Why Don’t They Just Leave? Understanding the Cycle of Abuse That Keeps Women Stuck

Why don’t women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them just leave? It seems like such an obvious solution coming from the perspective of an outsider. The reality, of course, is that the dynamic of an abusive relationship is never as simple as it seems. Perhaps the woman has not worked in many years and is unable to support herself. The abuser may have threatened even more harm if she attempted to leave, or may have stepped up his abuse to include the children. She could come from a conservative background and believe that marriage is forever, regardless of physical or mental abuse.

The reasons that women stay with an abuser are as varied as the women themselves. Even when a woman does muster up the courage to leave, she frequently returns to the relationship due to limited options, guilt, feeling like she still loves the abuser and numerous other reasons. The average abused woman leaves her relationship up to seven times before making the final break. Instead of judging her as weak, society as a whole needs to step up and offer more support when she first decides to leave and in the difficult weeks and months afterwards.

Why Do Men Abuse?

Why is leaving so difficult? Beyond the obvious financial, social, safety or religious reasons, many women stay because they are caught in a never-ending cycle of abuse. Before people can understand the cycle of abuse, it is important to understand the one-word reason for abuse: control. Behind every abuser is a desperate need to control the words and actions of his partner. She is not allowed to have a different opinion, inconvenience him or to act in ways that don’t inflate his ego. Many abusers are also narcissists who see their partner as a mere extension of themselves. They can not conceive of the idea that their partner has thoughts, ideas and goals that might not line up with their own. Abusers often feel no guilt for the abuse they inflict, either.

Phase One: Tension Builds

During the first phase of an abuse cycle, conflict arises as communication breaks down. With an abuser, this usually means that he is not getting his own way in a discussion or decision that needs to be made. It sometimes takes nothing more than a menacing look to let his wife or girlfriend know that she has pushed too far, but by that point it may be too late. She will pay the price somehow. Many women who have escaped abusive relationships describe this phase as feeling like she has to walk on egg shells or say whatever it takes to diffuse the situation, whether she means it or not. It is not uncommon for abused women to feel physically ill from the tension, even if a violent act never actually transpires.

Phase Two: The Incident Occurs

The tension that built up during the first phase will eventually come to a head in a phase two. However, it is not always in the form of physical abuse. It may also come in the form of verbal abuse, throwing objects around the house, unwanted sexual contact, threatening words and behavior, blaming the victim, storming out of the house or sulking and refusing to speak to the victim until she backs down or apologizes for upsetting him. All of these actions are manifestations of abusive behavior. They simply can not be excused.

Phase Three: He Says He’s Sorry

During reconciliation, the third phase of an abusive cycle, the abuser may appear genuinely remorseful and shower his wife or girlfriend with compliments or gifts. He may also blame her for the abuse, tell her she’s making a big deal over nothing or even try to claim it never happened. The latter type of behavior is a phenomenon known as “gaslighting.” It means the abuser deliberately and repeatedly tries to get the victim to deny her own reality. The message in this phase is sent loud and clear: the incident is over and she is not to bring it up again.

Phase Four: The Honeymoon Period

During this phase of an abuse cycle, life goes on as normal. The incident may just as well have never happened. The abuser is not necessarily turning on the charm, and life settles back into a more predictable pattern. Unfortunately, the only thing that is predictable with an abuser is that it will happen again. The honeymoon period is always the calm before the storm, and the woman lives in a state of perpetual discomfort and fear.

He’s Not the Guy She Fell in Love With

People who have never been involved in an abusive relationship may have trouble grasping the fact that those who are probably never saw it coming. An abuser is never abusive in the beginning of a relationship because that would repel the woman he is trying to woo. He is charming, attentive and appears to be kind and considerate as well. Many women fall quickly and deeply for men who later turn out to be abusive. Even as the abuse starts becoming obvious to others, she has a hard time reconciling the man in front of her with the one who swept her off her feet and proclaimed his undying love. The confusion she feels as a result may make her question her own sanity.

He Eventually Reveals Himself

For a man who is abusive at heart, keeping up this kind of pretense is exhausting. Eventually, when he has the woman right where he wants her, he will start letting down his guard. She will say something he doesn’t agree with and he will become moody, give her the silent treatment, criticize her or become openly hostile. The first time it happens, she is in shock and can’t process it rationally. He’s just tired, or sensitive, or not feeling well or anything but abusive. Her Prince Charming is not abusive, and to say something to that effect at this stage would probably result in her defending him and calling the accuser ridiculous.

It Only Escalates

Once an abusive exchange has taken place, there is a high likelihood it will happen again and the next time it will be worse. If an abuser insulted his wife or girlfriend with hurtful words the first time, the second time may involve insults and him pushing her against the wall. If she makes it clear there are certain things she won’t tolerate, he may back off on those behaviors while continuing the ones he can get away with. However, he may only see that as a power struggle and exert his control even more. He tells her that she makes him get angry, or finds fault with her in another way. She usually believes it.

She Tries to Change

Perhaps he tells her she’s unattractive and deserves to be abused because no one else would put up with her. She takes these words to heart, goes on a diet and tries to wear nicer clothes for him. Since he’s still abusive, he needs to find something else to throw at her. If she continues to take the bait, she will run herself ragged trying to be the perfect wife or girlfriend so he will treat her right. Unless he is suddenly struck with enormous insight, he rarely changes his behavior. This leaves the abused woman with two choices: continue to run on the hamster wheel of the abuse cycle or try to find a way out.

If She Stays

A woman who remains in abusive relationships for years eventually loses all connection to the person she once was. The continuous exposure to abuse will break her down physically, mentally and spiritually until she lives merely in survival mode. Whereas she may have once enjoyed rich relationships with others, she will withdraw and retreat into a world of her own making. The escapism may come in the form of an addiction or avoiding contact with the outside world entirely. If the relationship is violent, she may be killed or suffer permanent physical damage.

If She Goes

It takes a tremendous amount of support and courage to leave an abusive relationship. Sadly, many women are not believed when they report the abuse to a family member, pastor or counselor. This is especially true if there was never any physical abuse. People in the woman’s social circle, if she even still has one, may have been manipulated by the abuser to believe that the woman is the one with the problem.

As difficult as it may be, abused women need to reach a place of strength deep within that tells them to move forward with severing the relationship. She needs to keep talking until she is believed and work with a support system to begin making plans for leaving.

There are many challenges to women coming out of abusive relationships, and she may at times wonder if leaving was worth it. Fortunately, she can usually answer yes within a short time of getting out, regardless of how difficult it may be to start a new life.