Thomas Fiffer wants you to know why survivors stay in abusive relationships. Exposing these three lies is a start.
People always ask why survivors of intimate partner violence and abuse stay with their abusers. “Why would anyone put up with that? Why don’t they just leave?” Despite the resources listing the reasons people don’t leave and pointing out the perils of departure, those who have not personally experienced abuse or seen it happen to someone close to them have tremendous difficulty wrapping their minds around how anyone “with a right mind” could get sucked into an abusive relationship, much less end up trapped in one, and eventually become a “victim” like the ones described in the articles that explain why people stay.
We tend to ignore problems we don’t understand, but intimate partner violence and abuse, which not only damage (and sometimes end) lives but also set up a vicious and destructive multi-generational cycle cannot be ignored. The curtain must be pulled back to give people on the outside an inside view and enable them to recognize, respond to, and prevent this devastatingly harmful behavior.
Having lived through an emotionally abusive relationship myself, and lived in denial about it while it was happening, I’m in a position to help the skeptics and disbelievers see what really happens to abused partners and to unmask the mysterious power that keeps them in their abuser’s thrall. While many factors are involved, I’ve boiled it down to three big lies that abusers rely on to keep their partners bound in the relationship. Each lie on its own has a crippling effect, but combined with one another, they paralyze the abused partner and make it impossible, without help, to escape the relationship.
1.You’re responsible for your partner’s anger. This is how it begins. The abuser gets angry and expresses that anger through emotional or physical abuse. He (or she) presents the anger and the abuse that accompanies it as a normal, justifiable response to something the abused partner said or did, instead of an inappropriate reaction reflecting the abuser’s lack of self-control and respect for boundaries. The abused partner believes this lie, assumes responsibility, apologizes (even though he or she is the one who was hurt), and determines to avoid the triggering behavior in the future, thus cutting him or herself off from healthy behavior, such as drawing a boundary or standing up for his or her own rights in the relationship. The lie puts the abused partner on the defensive, causes intense self-monitoring and second-guessing, and places the abused partner in the role of the hurter instead of the hurt one.
2. You’re responsible for your partner’s happiness. This lie plays on the abused partner’s natural, healthy desire to please his or her mate, and it’s why people-pleasers are prone to getting caught in abusive relationships. The abuser falsely empowers the abused partner by placing him or her in charge of the abuser’s happiness and mental state, when in fact the guilt the abused partner feels over displeasing the abuser disempowers the abused partner and neutralizes his or her ability to take corrective action and stop the abuse. We are never responsible for another person’s happiness, but the abused partner’s belief that he or she is responsible is the nasty barb on abusive love’s arrow: setting a boundary or leaving is seen not as an act of self-care or self-preservation but as a hostile, malicious act intended to cause the abuser misery. In addition, since we all hate to fail at anything, the abused partner keeps trying, even though the abuser can never sustain happiness.
3. You’re responsible for fixing the relationship. Modern-day couples counseling encourages partners to see nearly everything that happens in a relationship as a relationship problem. How many articles and books tell you to hear your partner, to reflect back and validate, to join your partner in his or her pain before working on healing? It’s natural, then, for an abused partner to view abuse in that context—a two-way street, a two-partner problem, and a shared responsibility to fix. But abuse is always a one-partner behavior pattern, and when it gets physical, it’s also a crime. Regardless of whether an abused partner tolerates, triggers, or enables it, abuse is a behavior that must cease and that only the abuser is capable of ceasing. Unfortunately, many counselors lack the training or the strength to call a spade a spade when working with couples, especially if the abuse is only emotional and particularly if the abused partner expresses the desire to salvage the relationship.
I hope that calling out these three big lies helps people who are fortunate enough never to have experienced an abusive relationship to understand what abused partners go through as they fall down the rabbit hole, and why it becomes so vexingly difficult to climb back up again. If you believe your behavior makes the person you love angry and you feel obligated to make that person happy, you will try your damnedest—to the point of sacrificing yourself—to fix the problem and restore harmony and peace. You think you’re taking the high road and being the bigger person. You think you’re being kind and forgiving. You think you have the answers. The only answer to abuse is to walk away from it. But these lies obscure that answer so effectively that while you wish it was a possibility, you cross it off as an option. Having preyed on your vulnerability, the abuser now relies on your inability to leave to continue the torture, until you get enough help and support to make your escape.