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3 Reasons Clients Stay in Abusive Relationships

And 4 ways to help them escape

Despite being abused, many people, both women and men, find it difficult to leave their abusive partner.

There it was, in all its undeniability. A fresh but already darkening circle around her eye, soon to become black and swollen.

“Do you want to tell me about that?” I asked her.

“Not just now,” she said.

She went on to tell me how she’d wanted to leave “a thousand times” but couldn’t. How her friends had all given up on her because they’d been telling her to leave him for years. How her sister had stopped talking to her altogether.

“But I always go back!” she said, a note of despair in her tone. “He treats me like trash but I don’t seem able to leave him!”

I knew what I was about to say might seem confusing, but I had a feeling Sally would know what I meant.

“When you are in it, you are in it… though it can feel especially hard to know what you are in!”

Sure enough, she knew exactly what I meant.

It can seem baffling, infuriating even, when an abused partner stays with an abuser, even more so when they go back to them after having left. The ungenerous thought of those on the outside might eventually be “Well, you deserve what you get then!” But often it is every bit as baffling and infuriating for the person being abused, and their thoughts may echo that same sentiment.

Before I look at ways to help the abused partner, I want to address three reasons why people stay in abusive relationships.

Tied to a ticking time bomb

It’s a fact that despite being abused, many people, both women and men, find it difficult to leave their abusive partner. Research into why women find it hard to leave concluded it was due to a combination of:

  • Low self-esteem (many women felt they were not worthy of something better),
  • Poor perceived alternatives, and
  • A sense of not wanting to waste the time and effort they have already invested in the relationship.1

In this study, most abuse was psychological and consisted of name calling such as “fat” and “ugly”.

It was found that low self-esteem was sometimes the result of childhood abuse. Some women had fallen into, or stayed within, abusive relationships because early emotional conditioning had led them to feel that they didn’t deserve decent treatment. Those women who had been abused as a child appeared to have a higher tolerance for the current abuse.

Low self-esteem may be both a cause and a result of abuse. Certainly, abuse can damage a previously healthy self-esteem, but equally, those with pre-existing low self-esteem may, initially at least, choose partners who are ambivalent or even downright disdainful towards them. If you hate yourself, you may feel more in tune with someone who treats you as badly as you treat yourself. Those with low self-esteem may be turned off by good treatment and positive approval from others.

Two months after the study, a massive 88% of the women were still with the abusive partner.

From my therapeutic experience, I’d add a few further reasons why an abused client may stay with their abuser:

  • Disbelief they can actually escape the abuser. They may fear physical harm or retaliation.
  • Belief that the abuse is their fault. Perhaps because they have been told this over and over by the abuser, as in “You made me do that!” or “Now see what you made me do!”
  • Financial dependency. The client may feel, partly perhaps through low self-esteem, that they aren’t capable of supporting themselves. If they have children with the abuser, they may also feel unable to split the family apart.
  • Mistaking the intensity of the alternating fear and hope for love.

And there may be some warped addictive psychology at play, too.

The rule of intermittent reinforcement

An abused person may come to feel perversely grateful for any good treatment from their abuser.

After all, rarity increases the perceived value of something. If someone is constantly nice to us, that niceness may cease to feel compelling. If, on the other hand, someone is mean or brutal to us but occasionally and unpredictably ‘nice’, we may experience a kind of warped addiction to them.

Why? Because of the addictive nature of what we call ‘intermittent reinforcement’.

Behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner found that inconsistent, or intermittent (and therefore scarce), rewards promote addictive and compulsive behaviours.

For example, Skinner found that cats who were not always rewarded with food after certain behaviours acted more compulsively than those that always got rewarded with food. Believe it or not, gambling would be less compulsive if people always won!

Likewise, maybe drug addicts would feel freer if they always scored rather than only sometimes scored. Maybe the woman who goes back time and time again to the abusive, violent, unpredictable lover is addicted to the good times because of their scarcity!

Intermittent reinforcement within toxic relationships is a pattern of callous and cruel treatment peppered with occasional random bursts of affection.

The abuser hands out rewards sparingly – a little affection here, a compliment there. Sometimes gifts or nice surprises, or perhaps kind words in place of the expected curse or blow.

Even simply withholding harm can come to be seen as a kindness in a person who is often cruel and unpleasant. We see echoes of Stockholm syndrome in this.

The point is, decent treatment is dished out sporadically and unpredictably throughout the abuse cycle, so that this good treatment becomes longed for. The cycle becomes addictive because good treatment isn’t always or even often available.

The victim may come to feel that, with enough love, the person will change or the good treatment will become the norm.

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It’s never the victim’s fault

Now none of this is to say, of course, that the abused client in any way wants the abuse. And most people in abusive relationships will have no idea as to the psychological factors that may underlie their seemingly baffling behaviour.

But it may be that craving kindness from a cruel person is more intense than desiring it from someone who consistently regards us positively and treats us decently. And the heady high that comes from receiving those rare nuggets of kindness against a backdrop of cruelty is something those of us in healthy relationships may never understand. Something to consider at least.

So how can we help the client who is trapped in an abusive relationship through circumstance and self-doubt?

Step one: As far as you can, ensure physical safety

Sally was being increasingly physically abused. I feared for her safety and wasn’t happy with her going back into the situation. I asked her if her boyfriend knew she was here and she said he didn’t. I asked her whether she would report him to the police and, to my surprise, she said she would – and she did. She went to stay with a friend while the police questioned him, charged him, and placed a restraining order upon him.

I knew all this because Sally called me between sessions. We can’t make clients leave anyone, nor prevent them going back, but where physical safety is concerned we can express our grave concern. And this may be enough to help them secure, as far as they can, their physical safety.

We can't make clients leave an abusive partner, nor prevent them going back, but where physical safety is concerned we can express our grave concern. And this may be enough to help them secure, as far as they can, their physical safety. Click to Tweet

Many abused clients are abused emotionally rather than physically, in which case physical safety may not be a particular issue. But we always need to be aware of the possibility.

By the time I saw Sally again, she seemed to be slipping in her resolve to break free of her abuser.

I noticed she was talking about starting to “feel sorry for him”. To feel that maybe she could make it work if she just loved him more or tried harder. The same old pattern was emerging, – of leaving, seeing the relationship through rose-tinted spectacles, then going back feeling it was all somehow her fault, that she didn’t deserve better, and that if she could just do better, be better, things could work out.

I had to somehow help Sally transcend this addictive and destructive cycle.

Step two: Remind them of the bad times

As with any addiction, an abused client may, once away from the abuser, start to feel motivated to be with them again despite all the terrible abuse. Why is this?

Dopamine is known as the ‘motivating’ chemical, and unless it’s hijacked by addiction it tends to motivate us towards doing what is good for us. Drink when thirsty, rest when tired, learn new skills, and so forth.

This is mediated by the opiate reward systems in the brain, which work together with dopamine to help us survive and thrive. But this reward network in the brain can be hijacked by addictive, self-destructive patterns. And when it is, it treats negative memories very differently to positive memories.

During the heady throes of desire, be it for a substance, activity, or person, the opiate reward pathway mediated by dopamine makes us forget the bad times in favour of the good.

So the amnesic effects of dopamine may, as desire builds, make the drinker feel disconnected from or unaware of the downsides of drinking excessively. Likewise, the gambler remembers the high and thrill and escapism of gambling but not, in the moment, the shame, guilt, depression, embarrassment and ruin. If those feelings were thrust into consciousness just as the drinker was about to drink or the gambler was about to gamble, the behaviour would become harder to do.

Sally’s partner was attractive, sometimes funny and attentive, charming and boyishly vulnerable. When he told Sally that he loved her, that without him she couldn’t survive, and that no one else would ever love her like he did, she believed him.

Sally was, at this point, seeing the relationship through rose-tinted spectacles – or at least spectacles that filtered out the huge amounts of crap in the relationship!

Dopamine-laced memories were blocking out the bad memories and directing her focus towards only the positive.

It’s not that she had forgotten the abuse, but because dopamine focuses us on what we do want, the parts of the relationship she didn’t want were being unrealistically sublimated by the ones she did. Like the alcoholic caught up in the desire of the moment, she was all but oblivious to the negative aspects of the relationship.

Dopamine motivates us, and part of the way it does this is by making us forget the downsides, or at least not feel them so much.

So how do we use this information?

Step three: Link the bad times to the good

The addictive focus, which offers us only dopamine-laced memories of the ‘good times’ associated with the relationship and not the bad, makes us lose wider context.

I asked Sally what she imagined would happen if she went back to her partner (or, at this point, former partner) and lived with him indefinitely. I asked her to close her eyes and really focus on that. How might she be after ten more years of abuse and cruelty?

She paled a bit and said that she feared he would keep beating her up, belittling her, seeing other women.

“And what would your current self like to say to that future self, who has been with him for another ten years?”

She looked pained and said, “I’d tell the me after ten more years, if I was still alive, that you can get out, that maybe you could have gotten out years ago. That you deserve better!”

We explored her sense that she should be able to change him and her tendency to make excuses for him. She agreed that he should have a fair share of responsibility and, to use some current jargon, ‘agency’.

I then asked her to close her eyes and hypnotically access the pleasant, dopamine-laced images of her ex. With that in mind, I asked her to open her eyes, then close them again and instead focus on the hurt, shame, fear, bottled anger, betrayal, disgust, and so on that she felt during times of insult and injury.

What I was doing was starting to meld those two states together so that as soon as she started to think about him “through rose-tinted spectacles”, she would immediately feel a visceral and unpleasant sense of the realities of the abuse. This is known as ‘scrambling’ in hypnotherapy, and it can be a very powerful technique, especially for compulsive desires in which dopamine blocks out portions of reality.

By the end of the session Sally no longer sounded so sentimentally wistful when talking of her ex. She started to refer to him as her ex, and reported no longer being able to think about him positively without the realities of the abuse filtering in.

I felt she’d turned a corner, But the years of torment, belittlement, occasional violence, and name calling had wreaked havoc on Sally’s self-esteem.

Step four: Build a sense of self-worth

Being ground down by insults and threats; suffering the objectification of violence; being over-controlled, surveyed, and monitored for what you say and do and where you go. All this doesn’t just chip away at self-esteem but rips away large chunks of it… if it was there to begin with.

Sally had been in a previous abusive relationship, and we worked to undo some of the damage and emotional conditioning of that past abusive relationship as well as horrible memories from her more recent relationship.

We explored together what a true, healthy, mutually respectful and loving relationship would actually look like.

We may well have to work on reminding our abused clients of their strengths and who they were before they met the abuser to rebuild a sense of personal potential.

We can help our clients gain the confidence to live independently or be more assertive, inform them of essential emotional needs, and draw up plans as to how they can start to meet those needs in healthy ways.

We may need to make it clear to our clients what really constitutes bullying and devise with them strategies to overcome it. Clients need to build a sense of a life beyond the abuse; to regain faith in their own capabilities; and to become embedded in a support network, which provides a healthy alternative to the abusive reality they’ve been suffering.

And because one aspect of abuse may have been to restrict access to friends and healthy support, or even any human contact other than with the abuser, we may need to help clients reconnect with good people and find new healthy connections.

Helping clients who are currently in an abusive relationship can be a complex, frustrating, concerning, challenging, but also immensely rewarding aspect of therapy. Both men and women can be abused, both physically and emotionally. And abuse occurs in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.2 But many of the principles we use apply across the board.

We can help our clients by helping them:

  • Appreciate what is really happening
  • Understand that the abuse is not acceptable, and they never deserve abuse.
  • Remember it’s the abuser that needs to take responsibility – not them
  • Really see the ugly reality, not just the dopamine-laced memories of the ‘good’ times
  • Build their sense of self-worth, capability, and lovableness as a unique and worthwhile person.

Ultimately Sally did leave her abuser. She took on more work, began seeing her friends again, walked taller, smiled more, and ultimately found someone who knew how to treat her right.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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