Unless You've Been There, You Can't Understand Why It's So Hard To Leave A Toxic Or Abusive Relationship

by Emily Spellman
Originally Published: 
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Recently I have been talking to a friend who has been dealing with an abuser for the better part of a decade. Even though they are no longer together, he still abuses her and toys with her. The advice people give her all the time is to just get a restraining order or call the police, but she doesn’t. So why is this? People who haven’t lived it really don’t understand. To them, it all seems cut and dry. To someone on the outside, it seems simple: Go get a restraining order and everything will be fine. When the victim doesn’t do these things the people around them are confused and even upset. Which further isolates the victim and actually gives the abuser even more power.

All the time we hear stories of people who have been sexually assaulted as children and don’t report it for years or we hear about the woman who lived with an abusive partner and ends up dead. So a question we can ask is WHY?! Why is is so hard for a victim of abuse to come forward and break away? As a recovering victim of domestic abuse, I have come up with a few things that I think really held me back from escaping that hell sooner.

1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a term psychologist use to refer to a technique abusers use to make their victims question their own sanity. This is the number one preferred method used by a**holes everywhere to keep their victims under their thumb. It sounds like:

“That’s not what I said.”

“You are being dramatic.”

“You’re the one abusing me.”

“If you didn’t say that/do that/wear that/etc., then I wouldn’t go off.”

“You are the one pushing buttons.”

2. Fear and Shame

Fear and shame are powerful motivators. When you are trapped in abuse, fear comes at you from all sides. Your abuser creates fear in many ways. For me, it was a combination of physical intimidation and a fear that I couldn’t live without him. Abusers will tear down their partners by telling them that they are worthless and can’t make it on their own. Then there’s a shame we feel when we think about talking about it openly. We become conditioned to believe that no one will believe us or support us. We believe that we will be blamed because we are gaslighted into believing it really is our fault.

3. In isolation, all you hear are the lies.

For me, I was regularly told that no one would want me because I had already been married twice and failed. I was told that people would shame me for getting divorced again. So, I began to buy into the lie that this was all I deserved. Abusers are absolute pros at finding a victim’s insecurities and exploiting it to remain in control.

4. The devil is charming.

Just like Satan himself, abusers can be charming, sweet, and alluring. This is how they attract a victim to begin with. They know how to make a person feel beautiful, wanted and safe. After the abuse begins and a victim threatens to leave or does leave, the charm comes out. They will cry and become a repentant sinner. Suddenly, the victim becomes the best thing that’s ever happened to them and they will do anything for them.

My ex started making wild romantic gestures, like sending flowers and pizza (my fave), and he even attempted an over-the-top proposal redo. Luckily, I was strong enough to see where all that would end down the road but many don’t. I left and was lured back in by empty promises and apologies many times.

5. No way out.

Leaving an abuser is not as easy as getting a restraining order, especially if there’s a child involved. Yes, there are shelters, but that only addresses an immediate physical threat and shelters are not always easy to get into. There are few in the suburbs where so much abuse takes place in silence. Shelters also don’t address the problem of severe emotional abuse, which can be just as difficult to escape.

I had to walk away with no money because he controlled all of it. I was able to get him out of my home, but I struggled to financially support myself in it. It takes months to get court orders for child support and to settle a divorce case. Many victims, especially those with children, stay because they have no long-term place to go and no means to afford basic needs or legal help. Escaping a situation where you have little to no access to money and have to do it secretly with your children intact is a huge undertaking. It took me months of planning, and I barely made it out.

There are many more reasons that I’m sure other can add but these were the biggest hurdles for me. So the question now is, “How can I help?” Here’s a few practical ways you can help your friend or family member that is going through this:

1. Say something.

I was abused for four years before I told anyone about it. Every person I told said the same thing: “I can’t say I’m surprised.” Seriously? Why didn’t anyone try to help me? It’s because no one talks about this. One in four women are abused at some point in their life. That means that you probably know someone right now who is living this hell. Don’t wait for that person to come crying to you because they might be dead before it happens. Look them in the eye and start a conversation. Tell them you care and that they are not alone. They might rebuff you or pretend that it isn’t happening as many will but keep letting them know that you are a safe place.

2. Wait and be present.

It takes a while for some victims to decide they want to break free. The more positive support they feel, the more light they have in their lives, the more it exposes the darkness of abuse. Keep reaching out. Keep talking. Don’t allow yourself to give too much advice or get frustrated when they stay where they are. Understand the struggle and build trust.

3. Really be prepared to be there for the long haul.

When the time comes that your friend wants to leave, be ready with resources. They will need a place to stay, money, counseling, and support to get on their feet. Locate as many local resources as you can, ask your church for help and be prepared to fill in some gaps. It may stretch you but it is a chance to save someone’s life. You’ll be surprised how many people will step up and help a victim if asked. I was overwhelmed by the ways people, some of them strangers, reached out to help me, but it’s hard for a victim to ask. Be their advocate.

4. Be ready for disappointment.

It is very common for victims to be lured back in by abusers and return to the relationship. I left five times before it stuck. Each time he laid on the charm and promised to change. He even did counseling for a minute. Each time, the “change” was short-lived. Your friend may bounce back into the relationship. If this happens, don’t abandon them. Repeat the steps. Don’t give up on them. When you do, the abuser wins and their grip becomes even tighter.

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