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Emotional Abuse

Putting to Rest "Why Doesn't She Just Leave?"

Recognizing her entrapment

Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock
Source: Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock

“Why doesn’t she just leave?” A question many of us ask in reaction to a story of intimate partner abuse. Too often I hear this statement in my recovery groups from women with controlling partners: “Why didn’t I just leave?”

This reaction speaks to the core of the problem and the erroneous belief that an abused woman has agency — a capacity to exert power — in her relationship, when just the opposite is true.

From research, we know that psychologically abused women score lower on self-efficacy, which is how empowered a woman feels to have influence over her life, than women who are not abused.

Women with controlling partners experience a slow, insidious, and nearly invisible condition of coercion that entraps them in their intimate relationships. So well hidden, this entrapment can go undetected even by the woman herself.

Being unaware of what is taking place, women naturally minimize and deny the problems with their intimate partners. It’s behavior so embedded in our culture and social expectations (Grijalva, et al.) that women don’t see it or have words for it. At the same time, a woman’s experience costs her a loss of self-esteem and trust in her own perception — making it all the more difficult to see the truth.

Psychological Abuse Entraps

A controlling partner seeks to overpower by using psychological abuse tactics that coerce and persuade his partner to his way of thinking. In her well-received book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (2004), Kathleen Taylor explains that when an individual uses abusive tactics within a basic social structure, such as a couple or a family, it is possible to gain power over another human being. When this occurs, it is one of the most intense and damaging experiences for those involved.

Impact of Psychological Abuse

Controlling people are adept at creating confusion, fear, and self-doubt in the targeted person. They are experts at blaming others, and self-blame can develop as a result, causing painful shame, guilt, and even self-hatred in extreme situations. These negative feelings contribute to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, trauma, and low self-worth.

Stress-related symptoms, such as headaches, numbness, exhaustion, and loss of memory, can show up. A common trauma reaction is a “freeze” state, where one detaches from feeling in order not to experience the pain. Ultimately, in a weakened state it’s harder to resist the perpetrator in the home.

Over time, with ongoing exposure to a controlling person, a targeted partner is no longer as strong, as confident, or as content as she once was. The coercion diminishes who she is: her sense of competence, her drive and ambition, and her mastery and control over her life. She experiences a loss of herself or parts of herself, eroding her identity.

It’s the decline — her worn-down state or debilitation — that adds to the feeling of vulnerability that can cause her to feel incapable of protecting herself by leaving.

What Helps to Get Back Agency

It’s through the recovery process of unpacking the experience and “seeing” the coercive tactics embedded in his behavior that she can then recognize just how she became disempowered and entrapped.

Coercive tactics have hidden injuries. Seeing how her mental and physical health was affected by his behavior gives her proof and validation of her partner’s mistreatment. It’s this profound awareness of her declined health and the causes that provides the biggest wake up call.

In recovery, women take themselves back. They recover their identity — their lost strengths, feelings of confidence, and competence again. They find self-compassion for staying as long as they did.

From the place of renewed emotional strength, women experience the return of influence over their own lives. It’s often only then that they can make the decision to address the abuse with their partner and see what’s possible, or take steps to leave the relationship.

Has your health (or someone you know) been undermined by the behavior of your intimate partner?

  • Do you feel like you’re in a fog, confused, and not functioning at your best?
  • Do you feel responsible and blame yourself for the problems with your partner and relationship?
  • Are you more tense or uneasy when your partner is around?
  • Are you careful about what you say or do around your partner because of how he might react and what he might say?
  • Do you feel worse about yourself now than before for your relationship started?

If you responded yes to some or most of these questions, then you would benefit by exploring further whether your partner is controlling you.



Grijalva, Emily, Newman, Daniel A., Tay, Louis, Donnellan, M. Brent, Harms, P. D.,Robins, Richard W.,Yan, Taiyi. Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 141(2), Mar 2015, 261-310

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