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Deciding to Stay or Leave

Reasons for Staying In or Leaving an Abusive Relationship

At some point, you will need to decide whether you are going to focus your energy on saving the relationship or on preparing yourself for leaving the situation and perhaps ending the relationship completely. Even though a good therapist will not make your decision for you, they can help you to better understand what you really want and need.

Here is an exercise that can help you in making a decision.

1. List all your reasons for wanting to stay in the relationship.

2. List all your reasons for not wanting to stay.

Good Reasons for Staying:

    • The abusive person has agreed to go into counselling or join an Alternatives to Violence program.
    • He has acknowledged that he has a problem of being emotionally abusive, over-controlling and so on.
    • He recognizes that he is repeating a pattern and is following in his parent’s footsteps.

He recognizes that he has an addiction and that it is affecting our relationship. He has joined a self-help group (for example, Alcoholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, or Parents Anonymous).

He has agreed to check himself into a drug or alcohol treatment program and is agreeable after treatment to attend an Alternative to Violence Program.

Bad Reasons for Staying:

“I’m afraid of being alone.”

Betty had been severely emotionally abused by her husband for twenty years. She explained why she had stayed in the relationship so long: “My biggest fear was that of being all alone, of not being able to handle things, of having to take total responsibility for myself. I wasn’t sure I could make it by myself.”

“No one else will want me.”

Emotional abuse is insidious. It eats away at a woman’s self-esteem so gradually that she often doesn’t even know the damage she is suffering. After years of hearing an abuser tell her she is ugly, stupid, or incompetent, a woman can be so psychologically destroyed that she believes it. A woman who had been emotionally abused by her boss for ten years said: “My boss always told me, ‘You’re so stupid – you don’t know how to do anything. I don’t know why I keep you, except that I’m afraid you couldn’t get a job anywhere else, and I know you have a family to support.’ After listening to this over and over for years, I really believed him. That belief kept me working far too long for a man who almost drove me crazy.”

Because you were deprived of love, nurturing and security as a child, you may have a “deprivation mentality” in which you always assume that the things you need are in short supply. When someone shows you even the slightest kindness, you react as if the person were giving you a tremendous gift. You are afraid to end a relationship for fear that no one else will ever like you or love you. You believe you should be grateful for what you have because you feel it is all there is.

“He says he loves me.”

Many emotional abusers are incapable of really loving anyone. They are so caught up in satisfying their own needs that they are unable to even be aware of the other person’s needs, much less to satisfy those needs. When we truly love someone, we are able and willing to sometimes put our own needs aside in order to give our loved one what he needs. When we really love someone, we are willing to admit when we are wrong and work on our problems so that we don’t continually keep hurting the other person.

“I need (him, the job, etc.).”

Many women are emotionally dependent upon men. As Colette Dowling wrote in her book The Cinderella Complex, “There’s a kind of panic that many women have about being able to make it in any way other than being dependent on their husbands. They’ve been taught their whole lives that they can’t. It’s a conditioning process.”

This conditioning is called “learned helplessness”. When animals are placed in a situation in which they have no effect on their environment, they begin to give up. New studies show the same thing happens to humans. If a woman stays long enough in a situation in which she feels she has no control, she loses all hope and stops trying. Only if the woman begins to disengage from her belief in her own helplessness can she break out of the vicious cycle of dependency and its brutal effect on her life.

“I love him.”

The chances are very high that what you identify as love is dependence, fear of being alone, or need. It is difficult to truly love someone who is constantly hurting you, constantly damaging your self-esteem. When we are being abused, our anger eventually damages and eats away at whatever love we once felt.

The most loving thing you can do is to make the abuser responsible for his behaviour. Separation may be the only way to demonstrate that you will no longer put up with the abusive behaviour.

“It really is more my problem than his.”

Typically, an emotionally abused woman attributes the abuser’s behaviour to some personal inadequacy on her part, or sees it as evidence that she is doing something wrong. She feels responsible for what’s going on, and she believes that she must have done something to deserve it. She feels very guilty and ashamed, and she takes on a subordinate role.

“I am going to work harder on the relationship.”

Instead of reacting to abusive criticism with justified anger, emotionally abused women tend to blame themselves for whatever happens and to look to themselves to improve the situation. They stay in abusive relationships, convincing themselves that if only they cooked better, cleaned the house better, or lost some weight, their husbands would stop being abusive. In a friendship or work situation, the emotionally abused woman convinces herself that if only she was a better friend or employee, the other person would stop his or her abusive behaviour.

“I expect too much from him; from now on I’m going to try to accept him as he is.”

Chances are that you have been doing this for too long already. Emotionally abused women expect themselves to accept the impossible, to be satisfied with next to nothing. You deserve so much more than you are getting already that lowering your expectations will serve only to lower your self-esteem further.