"It's not that bad..."
Updated: Jul 23
Why does someone stay in an abusive relationship? I get asked this regularly when giving presentations, and it's a difficult question because there are so many contributing factors. But I feel it's important to point out that there is one simple but vital fact that many people don't consider - and that is that relationships don't start out abusive.
If someone were to punch you on a first date, would you continue to see them? Probably not. It can be really tricky to tell whether a relationship could turn abusive or not in the early stages, and most often, the abuser will wait long periods before exhibiting abusive behaviors.
We use a model called the cycle of violence. The first stage is the "Honeymoon Period." During this stage, everything seems wonderful, the abuser is often super sweet (and if abuse has occurred before, apologetic), and everything seems ok. There will often be a calm phase where everything seems alright. The next stage is tension building - when problems start to arise. Usually, this is described as a feeling of "walking on eggshells" around the partner who abuses. Then, some event occurs, triggering an act of violence. It is important to note that this violence is not always physical - it could be emotional abuse, name-calling, gaslighting, minimizing, denying, or blaming of threatening the survivor, their pets, or their children.
This explosion is followed by another honeymoon period. The abuser will often apologize, make excuses, promise never to do it again, agree to get help or make other promises that aren't met. Things slip into a calm phase, and the cycle repeats itself. This cycle can take days, weeks, even years to complete. Still, invariably, in an abusive relationship where power and control are being forced on a survivor, the cycle will occur, sometimes multiple times in a matter of weeks or days, and often with increasing severity.
Survivors I've spoken with have often expressed a lot of frustration with themselves for not seeing it earlier. Often, they will minimize the abuse. This is not an act of weakness but an attempt to make an out-of-control situation seem more controllable. If there are pets or children or if the survivor has no access to funds, credit cards, and money, it can present obstacles so significant that even should the survivor choose to leave, it's almost impossible to overcome them. Again, this control is instigated over several years, and therefore the steps can seem minor and forgivable until the scope of the problem is overwhelming.
This is one of the reasons we work so hard to provide prevention education to our community. If a survivor can recognize the signs of abuse and has the knowledge and resources available to take action, it can change the course of abuse before it begins. It is easy to put the onus of blame on the survivor "Why didn't they just leave?" However, we need to reframe that conversation. The next time someone asks that, reply, "Why did they think it was ok to hurt their partner?"
For more information, you can download our free DV-Toolkit with information about red flags of domestic violence, myths, and facts about DV, how to help survivors, and further resources at willowdvcenter.org/dvtoolkit.
If you need immediate assistance, call our 24-hour hotline at 785-843-3333.