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Domestic Violence

Kicking an Abuser Out of Your Life, and Out of Your Head

Ending an abusive relationship requires leaving physically and psychologically

Google Images, used with permission
Source: Google Images, used with permission

By Avigail Gordon , M.A.

It started with her not returning your phone calls. Then she started canceling plans, opting out of family events. You weren’t sure why your sister was suddenly so hard to reach, but it seemed to trace back to her new boyfriend. Then you saw them, after Thanksgiving dinner, headed out to the car. You couldn’t hear what your sister said, but he hit her so hard she fell to the ground. She doesn’t seem like the girl you grew up with anymore, and all you can think is, “why doesn’t she leave?”

The answer to that question is a complicated blend of the practical and the psychological, and one that affects millions of people in the United States every year.

It’s hard to leave an abusive relationship

It’s important to remember that one of the primary reasons people stay in abusive relationships is that it is often feels – and is – physically unsafe to leave. The two weeks after leaving an abusive relationship are the most dangerous, and more women are killed in that time period, or in the process of leaving, than in any other period. Victims also generally attempt to leave more than once before they succeed, and they may fear greater violence if they’re discovered.

Even if they overcome this fear, many victims of intimate partner violence lack resources. They’re less likely to have stable sources of income, and often don’t control their finances even when they are the primary breadwinners in the household. This is why those considering leaving an abusive situation are encouraged to gather together some basic resources: money, important documents (like IDs), a place to go, and a way to get there.

This leads directly to the next obstacle to leaving an abusive partner: finding a place to go. This is a practical problem with deep psychological roots. One of the hallmarks of domestic abuse is isolation. As victims get drawn further away from other sources of support, it is harder for them to leave their abusers. Domestic violence shelters can help solve the practical problem of where to go, but isolation is a deeper issue.

Abuse victims blame themselves

Victims of domestic violence are often told by their abuser, explicitly as well as implicitly, that they have no one to rely on except that person. They’re told that they’re worthless and unlovable, and they feel deeply alone. They also often feel guilty or ashamed about staying, and even take on the blame for the abuse itself.

These messages start out coming from the abuser, first in subtle and then in overt ways. But they gradually become a part of the victim’s psychological makeup. The voice in a victim’s head saying, “You deserve this. You can’t do better. No one would want you, and no one will help you.” becomes the victim’s own voice. Even if they try to leave, it can be hard for victims of domestic violence to ever see themselves as strong, capable, or lovable.

The belief that this relationship is the best they can find or the most they deserve is also a powerful force against leaving an abusive situation, especially when the victim doesn’t classify his or her experience as abuse, which often only happens after the fact, when victims process their experience from a distance. After all, the abuse may seem bad, but it’s a familiar pain – perhaps better than the unknown experiences that exist if they leave.

“One more chance”

As a result, many victims keep giving their abusers “just one more chance.” They may minimize the severity or impact of the abusive behavior. This, too, has its roots in complex psychological forces. When things go wrong, we are driven to try to make them come out right. So victims often find themselves in the same situation over and over again, continually trying to change the ending. This is why some people find themselves in the same kind of unhealthy, controlling, or abusive relationship with a series of different people. It’s an unconscious attempt to work through painful or traumatic experience, with the hope that this time the abuse really will end, and the happy relationship that existed before the violence will have a chance to flourish.

The internal and external factors keeping an individual in an abusive relationship are complicated and often interwoven. Healing often relies on removing the abuser from a place of importance not just in the victim’s physical environment, but in the psyche, as well.

(I am grateful to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) Report for the statistics in this post.

Avigail Gordon, M.A., holds a master's degree in Trauma and Violence Studies and is completing her doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is currently a Pre-doctoral Psychology Intern at The William Alanson White Institute. Her research and clinical work focus primarily on experiences of trauma and their intersections with identity, personality, and relationships.

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