Why women stay in abusive relationships: the truth no one wants to admit

I once had a relationship with a man whose behaviour scared me a bit. He didn’t do anything obviously wrong but I wasn’t assertive enough and it could have been a slippery slope. It could have happened extremely gradually. At the beginning you feel a bit uneasy but there are things you like about him and ways that you get along well, so you try to make it work and just hope that the problem goes away.

There is no excuse for dominating, controlling or abusive behaviour. Men (or women) who abuse their partners break them down over time so that they become dependent. The victims perhaps come to believe that they are worthless and that their punishment is deserved. The sad truth is that women in abusive relationships become so lacking in confidence that they start to choose that abuse.

To face violence out of the blue is one thing, but to know that someone has been violent towards you and go back to them, time and time again, that is quite another.

It’s a massive societal issue and probably often correlates with other socio-economic issues and life circumstances. But there is a problem with the way we talk about domestic abuse. We talk about it like it could happen to anyone. And we talk about perpetrators of domestic violence without taking account of their victims’ choice to continue to be abused. That is said with an enormous dose of compassion because to become a victim is a desperate and painful vilification. But being honest is critically important if we’re looking for a cure.

The perpetrators are doing wrong, that’s an unequivocal fact. But they are given the opportunity to do wrong over and over again, in a protected and private space. And they seek relationships with women who show signs of vulnerability or who they feel can be broken down. If such a man dated a woman who could not be broken, the coupling wouldn’t last long.

It is indeed vital that we support victims of domestic violence to make them recognise their own value. It is important that perpetrators of domestic violence are prosecuted for their crimes, though it is presumably not always easy to gain sufficient proof. But we should also ask what is going on in women’s minds to make them so susceptible – so ready to choose abuse? We cannot lay all of the responsibility for their vulnerability at their abuser’s door.

To return to my own experience of a domineering partner, I condoned it because I had wanted so much to be in a relationship. I was swept up in the feelings of love and didn’t yet know what a long-term relationship was like. After it ended, over time, I learnt that being assertive was not the terrifying risk that I thought it was; there was not so much to lose.

Obviously that’s just one person’s experience, but part of the issue seems to be lack of emotional self-sufficiency (regardless of whether you’re in a relationship), combined with an idealised concept of what a relationship (or ‘love’) is – the idea that you need a partner to make you ‘complete’. This is a common belief/message and something that we should address.

Domestic violence occurs under very a particular, unpleasant set of circumstances. It is a situation a woman finds herself in if she is particularly vulnerable, or not in a good place for whatever reason. It is not the case that any woman could fall prey.

There will always be deviance in society and as women, we have the choice to keep ourselves from harm; we just need to admit to our vulnerability and be prepared to protect it.