It seems so simple – just leave. And yet it’s not.
There are many reasons why a person who is being abused remains in the relationship and risks more abuse.
For me, there were several factors.
First, was emotional and verbal abuse. I didn’t know this was a form of abuse and wasn’t aware of warning signs or the harm it would cause. My high school boyfriend, Brock, did things like lying to me, putting down my friends and family, and making derogatory comments about me. When I spoke up, Brock would tell me he was just joking. It didn’t feel like a joke, but I didn’t think it was worth breaking up over. As this continued, my self-confidence and esteem decreased.
Next was denial and shame. The first time Brock pushed me, we were in a hallway after school had gotten out. We were debating something with one of his friends. Trying to look cool, I lightly backhanded Brock’s shoulder. In return, he pushed me hard enough that I stumbled, fell on my bottom, slid backward, and dropped all my books. I was embarrassed and humiliated. Warning bells went off in my mind, but I told myself Brock wouldn’t hurt me, and not in front of someone else. He was 6” inches taller and weighed about 100 pounds more than me. I told myself Brock didn’t realize his own strength. I told myself he didn’t mean to do it.
I knew I carried shame for a long time. It’s taken me thirty years to see it started gradually, with the verbal and emotional abuse, and was sealed in the moment he pushed me. We’re not supposed to be hit. By anyone. Much less a dating partner. As much as I knew it was wrong, I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t see that at the time. I just knew I was humiliated and wanted to hide it. The shame held me back from talking about it with anyone else.
As our relationship continued, I would talk to someone in class or the school hallway or wear something Brock didn’t want me to (baggy overalls that were trendy in the 1980s), and Brock would get upset. He’d slew accusations, yell, threaten, or hit me. When his anger subsided, he would apologize for being jealous and tell me he got upset because he didn’t want to lose me. I didn’t like it when he was angry, but he conveyed it was my fault and told me he loved me. I thought the jealousy was a sign of how much he cared for me. Instead of leaving, I tried harder to make Brock happy.
Because of the shame I carried, if someone saw Brock get mad at me, or saw a bruise on me, I worked to hide it or lied about it. I continued to deny what was going on and didn’t know how to ask for help. (Studies have found that only 30% of abuse victims ever tell someone about their experience).
Isolation is another factor. Because Brock either made fun of my friends or questioned me when I hung out with them (where we went, who we were with, who I talked to, etc.) I drew away from my friends. The result was the abuse was harder for others to see, and I pulled away from those whom I may have confided in or asked for help.
I also hoped Brock would change. Despite the abuse, there were good times in our relationship – often, we had lunch together, and on the weekends, we hung out or went to the movies. Each time he got upset and then apologized, I believed that he was sorry and didn’t mean to do it. I viewed each time as an isolated incident rather than the ongoing trend it was.
Many victims stay in an abusive relationship because they:
want to be in a relationship
don’t have much experience
don’t know warning signs or information about healthy and unhealthy relationships
believe jealousy is a sign of love
feel shame or guilt
have low self-esteem (often as a result of the relationship)
hold false hope the abuse will stop
or the abuser may threaten that they will hurt themselves or their partner if the relationship ends
Thankfully, I did finally find the strength and courage to leave the abusive dating relationship I was in. (More on how to do so safely in a future post)
It is PIC’s hope that by sharing information, we can help others avoid or leave harmful relationships and help the victim’s friends and family gain an understanding of what their loved one is going through and how to support them. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and learn more.
Read more in our post about healthy and unhealthy dating traits.