Why We Stay: A Deeper Look At Domestic Abuse

You hear this all the time. Someone brings allegations of domestic abuse against someone else, and the immediate reaction of the general public is to assume the accuser is making the whole thing up.
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"She's obviously lying - if he really was hitting her, she would have left a long time ago."

You hear this all the time. Someone brings allegations of domestic abuse against someone else, and the immediate reaction of the general public is to assume the accuser is making the whole thing up.

Such is the case right now with Amber Heard and the restraining order she filed against her husband, Johnny Depp, stating that he'd been emotionally and physically abusive toward her for much of their marriage. It's disheartening to see the comments flooding the internet, from people who assume they know everything about the situation.

One of the most common sentiments I'm seeing makes it very clear how little is actually understood about domestic violence. Many people are stating that, since Amber Heard has a successful career for herself, she is financially independent and, therefore, had no reason not to leave a violent situation. They are using this as evidence that she is, in fact, lying about the whole thing -- as though financial insecurity is the only reason someone would stay in such a situation.

I am not here to say whether or not I think Depp is innocent, or whether Heard is telling the truth. That kind of thing is all over the place, should you wish to find it. Instead, what I would like to do today is use this opportunity to discuss the many reasons someone in a domestic violence situation may not leave their abusive partner, hopefully shedding some light on an often deeply misunderstood topic.

There is so much judgment surrounding domestic abuse -- so much victim blaming. I've come across more than one website that will warn men not to date women who stayed in abusive relationships in the past, on the grounds that, since she didn't leave right away, she is clearly a damaged person who makes poor choices and probably even enjoys being abused. (I wish I was kidding about this.)

This judgment exists because we as a society have this preconceived notion of what domestic violence looks like: an angry drunk man in a wife beater shirt and a meek woman with a black eye who will stare at the floor and tell you numbly that she walked into a door again.

I am here to tell you that this is not what domestic abuse looks like.

This version of domestic violence is simple and fits neatly into a box. The choice is clear -- the man is a terrible person and obviously, the woman should leave. If she stays, we believe, she is partly responsible for the physical and emotional damage inflicted upon her, because she could have prevented it by getting the hell out of dodge and never looking back. In a way, we suggest tentatively...isn't she almost asking for it?

Real domestic abuse rarely plays out like this. It is never simple, and it is never black and white. Leaving is never the easy choice -- it is just one more painful choice in a reality full of painful choices.

And the people who insist this isn't so have no idea.

I, on the other hand, as a survivor of domestic abuse, have quite a bit of an idea.

I stayed with my abusive partner for nine years, and it wasn't because of financial reasons. While he controlled every aspect of our finances, I was lucky enough to have a family that I knew would take me in at a moment's notice, as well as help me financially, should I ever decide to leave. No, my reasons for staying didn't have anything to do with money.

Please note that, as we go on, I will be referring to situations in which a woman is abused by her male partner. I have been writing about controversial topics long enough to know what to expect in the comments, so for the record, 1) I am fully aware that not all men are physically and emotionally abusive, and 2) I am also fully aware that men can be victims of abuse as well. I have chosen to write the article this way because I am writing from my own experience, as well as because the vast majority of intimate partner violence victims are women.

Now that that's out of the way, here are five reasons someone in an abusive relationship may stay with their abuser - reasons that have nothing at all to do with financial stability.

. . . . .

1. We are afraid of being shamed, judged, hated, or accused of lying.

You hear it all the time -- an allegation of domestic abuse is waved away, with the reasoning, "I know him -- he would never do that, she's making it all up, he's a nice guy."

News flash: people with abusive tendencies are often very, very good at creating a public image that differs tremendously with what happens behind closed doors. In fact, a calculating and manipulative mindset is extremely common in people who abuse their partners. Anyone can seem nice; abusers don't wear signs around their necks. Claiming that someone you know isn't capable of abuse because "he seems so nice" is absolutely not a sound method of reasoning, because you do not know the whole story.

My abusive ex had charm and charisma in spades. We lived in a very small town, and he was constantly going out of his way to look like a "nice guy." He was well-liked in the community -- he would do favors for other people, or lend money to someone who was short on rent. His abuse was calculated, controlled, and only allowed to flourish when there was no one else around. Some of our closest friends -- people who we saw literally every day -- had no idea how cruel he was to me, because they never witnessed it. Because, in public, he was a "nice guy."

During the nine-year duration of our relationship, there were so many instances in which I wanted to tell someone what was going on. But I was paralyzed by fear: fear that no one would believe me. Fear that they'd think I was only looking for attention. Fear that they'd call me a fool for sticking around. Fear that they'd label me a liar, just the way so many people have done to Amber Heard, without knowing anything about what actually transpired.

2. Abuse is generally cyclical, and most abusers follow a pattern that keeps victims feeling trapped.

If my ex had been a complete dick 100 percent of the time -- even 90 percent of the time -- leaving would have been easy. In reality, it was more like 70 percent. The rest of the time, he was actually fairly nice to me, and things were quite good. This is another behavioral pattern that is extremely common in abusive relationships. It was as though he could sense when I was about to throw in the towel, and he'd suddenly be back to his old, loving self, making it very difficult for me to justify leaving him -- especially because I loved him and desperately wanted us to be able to function in a healthy relationship.

And occasionally -- generally after a particularly cruel incident -- he would have a "moment of clarity" in which he would get down on his knees, sobbing, telling me he hated himself for what he'd done to me and begging me to forgive him. He would promise me that he'd get counseling, that he'd do whatever it took to get better, that things would be different.

In doing so, he was giving me hope: maybe he'll change, and everything will get better. Faced with the notion of finally having a healthy relationship with him, I found I couldn't leave. I'd remember the good times we'd shared and feel optimistic that there would be more of them on the horizon. This is precisely how abusers wield control over their partners -- they dangle the carrot, the promise of change, just out of reach, so that the victim always feels hopeful that the change will actually occur and feels compelled to stick it out.

And so it was for me. We'd have a few good weeks -- maybe even a couple months. Things would be idyllic and lovely and rose-colored for a while, but sooner or later, it would all start to go downhill again, and the cycle would begin once more.

3. We love our partners.

Anyone who's ever been in love knows that it's no simple thing. Is it possible to love someone who abuses you? Absolutely. Furthermore, since abusive behavior is very rarely black and white, it makes things much more complicated than "should I stay or should I go."

For example, those "moments of clarity" I spoke of were the undoing of me. Despite everything he'd put me through, to see him collapse in tears like that -- to see him hurt so much -- nearly destroyed me. I am a classic empath, which means, among other things, that I often experience the emotions of other people as my own (which is why I can't make it through a single damn Pixar movie without bursting into a full-on ugly cry). So even though I knew all too well the terrible things he'd done, in those moments, he seemed to me like a lost, broken boy -- and I would ache for him. I loved him so much that seeing his pain felt far worse than the pain he inflicted on me. And I couldn't walk away -- not when he was hurting. Not when he needed me.

4. Emotional abuse, manipulation and gaslighting have wreaked havoc on our self-esteem, and we do not trust our own thoughts or feelings.

My ex gave me some pretty wicked bruises in our nine years together. But overwhelmingly, the most crippling form of abuse he bestowed upon me was emotional. Gaslighting is a term describing a form of mental abuse in which the victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perceptions or sanity -- and it is very, very dangerous, and so much more prevalent than most people realize.

Remember when I said that a common trait of an abusive personality type is to be calculating and manipulative? That all comes into play here in a particularly cruel way when the abuser uses these traits against his partner.

It starts subtly -- imperceptibly. The abuser will slowly begin to whittle away at her self-esteem, suggesting, perhaps, that she has emotional issues or is always overreacting. Small things, nothing you could in all fairness call "abuse" yet -- but the seeds have been planted. As the years go on, he will take these insecurities that he has deliberately given her and use them against her, manipulating her more and more until she is so mired in his mind games that she has no idea what to believe -- or even who she is. And if she ever so much as mentions the possibility of abuse, he will twist everything around until she believes she's crazy for even thinking such a thing, and that everything is actually her fault.

This was certainly my experience. My ex began telling me quite early on that I was a dishonest person. While it was true that I did keep some things from him in order to avoid big blowups (for example, if he found out that I'd had a burger and fries for lunch, he would pinch my minimal belly fat and spend literally hours lecturing me about how disgusting I was, so it was a lot easier to just tell him I'd had a salad instead), I'd never really thought of myself as a pathological liar. It didn't seem to fit -- it didn't feel right. But that's what he insisted I was.

Once, he became convinced I found a co-worker of mine attractive, and when I told him I didn't, he accused me of being dishonest. I was telling him the truth, but he wouldn't believe me. Convinced I was lying to him, he took a stack of my old journals -- nearly ten years' worth of writing -- tossed them in the fireplace, and burned them while I watched, all because I wouldn't confess to something I'd never even done in the first place.

Then he started telling me other things. I was mentally ill, delusional. I belonged in a psychiatric hospital because I couldn't even see how fucked up I was. I was cruel and manipulative. I was selfish and immature and I couldn't do anything right. I couldn't take accountability for my own flaws, which was why I was always blaming him of abusing me, when actually it was the other way around. My own thoughts and feelings were an inaccurate representation of what was actually happening, so therefore I shouldn't trust them.

So insistent was he that eventually, I had to wonder -- could he be right? Maybe all those times he claimed I'd been dishonest, I really was lying, and I was just so mentally ill that I'd lost the ability to separate truth from fiction. Maybe I really was a shitty, abusive person at my core. Maybe I couldn't take care of myself.

It got so bad that I stopped trusting any of my thoughts, feelings or emotions in just about every situation. If someone almost swerved into me in traffic and I felt that little blaze of anger, for example, I'd go into a mental tailspin, analyzing the situation, wondering if I had a right to be angry or if I'd perhaps just imagined the whole thing. Am I crazy? I would ask myself constantly. Does a crazy person know she's crazy?

Doubting the validity of your own thoughts and experiences is exhausting and terrifying, and it leaves you very, very vulnerable. Abusers know this. When you've spent years being told that your thoughts and feelings are inherently incorrect, you don't know what to feel -- and often, you will wind up hating yourself instead of the person who hurts you, because you assume you must have done something to deserve it. When you've been made to believe you can't trust yourself, leaving an abusive situation becomes impossible.

5. We fear retaliation.

Simply running away from an abusive partner does not always mean the abuse will stop. In many cases, abusers will go so far as to stalk, rape, or even kill the women who tried to leave them. Sometimes it is very literally not safe to leave.

Luckily for me, I was able to immediately move to a different city an hour away, which lessened my chances of encountering my ex. I didn't have to constantly keep my guard up for fear I'd run into him at the grocery store -- nor did I believe he would go so far as to be a danger to me. But many women aren't so lucky, and the thought of leaving makes them legitimately fear for their lives.

. . .

The roots of abuse are deep and twisted, and it is impossible to understand the dynamic of a relationship that you yourself are not a part of. Next time you find yourself tempted to say something judgmental about someone who has remained in an abusive situation for a period of time -- please remember these words, from someone who knows, and just don't. Victim blaming is all too common in today's society -- my hope is that if we shed more light on a topic classically shrouded in darkness, we can put an end to the victim blaming and help keep people safer in their relationships.

After all, if there was less of a stigma surrounding the whole thing, and if society as a whole was more willing to hear our stories, rather than judge us and call us liars, perhaps more of us would seek help sooner.

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