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Why do people stay in and repeatedly return to abusive relationships?

Dr. Joy has given a very comprehensive answer to this question. Dealing with and/or leaving an abusive relationship is not a linear process. The learning is one step forward two steps back and vice versa, often resulting in little forward movement to the outside observer. The learning happens in stages: knowledge, application, skill development and competency. A person must learn what abuse is for themselves and decide that what they are experiencing fits the description. Then they must apply that definition to their reality in a deeply personal sense such as beliefs and values. After that, they must develop and practice their skills in dealing with the relationship. They will 'practice' leave and return more than once usually before they feel competent to leave permanently. Finally they have to see themselves as being successful and finally resolve the problem. It is a process. It takes time.

Deborah Joy
Marriage & Family Therapy

Living in an abusive relationship can be emotionally devastating and physically dangerous so it is often difficult for friends and family to understand why the abused man or woman stays in or goes back to that relationship.  If it is so bad why not just leave?  Reasons for staying are many.  Some based on the external situation, some on internal emotional struggles.  

If a man or woman has no job, few employable skills, little money or a place to stay leaving even when physical or emotional abuse is high can look insurmountable.  A lack of community support can contribute to difficulty leaving.  The police may have told the abused party they can do nothing until after an injury occurs.  There is no space at the local shelter.  The counselor or doctor downplays an incident.  There can be cultural or religious pressures to keep the family together.  Since people in abusive relationships tend to become isolated there may be a lack of a social network to help with the care of children, provide a temporary bed or even a sympathetic ear.  

Many psychological consequences of the abuse itself contribute to an inability to leave the abusive situation.  Depression and feelings of helplessness can lead to poor concentration effecting clear thinking and problem solving ability.  When a person lives in chronic stress or fearfulness their ability to resist gets worn away.  They lack energy to make moves and become exhausted.  Low self esteem reduces the confidence to make changes.  

Many other internal struggles contribute to a person's inability to leave an abusive partner.  Some fear being alone.  "I am no one if I am single".   Or the unknown.  "This may be bad but at least I know what it is".  Others carry a confused sense of loyalty or love.  "I said I would stay married till death do us part".  Optimism can contribute.  "I know it will get better".  As can inappropriate self blame.  "It is my fault.  I can change it".  

Knowledge of the many reasons people stay in abusive relationships allows for accurate understanding and needed compassion.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.