“If you can figure out why they stay, let me know! I’ve never understood that!”
I was catching up with an old friend a few years back, letting them know I was studying to become a psychotherapist and working with victims of Domestic Violence.
The immediate response was a contorted face and an exasperated, "I don't understand why they stay in those relationships! Why don't they just leave?!" The air seethed with judgment.
The question took me aback for a moment . . . Seriously, you have no clue how this gets set up? Clearly not. As it dawned on me that this question was coming from a perspective of male privilege...white male privilege at that, I quickly shifted into excitement at the opportunity to share some wisdom and insight into an experience of life that most hetero, cis-gender men will never find themselves the victims of.
I took a deep breathe, "I can absolutely tell you why they stay!
The abuser threatens to hunt them down and kill them, or their kids, or their pets if they leave, or have their children taken away from them.
Their abuser breaks them down and tells them they’re stupid, worthless, nobody else would want them, and that they should thank God everyday that their abuser puts up with them and “takes care” of them because nobody else would.
Their abuser gaslights them when they point out problems in the relationship to the point that they question their own sense of reality and begin to think they're going crazy. They lose all sense of agency and sense of self, and begin to rely on the abuser for access to "the truth."
Their families send them straight back to their abuser when they reach out for help because they either don’t believe the victim (you’re exaggerating! It can’t be that bad!), or they don’t believe in divorce, or they believe the victim brought it on themselves and must suffer the consequences.
Their abuser has brought them to the U.S. from a foreign country and isolated them to the point where at best, they cannot leave the house alone, and at worst, they are not allowed any social contact and must stay in the bedroom at all times, and therefore are not allowed to work, learn English, or figure out how to get help as their abuser threatens deportation on them constantly.
Many victims of Domestic Violence grew up being abused by a parent, or watching their dad abuse their mom, and don’t know there’s a safer way to live life.
Or, because they’ve lived this life for so long, constantly in fear, they are sort of in a “comfort zone.” They know the abuse is wrong, and they deserve better, but they’re too scared to leave what’s familiar because it’s predictable and life has just become too scary for them.
All in all, they stay because their abuser has physical, economic, emotional, and verbal control over them.
How’s that for an answer?!?"
Suffice to say, my friend gained a new perspective and a new level of awareness that day. Domestic Violence and abuse are all about power and control.
But here’s the crazy part: these patterns don't just exist in relationships with others.
We all like to stay with "the devil we know" (our current choices/beliefs/survival mechanisms/ways of being in the world) over the one we don't know: the unknown outcomes if we choose differently, the potential for new struggles, the discomfort of making changes, the vulnerability of letting our authentic self out to be seen and heard, etc.
Why do we stay in unhealthy, life-sucking circumstances? Because change is scary--sometimes so scary that settling for a life that doesn't make us happy feels waaaaaaay safer.
If you are in an unsafe relationship and need support, there is a 24/7 crisis line available in the U.S: 1-800-273-TALK ( 8255 )
If you are stuck in unhealthy patterns, you might be interested in beginning therapy or coaching with someone to get you through to the other side. Because life can be fulfilling, if you're willing to walk through the scary field of change and transformation.