Why don’t you just leave!”
I have heard many well-meaning people say that to their female friend in their attempts to get them to leave a violent or abusive relationship.
It’s so frustrating to see a woman experience so much emotional and/or physical abuse, but not leave – it’s heart-breaking. Why on earth does she stay? Can’t she see what this is doing to her?
The answer is no, not necessarily. The reasons of why a woman stays in an abusive relationship are many and some are controversial.
In this article, I want to paint a different picture of why your friend doesn’t leave, or why she keeps going back. I want to point out though, there are many, many reasons why it’s hard to leave a toxic situation, and this short article is just one small piece of the puzzle.
Many years ago, I compared the experiences of women in abusive relationships and the abusive experience of being in a cult (Ward 2000). Sound crazy? You’d be surprised that the abuse of power – regardless of where it happens – is remarkably consistent. I too, was confused as to why a woman remained loyal to a perpetrator of emotional or physical abuse, until I looked into what was actually happening. I realised that in both situations, there is a ‘bonding’ of sorts that happens, but it’s a ‘traumatic bonding’. What does this mean?
What is Traumatic Bonding?
‘Traumatic bonding’ occurs when there is a mixture of comfort and pain from the same source, and it is both powerful and confusing. Because we are hard-wired for attachment, when this is paired with physical or emotional pain, and the environment is controlling, it creates a strong emotional glue that is hard to extract oneself from. This traumatic bonding occurs in both abusive relationships and cults.
The factors below are commonly seen in both domestic violence and abusive cults:
- Perpetrators control who the woman sees, talks to, what she reads and where she goes and limits outside involvement.
- Cults control who the individual is allowed to see and associate with. Cults control reading matter, living arrangements and lifestyle.
- Perpetrators can prevent the women from getting a job, making her ask for money, taking her money, or cut off her access to family income.
- Cults expect a large proportion of the individual’s income, signing over of assets to the cult, getting money from family and giving it to the cult, or other money-making activities.
- Perpetrators can use the children to make her feel guilty, threaten harm to the children, or alienate the children from their Mother.
- Cults can emotionally, spiritually and physically abuse children. There can be threats to harm the children to control the parents.
Minimising and Blaming
- Perpetrators refuse to take responsibility for their abusive behaviour, saying it is the woman’s fault, and ignoring or make light of the abuse.
- Cults make sure if something is wrong, it’s the individual’s fault; no critical thinking about the group is allowed.
Powerlessness and Helplessness
- Perpetrators ensure that the woman is dependent on the male; a learned helplessness is established, ie ‘it’s no use trying to fight it’.
- Cults systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person through a system of rewards and punishments.
You can see that in both situations, the environment is strictly controlled.
Consequently, it’s hard to think clearly and make decisions for yourself. After a while, the abuse becomes ‘normal’ and you really do start to think that it’s your fault and you need to ‘try harder’. However, the more you ‘try’, the more you ‘fail’ because a specific abusive environment has been created to manipulate and control.
In other words, it’s not you.
That’s why in both cases, true healing can’t occur unless you leave the abusive environment.
How to Help your Friend Leave an Abusive Relationship
So how do you help someone leave such a toxic environment? Here are some quick tips, remembering that each situation and person is unique.
- It’s very hard to leave such a relationship for some very good safety reasons. Women are regularly murdered around Australia by their violent partners. The threats to harm should always be taken seriously. Also, the threat to kill one’s children creates tremendous fear, and a mother may see staying as a way of ‘protecting’ her children.
- Related to the first point is something we must always remember: the most dangerous time for the woman is when she is in the process of leaving or has just left. Be prepared to help practically when this happens, while at the same time being mindful of your own safety.
- Your relationship with them is worth its weight in gold. Do your best to keep that relationship going. Invite them to see you and your other friends as often as safely possible (remembering that he might see her friends as threats). Gently show her by your own life that there can be life apart from fear and abuse. That might mean biting your tongue sometimes, which brings me to the next point:
- Even though you are desperate to get her to leave, try not to get angry and manipulative to help your friend – that’s what perpetrators do. Sometimes it’s hard to see her leave and then return. Usually women leave several times before the final separation. It will therefore take patience on your part. This doesn’t mean keeping quiet though…
- When I speak to someone in a cult, I try to get them to recall what life was like before the cult (if it was good) or life after the cult (not being abused). This helps side-step the ‘cult personality’. Likewise, help your friend recall what life was like before the abuse, or what life could be like, if she wasn’t being abused. Remember that in both a cult and a violent relationship, the woman is conditioned to think and respond in certain ways. The trick is to gently support her to start thinking for herself again.
- Finally, I want to recommend DVConnect as a wonderful resource for women who are held in this emotional prison. The website is listed below. The wonderful staff there can advise on emergency housing, finances and legal avenues.
However, if you feel you would like to see someone face to face for a confidential session, either as someone who wants to leave an abusive relationship, or who has a friend in such a situation, please contact me at Vision or M1 Psychology. I have had the privilege of helping many women and their concerned friends in such situations and will ensure it is strictly confidential.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
References & Resources:
- DVConnect: Phone 1800 811 811 or visit https://www.dvconnect.org/.
- Ward, D., (2000) ‘Domestic Violence as a Cultic System’ Cultic Studies Journal, (17) (1), 42-55.