To the outside world, abuse survivors appear to face an easy decision: leave or stay in the abusive relationship as soon as they endure an emotionally or physically abusive incident. Internally, however, they may struggle with cognitive dissonance, damaging conditioning from intermittent reinforcement, PTSD or Complex PTSD symptoms, trauma bonds, any previous trauma from past abusive relationships or experiences of childhood abuse, feelings of worthlessness, biochemical bonds and learned helplessness – just to name a few.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, leaving a long-term abusive relationship can actually be even harder than leaving a nourishing, supportive and positive one. This is because narcissistic or antisocial abusers are masters of playing mind games and covert manipulation, are able to deny the abuse through gaslighting and present a false image to the world which supports their denial. Survivors are then subjected to a battle within their own minds about whether the reality they experience is truly abuse – a type of cognitive dissonance that society seems to encourage by engaging in victim-blaming.
Remember that abusers present a false, charming self to the world and their true self is exposed primarily to their victims after a certain amount of investment has already been placed in the relationship. In the initial stages of dating or the relationship, abusers are likely to present their best image. It is only after they’ve “hooked” the victim with their covert manipulation tactics such as mirroring and lovebombing, that they begin devaluing, demeaning and hurting the victim.
The victim then has to find ways to psychologically process the trauma of this sudden “turn” in personality – a process that can take months to years depending on the duration of the relationship, the availability of the victim’s own coping resources, as well as the severity and nature of the abuse.
This is a trauma that can affect anyone, regardless of who you may have been prior to entering the abusive relationship. A common misconception is that abuse survivors must have lacked confidence when they met their abuser or suffered from low self-esteem. My book surveyed hundreds of survivors of narcissistic abuse who come from a variety of backgrounds, trauma histories and confidence levels. Some did suffer from low self-esteem, while others were at a very confident place in their lives when they encountered a narcissist.
Both types of people were still "managed down" by the traumatic emotional, psychological and verbal abuse over time because of its covert, insidious and incremental nature. They became shells of who they used to be - because trauma has a real impact on the brain, regardless of how confident you may be and no one is immune to the effects of trauma and abuse.
Although childhood trauma and other vulnerabilities can certainly make us more susceptible to being in abusive relationships, the truth is, anyone can be a victim because narcissists and sociopaths deliberately deceive others with a false mask in the early stages of a relationship. Once they have their partners sufficiently hooked, they begin to "devalue" them and mistreat them in a way that is quite horrific.
This is an actual trauma that the partner experiences and will continue to experience throughout the abuse cycle. Survivors need a great deal of professional support, validation and resources to begin the healing journey, as there tends to be a lot of cognitive dissonance and traumatic bonding involved when it comes to abuse.
I am a passionate advocate of ending abusive relationships, going No Contact and owning our agency after abuse. However, at the same time that I want to encourage survivors to empower themselves after the abuse, I also want people to understand that the act of leaving such a relationship is rarely as easy as it seems.
Not leaving sooner is not an indication or a measure of a victim’s strength or intelligence. It has more to do with the severity of trauma they have experienced. This false narrative of how easy it is to end an abusive relationship is actually holding us back from creating safer spaces for survivors to feel validated, supported, and being able to speak out about their experiences – this support is essential to any victim in an abusive relationship.
This is why I want to dismantle the harmful stereotypes of why abuse survivors stay longer in abusive relationships than one might expect by offering some insights on why they really do. If you’re not an abuse survivor, the reasons might surprise you.
The reasons survivors stay are complex and tied to the effects of trauma, the ways in which abuse survivors start to see themselves after the abuse, and the ways in which society makes it more difficult for them to speak out about their abuse.
1. In a nourishing, positive relationship, we can love the person enough to let go with a sense of closure. In an abusive one, ending the relationship is a decision filled with fear of retaliation and anxiety.
In healthy relationships, there is mutual respect and compassion, something that has existed throughout the course of the relationship despite any obstacles. Even if it is difficult, we trust that the person we are letting go will respect us enough to take time to heal before jumping into another relationship the day after the breakup, will not threaten or stalk us because we left them (only they are allowed to discard us in a narcissist’s mind), will not violently assault us and will not stage a smear campaign against us due to the fact that we discarded them first. Partners who are not narcissists or sociopaths will most likely leave us alone after a breakup and not bother to “hoover” simply because they need supply. They are understanding about boundaries and the need for space after the ending of a relationship.
Due to the potential infidelity, manipulation, put-downs, gaslighting and deception abuse survivors endured throughout their relationships, cognitive dissonance about who the abuser is, as well as a sense of incessant doubt, survivors may lack a sense of closure and certainty about ending an abusive relationship. Understandably, many abuse victims don’t wish to let their abusers move onto the next victim after terrorizing them, because they fear that the next person might be treated better, thereby confirming their own sense of worthlessness that was instilled by the abuser in the first place. They may also have an unending sense of needing a real “apology” or seeing karma at work before they feel they can truly let go.
Of course, abuse survivors eventually learn that they can only gain closure from within – after they’ve ended the relationship and begun the work of healing and recovery. They also realize that the next victim will most likely be subjected to the same abuse, even if it appears otherwise when their abuser treats the next victim to the idealization phase. Apologies from the abuser won’t suffice, as they are recognized for what they truly are: pity ploys or hoovering tactics designed to pull us back into the toxic dynamic rather than signs of genuine remorse. Self-forgiveness, instead, becomes paramount.
2. Abuse survivors start to view themselves through the eyes of their abuser.
The belittling, condescending remarks and the physical violence abusers subject their victims to leads to a sense of learned helplessness and self-doubt which make survivors fearful that they really aren’t as worthy as they think they are. Abuse survivors could be the most confident, successful and beautiful people to the outside world, but they are subjected to an internal world of fear, self-doubt and a shaky self-esteem as a result of the traumatic conditioning their abusers have put them through.
They have been taught to live on a diet of crumbs (the occasional compliment, some shallow show of attention, perhaps even a showering of gifts and flattery before the abuse cycle begins again) which serves to remind them that they must “work” for a love that will never be unconditional, a love that will never contain real respect or compassion.
As a result, they may compare themselves to people in happier relationships or even to the seemingly idealized way their abusers treated their exes (as narcissists are likely to either place their exes on a pedestal or demean them as crazy) and wonder, why not me? What’s wrong with me? Of course, the problem is not them – it is the abusive relationship which is the source of toxicity in their lives.
The abuser is likely to subject the victim to many comparisons to drive the point home that it is somehow the victim’s fault that he or she is being abused (also known as triangulation). Due to this, survivors have a difficult time accepting the fact that even if they were the most confident, successful, beautiful and charismatic people on earth, they would still be abused by the abuser because that is what abusers do in intimate relationships.
“They have been taught to live on a diet of crumbs (the occasional compliment, some shallow show of attention, perhaps even a showering of gifts and flattery before the abuse cycle begins again).”
Abusers manipulate victims because they enjoy the feelings of power and control, not because victims themselves lack merits. In fact, narcissistic abusers feel particular joy at bringing down anyone whose accomplishments and traits they envy to reinforce their false sense of superiority.
Due to the skewed belief system which develops after the abuse, survivors feel that ending the relationship would paradoxically confirm the narcissist’s view of them. They associate the ending of the relationship to a failure on their own part, the inability to win the affections of someone who has made themselves look like a prize by constantly idealizing them then subsequently withdrawing from them.
Narcissistic abusers blow hot and cold throughout the course of an intimate relationship to make it seem like you’re the problem and not them. Survivors struggle to win the game of gaining an abuser’s affection, especially if they’re prone to people-pleasing habits and fears of rejection as well as abandonment. The terrible things the abuser has done to us somehow doesn’t compare to the pain of also being abandoned after being abused: it’s almost as if the abandonment would prove our so-called “unworthiness” which has been manufactured by the abuser to make us feel unable to leave.
On the healing journey, survivors rediscover their authentic selves and learn how to depart from toxic people-pleasing habits instilled in them by their abuser as well as in childhood. They begin to reclaim their worth, separate from their social interactions and romantic relationships. It is one of the most freeing, empowering experiences to finally leave an abuser and stick with No Contact. Rebuilding your life after abuse is not easy, but it is an unbelievably transformative experience.
3. Ending the relationship would mean that the survivor has to face the reality of all the traumas they’ve experienced, on their own, without the protective defense mechanisms that shield them from the severity of the trauma.
Although this is not always a conscious choice, as a result of the trauma they've experienced, abuse survivors may attempt to rationalize, minimize or deny the abuse to avoid the pain of the harsh reality they’re experiencing, which can lead to abuse amnesia during the "good times" with their abuser. They may also experience the defense mechanism of disassociation which enables them to survive during moments of horrific abuse. Staying in the abusive relationship allows survivors to still engage with the good parts of the relationship while psychologically protecting themselves from having to face the trauma of it.
As narcissists and sociopaths tend to be excellent masters of gaslighting, flattery and even sex, creating certain pleasurable bonds that appear to surpass the pain we experience during the abuse, abuse amnesia becomes a tempting form of psychological protection from their own demons. Abuse amnesia is aided by the abuser’s performances of being apologetic, kind, caring and compassionate during the positive highs of the abuse cycle.
Dissociation, on the other hand, is often not intentional on the survivor’s part – the mechanism of dissociation occurs quite naturally in response to traumatic events. Of course, the reality is that those bonds we have with our abusers are trauma-based bonds that have little to do with actual fulfillment, love or respect, and everything to do with the illusion of who we believe narcissists are.
Ending the relationship is made even more difficult if trauma from previous relationships or childhood exists. It’s a fact: children who grow up witnessing domestic violence within their own families have been reported to more likely to be victims of abusive relationships themselves. It may almost seem normalized because of the behaviors we’re unconsciously modelling from our childhood. We might identify with the victimized parent, or may even have promised ourselves we would never be like them, only to have unconsciously chosen a partner that has enabled us to attempt to “fix” our past by attempting to fix our abusive partner.
Knowing what we know about the effects of trauma on early adolescent brain development, the idea that someone who grew up witnessing such violence and abuse would not be psychologically affected is dubious. Thinking that someone would not be affected by the same type of trauma in adulthood (especially if they’ve already experienced it in childhood) is even more unlikely.
After the ending of an abusive relationship, survivors have the great privilege of uncovering their past traumas and the trauma they’ve just experienced and begin to work through them. The ending of this relationship is actually a golden opportunity to heal from the wounds that were never healed in the first place. The fear of being left alone with the pain has been overcome – the survivor now has the space and time to independently act, think and feel outside of the toxic dynamics of the previous relationship.
4. Society shames abuse survivors into thinking it’s their fault and this can create barriers to a strong, validating support network.
As a result of the stigmas associated with being and staying in an abusive relationship past the first signs of blatant disrespect, many people who have not undergone abusive relationships themselves are prone to pass judgment upon survivors. How could he/she stay? they ask. Why didn’t you leave the first time they hurt you? Are you sure it’s really “abuse”? The victim-blaming, shaming and doubting leaves abuse survivors feeling incredibly isolated in their situation and alienated from their own support networks.
This question of “why didn’t you leave?” can further persuade survivors to seek the false comfort of the abusive relationship because they would rather stay than speak out and risk being shamed, stigmatized, judged, questioned by the very people who are supposed to care about them – friends, family, and even the criminal justice system.
Here’s a thought: if society stopped viewing abuse survivors in such a negative, judgmental light, they might actually be more likely to report domestic violence. If friends of abuse survivors adopted a mindset of compassion and understanding, rather than ignorant judgment, they may actually get the support they need to feel like they wouldn’t be alone after the end of the relationship.
“This question of “why didn’t you leave?” can further persuade survivors to seek the false comfort of the abusive relationship because they would rather stay than speak out and risk being shamed.”
The fact of the matter is, if you haven’t been in an abusive relationship, you don’t really know what the experience is like. Furthermore, it’s quite hard to predict what you would do in the same situation. I find that the people most vocal about what they would’ve done in the same situation often have no clue what they are talking about – they have never been in the same situation themselves.
By invalidating the survivor’s experience, these people are defending an image of themselves that they identify with strength, not realizing that abuse survivors are often the most strongest individuals out there. They’ve been belittled, criticized, demeaned, devalued, and yet they’ve still survived. The judgmental ones often have little to no life experience regarding these situations, yet they feel quite comfortable silencing the voices of people who’ve actually been there.
While being a survivor can sometimes alienate us from society, it can also give us an intense connection with other survivors, in interactions filled with understanding and compassion. We have the ability to offer empathy and insight to others on a level other individuals aren’t capable of. Survivors on the healing journey learn how to use their voices, connect with alternative communities and reach out to those who have been there.
5. They aren’t psychologically ready to leave.
Tony Robbins makes an astute observation in his book, Awaken the Giant Within: we only stop a bad habit or behavior when the pain of it far surpasses any pleasure or reward. While this might be a bit too simplistic of a theory to apply to the complex dynamics of abusive relationships, it often plays true for the moment the survivors finally leave. Considering there are many psychological factors that may be holding abuse survivors back as well as external barriers such as financial dependence, having children with our abuser, the threat of physical violence or a combination of the reasons above, our readiness to leave just yet is hindered. We may plan when to leave and how to leave, fantasize about that moment, but there are usually a couple of factors that postpone the time of escape.
None of the best advice in the world can convince us until we feel that inner transformation and until we reach that turning point where we say to ourselves, “I’ve had enough. I am enough. And so much better than this.” That moment often comes after an experience of extreme pain – a turning point when we’ve reached our pain threshold, whatever that threshold may be. Unfortunately, until we’ve made this decision from our own internal compass, there is not much others can do to intervene apart from offering their support. The decision must come from the survivor – and because he or she has been in the abusive relationship for so long, robbed of his or her choices, it may be the first powerful choice they have made in years.
Once the decision has been made and actions have been taken to maintain No Contact, leaving becomes the ultimate victory. The turning point, whatever it was, has made them psychologically ready. Survivors have truly owned their agency and power when they can leave an abuser and never look back. They have learned all they can from being in the relationship and are ready to begin their healing.
This article was first featured on Self-Care Haven and is a copyrighted excerpt from my book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.