Written By: Robert R. Cassman, LPCC, NCC, CCMHC
This month, I have written extensively about domestic violence in an attempt to answer many questions. But the most common question is “Why don’t the women leave the abusive relationship?” To the outsider they think “if my man ever hit me I’d leave.” But a simplistic view isn’t helpful. The abuse is much more subtle.
There is a famous study involving a frog that may help to explain some of this. If a frog is put in boiling water it will jump out. But what if a frog is put in cool water and the water is slightly turned up? If the temperature change is so subtle, the frog doesn’t realize what a bad situation it is in. Before long, the frog is boiling! The same is true with some abusive relationships. The woman gets in a situation that has slowly got bad that she doesn’t even realize how severe it is.
Some of the commonly listed reasons for staying in an abusive relationship are as follows:
- “I can change him.” This is a common hope that women cling to. “He can get better if I just help him.” This can lead to the woman staying in an abusive relationship.
- Some women believe they are responsible for their marriage and must make it work at all costs. This can be reinforced by family. What does it say about her that her marriage “failed?” “A bad marriage is better than single parenting.”
- Some women may feel isolated from their families as part of the abuse. This in turn may lead some to believe that no one cares about them and that there is nowhere to turn.
- The abuser is not always violent. When he appears to be caring and nice, the woman will cling to this as hope that he will get better.
- She may blame his abuse on other factors such as his job’s stress or his drug habit.
- She may come from an abusive childhood in which she equated violence and apologies with love. Some severe cases may involve a woman actually seeking out men who are dysfunctional and abusive as the predictable is safer than the unpredictable. She may prefer an abuser whom she knows over a friendly man whom she doesn’t know.
- Depression can also play a major role as it can influence her self-esteem. She may think “I deserve this.”
Responses by others
- Sometimes the women do report the abuse but the response is so poor that it “trains” the woman to think it isn’t as severe as it is. This can lead to “learned helplessness”, in which the woman believes she is helpless to change her situation.
- Restraining orders have failed in the past.
- Her own mother may have said “you made this bed, now lie in it.”
- At times there can be obstacles from many people in her community.
- If the woman has a child, it may be practically difficult to leave with a child.
- She may not have employment and wonder how she will support herself.
- There is the fear of losing custody of the child in a potential divorce. One woman told me “if I leave, then he gets the kids half of the week.”
Insinuating a woman can just leave the relationship isn’t helpful. There is much more to it. In counseling therapists try to encourage women to become more assertive. Changing one’s personality takes time, however, and requires patience from those who care.