Why I stayed in an abusive relationship for over 18 years: My story

Iris Pendleton

If it was so bad, why didn’t you leave? Why did you stay for over 18 years if it was so bad?

These are the questions people have asked countless times since I left the abusive relationship nearly 3 years ago. 

I had several reasons why I should have left, but I did not. There were numerous violent episodes over the years, but I still stayed. 

I stayed after he hit me the first time.  I stayed when he called me explicit, obscene 4 and 5-letter words. I stayed after having my glasses smashed into my face by his fist.  I stayed after constant criticism, manipulation, and ridicule.

Yes, I had a car, money, and a job, and I knew people I could ask for help. With these resources available, why didn’t I leave? There is no simple answer to this question. 

I will discuss some of the reasons why I stayed. Other people’s reasons why may be different since no two survivor stories are exactly the same. On the other hand, one thing all survivors of abuse share is that we know leaving an abusive relationship is not as easy as it may seem.

Here are some of the reasons why I stayed. 

#1 – Low Self-esteem

My low self-esteem contributed to my staying. I had struggled with low self-esteem and self-worth from childhood. Life and people had taught me that a skinny, dark-skinned girl was ugly and worth less than others. Over time I started to believe this lie. When I went into early adulthood as an 18- or 19-year-old, I aimed to find someone to love me and make me feel valuable. I did not realize that I could only attract someone who believed what I already believed about myself. When he started calling me names and hitting me, I just figured it was a part of the process of love. Besides, from early childhood, I had seen women beaten by men who said they loved them. Although it was an unhealthy relationship, I was afraid to let go. I was also convinced that no one else would want me. I thought he was my only chance at love. Although the “love” he gave was not always lovely, in my mind, it was something.  

#2 – The Abuse Cycle

Riding the abuse cycle roller coaster contributed to my staying. He was not always abusive. The abuse cycle has periods of calm, followed by buildup and an explosion. It is a cycle that keeps going. Sometimes, he would shower me with small gifts, cook elaborate dinners, say sweet things to me, be affectionate, and pour on the romantic charm. Those times would remind me of the things I liked about him. Those times would also convince me that it could get better. I hoped the period of calm would stay because I enjoyed the person he was during those periods. The calm was always followed by a buildup of tension. He would slip and call me a name, throw something across the room, use profanity, or yell angrily. Soon after, a significant explosion would occur, sometimes resulting in me being physically attacked. The good times in that relationship were good, but the bad ones were equally bad. The good times served to keep me working hard to try to get back to the good and try to ward off the bad. I did not realize that I was not in control of the abuse. The abuse was a choice he made, and I could do nothing to stop him from being abusive. I could not end something I did not cause. 

#3 – Single Parenting

I feared being a single parent. When I got into the relationship, I had no children. By the end of it, I had two children. I was advised that a single-parent home is no place to raise children, so I convinced myself that I would stay for the children. Constant messages of “a woman cannot raise two boys to be men” echoed in my mind. The stigma of being a single mother is laced with shame and embarrassment. Although single mothers are doing the good hard work of parenting, society often paints the picture that they are the problem. I was told that no one worth having would ever want a single mother with two kids, so I stayed because I had convinced myself that being in a bad relationship was better than being single.

#4 – Fear of Starting Over

I stayed because, in my mind, I had convinced myself that starting over would be hard. Then I found myself there for nearly 2 decades. People sometimes celebrate a relationship’s longevity without questioning the long relationship’s health. I had made an enormous investment in that relationship. I had worked hard to try to keep it all together. It crushed my soul that I would be walking away from the years of effort I had put in. I feared starting over, not knowing what might be on the other side. I feared what it would be like to be single and back in the dating pool. I feared being physically alone.  

#5 – Fear of What He would do if I left

I stayed because I knew that leaving would be dangerous. I feared that I would not live to enjoy the freedom of being free. My abuser had threatened me many times about what he could and would take from me if I left. Among his threats were: burning down the house and taking the kids. The history of violence in the relationship also scared me. He was bigger and stronger than me, and I feared he would end me if I left. Staying was dangerous, but I feared leaving could be even more dangerous. 

#6 – Fear of What Others would say

When I met the abuser, I was young and worked in fast food and retail settings. I stayed because I feared the gossip that would come after I left. I feared people saying that he had “helped” me get ahead in life, and I left him. When I left, I had earned 3 degrees and had a well-established professional career. People looking in from the outside were convinced I accomplished these things because of him. What they did not know was that I completed them despite him. He did not regularly work for most of our relationship, so I was the breadwinner. I took on most of the house and parenting tasks while pursuing higher education. He told people he paid for me to attend school, which was a lie. So, between his lies and people’s misperceptions, I worried that people would paint a picture and make me look like I had taken advantage of him. 

#7 – His Illness

I stayed because he was ill. During the last few years of our relationship, he dealt with a chronic illness. I helped him set up his medical equipment, coordinate doctor’s appointments, and monitor his medication schedule. I felt so bad about his deteriorating physical state. As a Christian, I thought my duty was to stay and care for him. Even though he did not deserve my love and care, I thought about all the instances in the Bible when God gave grace and mercy to those who didn’t deserve it. So, I felt guilty about trying to leave at a time when it seemed like he needed me most. I felt like I needed to stay. 

#8 – Embarrassment

I stayed because I was ashamed of what I had been through. I did not want anyone to know what I had gone through. On the outside, no one could have guessed how bad it was for me to live in that relationship. I felt ashamed being who I was professionally and having gone through that situation. 

So, the answers to the questions: “Why did you stay?” and “why didn’t you leave?” each have complex answers. I have provided some of my answers to these questions. The reasons why you stayed may be the same or similar. Your reasons may be different. The critical thing to remember is that it does not matter when you leave. If you are still in an abusive relationship, you still have a chance to find freedom. So, you must make it out alive whether it takes you 10 months, 10 years, or 20 years to leave. 

After leaving the abusive relationship, I stayed single for a while. I engaged in continuing to heal from the past abuse I faced. I attended counseling watched countless hours of videos, and wrote many pages in multiple journals as I processed the pain and trauma I had lived through.

Today I am building a wonderful life on the other side of all the abuse I suffered. I am now married to a loving, kind, and gentle man. I am rediscovering and embracing things about myself that I had to hide for so many years. I love life and everything it has to offer. 

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