Updated: Jan 21
The question I probably get asked the most since I left my 15-year abusive relationship is, 'why didn't you just leave?' Every time I am asked, it almost feels as if they are blaming me for staying. The facts are, there are many reasons why people stay in an unhealthy relationship and no matter how many other people suggest leaving it has to be done in your own time.
So, why do we stay? It is very complicated, and every relationship is different. It also depends on how the abuse is presenting itself, whether it is verbal, control or physical. We all have different standards, and we cannot judge another on what they will or will not accept. Although accepting abuse of any form isn't healthy and often creates an image of oneself that is detrimental to our wellbeing.
Firstly, we need to understand how someone would get into a relationship that is so unhealthy. Please remember that this is my experience, there will be lots of reasons and complications to why people stay. I speak with people, from all walks of life who have found themselves in 'that' kind of relationship. This is probably the most common reason that they have spoken to me about when trying to come to terms with why. You see, when we start a new relationship, we have high hopes and expect good things. No person will tell the other their bad faults straight away. Instead, they will show you their best side and create a good impression. As the relationship progresses and we begin to feel comfortable in it and with each other, we discover the other person has faults. Often, we think 'this isn't them' or 'they must be stressed'. We make excuses for their bad behaviour which leads us not to look further. It is not until we are deeply involved when we realise that this unacceptable behaviour is part of their character. By that point, we are way too invested to just throw it away. There would have been many red flags along the way, but either ignored or did not want to believe they were done with the intent of hurt, power or control. (I have blogged about red flags and coercive control before click here)
Fear - this is the main reason! Pretty much every other reason comes back to fear. Fear can hold you in bondage. Some people will leave as soon as possible, but others don't. They freeze, get are stuck, and can't see past the situation. Here is a list of just a few things that can be feared.
1. Fear of what he or she may do to you - The time that a person is most vulnerable to being killed or seriously injured is during the leaving process. This is why I wrote the blog 'The Great Safe Escape' it is essential to put a process in progress and create a plan for a 'safe escape'.
2. Fear of what he/she may do to the kids - The abuser may try to take the kids and create impossible situations. These circumstances would make it hard for you to co-parent. Or you may fear that they will take it out on the kids or influence the children's love for you.
3. Fear of not being able to cope on your own - It is hard to be on our own and feel lonely. Some people can't think or imagine how life would be in the future. This holds them attached to the relationship. Also, because you may have been isolated from your family and friends, it may be hard to know if they would support or help you get out.
4. Fear of not being able to sustain yourself financially - Fear of not being able to cope financially is a natural fear. One that is even harder when the other person is economically controlling you. You may feel trapped without any free finances and with no prospect of getting a job. Often the abuser has isolated you, and you haven't been able to work. If you have worked, they have taken control of your wages too.
5. Fear of not having the person you love in your life - However hard it is to understand we often still really love the abuser. And we want to believe the best in them. So, when they promise that things will change or things will get better, we want to accept and believe in them. Eventually, we realise that they won't or can't change.
6. Fear of hurting the person who is hurting you - Sounds strange I know but empathetic people really struggle with this. We don't want to hurt the other person. I know this was one of the big things that held me back. I wanted to believe that he would change because he was good deep down. But, he remained the same for 15 years. It doesn't matter how much we love them or want to see the best in them, they don't change for the better. Generally, it just gets worse and worse. For a while, after I left, all I wanted to do was hurt him. I had to learn to forgive him and myself.
7. Fear of not being believed - We want to be believed, and integrity is fundamental. We are scared that the other person will make up stuff that wasn't true about us, (and they generally do). Their family and friends will have to choose between the two parties and not being believed make it feel like there is no justice.
8. Fear of letting family or spiritual leaders down or even God. - Fear of letting others down is quite prominent in conversations I have had with other people. Family is important, and the fear of letting parents down is scary. Pastors and any spiritual leader that encourages you to stay in an abusive relationship is not looking after your best interest. I am a pastor, and I can not express enough that if you are being abused get out. God would not want you in an abusive relationship. Would you like your daughter or son in a hurtful situation? God wouldn't want that either. But the fear of condemnation holds people in bondage. I'm not saying that I agree with divorcing someone, just because, but if there are some severe issues in the relationship, then they have the right to feel safe and they have to get out. I beat myself up with the idea I was letting God down, but what became apparent to me as I healed was that my ex-husband had actually let God down by not keeping the covenant and when he didn't treat me the way God wanted me treated then God gave me the freedom to leave. The biblical reference to this is in Ephesians 5, where it says that 'husbands are to love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.' My ex never treated me as Christ treated me. He wouldn't give chocolate up for me, let alone his life. Also, he committed adultery, and the bible is very clear on that. But this took a long time for me to fully understand and to stop condemning myself for.
If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you, so google organisations near you.
Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information on leaving an abusive relationship safely.
If you have found this helpful to understand trauma bonding, then please share and link this blog. If you would like to know more about my own personal story, you can buy my book 'Broken To Be Beautiful' here.
Author information: Xenia Schembri
Along with her husband, Simon, are the founders of the charity At the Ark based on the Gold Coast Queensland Australia. Since 2010 At The Ark have supported families whose children have been abused and families impacted by domestic violence.
Previously, Xenia was in a 15-year domestic violent marriage. Xenia has become a voice for the voiceless and has a passion to prove that the past does not have to negatively impact the future, but positively propel anyone to change to their future.
Xenia was Woman of the Year 2020 on the Gold Coast Australia and one of the Westfield's Local Heroes in 2020. She is an international speaker and author of 4 published books. The Brave Little Bear series that equips families with self-protective behaviours and her own story Broken To Be Beautiful.
Here are links to some of her other blogs that you may find interesting.