Why don't people leave an abusive relationship immediately?

When people learn that a person is in an abusive relationship, the first question that comes up is often: “Why don’t they just leave?” If you have never experienced abuse in a relationship, this response may seem logical. But the fact is that it is not easy to “just leave” an abusive relationship.

Here are 9 common reasons why:

  1. Normalisation of unhealthy behaviour. Society has normalized unhealthy or violent behaviour, for example being in a “stormy relationship” or having a “controlling” partner. People often do not know the signs of abuse and simply do not realize that they are being abused in the relationship and therefore they do not seek help.
  2. Lack of self-confidence. Emotional abuse breaks down people’s self-confidence so that the thought of leaving and building a new life from scratch can seem overwhelming. It can be very difficult to leave a partner after being repeatedly told that you are worthless and that there are no better options available. People who experience emotional abuse often do no realise it or do not think of it is as serious as physical abuse.
  3. The cycle of abuse. Domestic abuse often follows a pattern of 3 stages. First, tension builds, then there is an emotional or physical attack, and finally there is the “honeymoon phase” where the abuser is full of regret, shows their best side, and promises to never do it again. The third stage is considered the main reason that people do not leave a partner who is abusive.
  4. Difficult to escape the control. It is common that people in an abusive relationship attempt to leave the relationship a few times before they succeed in doing so once and for all.
  5. Gaslighting. After a fight, the abuser flips everything that happened upside down and makes their partner feel guilty or believe that what happened was their fault. By denying the facts and the person’s feelings, they undermine their experience in order to gain control. This is called gaslighting.
  6. A belief that the partner will change. A lot of people who live with abuse in a relationship continue to do so because they love their partner and believe that the situation will improve. They may blame their partner’s behaviour on difficult circumstances or believe that they can change their partner by improving themselves. Never stay in a relationship where you rely on the other person changing for the better.
  7. Fear of what others will think. People who are being abused in a relationship often do not dare to acknowledge that their partner is abusing them for fear of not being believed, being blamed for the abuse, being pitied, or being looked down on.
  8. Shared ties. Marriage, children, and shared finances are often reasons why people do not leave abusive relationships. These ties become even more difficult to break when there is a power imbalance in the relationship. Leaving mutual friends or housing is also a reason, especially with younger people.
  9. It is dangerous to leave. Leaving an abusive relationship is not just emotionally difficult, it can also be dangerous. The abuse can magnify around a divorce or breakup. In order to prepare yourself for ending an abusive relationship, it is important to look out for your online safety and prepare a safety plan.

People who are in an abusive relationship often need help getting out of it. No one should ever be blamed for experiencing abuse. Although it is not wise to stay in an unhealthy or dangerous situation, that does not mean that the person is responsible for it nor does it justify the abuse. Abuse is never justifiable.

Do you recognize abuse?

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Áslaug is in a stormy relationship and is constantly telling her spouse what she does not like in their communications but he keeps crossing her boundaries. After she became pregnant the situation has only become worse. She has started to avoid certain topics, like politics and parenting, because he always gets mad when she does.

Áslaug knows that she is no angel herself and often does something that she knows will make him angry. Áslaug has also yelled herself back at him and pushed him to get out of violent situations. He has never hit her but sometimes he holds her so she can't move and throws things.

Is this abuse?

Safety plan

A safety plan is a way to protect your safety as well as your children’s, whether it is within the relationship or if you decide to leave.

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