim by making them feel even more trapped by scriptural obligation. Some religions might discourage members of the congregation from seeking help from secular sources, and the pressure to keep the situation in the congregation can make the victim feel cut off.
Damaged Spirituality – Unsupportive (and enabling) congregations can cause the victim to feel forgotten, unloved and unworthy. You may even begin to doubt your beliefs and become inactive and withdraw from the congregation.
Impact of an Abusive Relationship on Children
Behavioral Problems – Children living in homes with domestic violence are prone to becoming withdrawn, aggressive and depressed. As students, their grades may suffer, and they may be increasingly absent from school. They may also lose their ability to trust or form and maintain relationships, run away from home, attempt suicide or engage in criminal behavior. Further, they may adopt violence as a response to stress or solving problems if they see it consistently modeled at home. Bedwetting, insomnia, nightmares, headaches and stomach illnesses are also common.
Guilt – Children often feel they are the cause of the abusive parent’s behavior and feel responsible for not being able to protect the parent who is being abused. It is not uncommon for some children to attempt to shield their parent to try to protect them when the abuser attacks.
Perpetuation of Violence – Children who grow up in homes with domestic violence are at an increased risk to be abused as teens or adults or to become abusers themselves. Because violence is modeled at home, they can become desensitized to it and accept it as normal.
Child Abuse – Children with mothers being abused by their fathers are at an increased risk of being abused or neglected by the abusive parent as well. Many parents justify being assaulted since their child(ren) would “never be harmed by their partner.” Unfortunately, their risk is increased up to 15 times.
While for a time, victims may be drawn to believe the abuse will stop or the abuser will change their behavior if they fix “what is wrong with them,” they are, in fact, protecting the abuser from consequences of their abusive behavior while simultaneously putting themselves at increased risk. Leaving is a difficult, frightening experience for victims, because they know they are at increased risk of retaliation during that time. However, leaving gives you an opportunity to reclaim and rebuild your life, Staying only prolongs your suffering with escalation of abuse over time.