Abuse victims return to their abusers seven times before finally leaving. Survivor Sarafina Bianco explains why.
According to most statistics, an abuse victim will return seven times before leaving for good. This pattern, in my experience, underlies one of the biggest struggles outsiders have when challenging a survivor about their involvement with an abuser.
Questions, unintentionally accusatory, often take a form such as this:
If they hit you once, what made you think they wouldn’t do it again?
Did you do something to them, too?
Were you just not thinking?
What the hell were you thinking?
You get the idea.
People who haven’t experienced abuse cannot gauge why someone who has would repeatedly subject themselves to it. This, although incredibly poignant in violent situations, is something many people should be able to understand:
It’s hard to leave something behind and start over.
In the case of abuse, society should assume this is one reason, no matter how much better starting over seems to them. After you’ve left and you’re dealing with the fallout of a break up and brainwashing, you’re not sure which way is up. And, as a survivor, I’m here to explain why.
Abuse victims are ashamed of their choices.
I genuinely believed my poor choices were a direct reflection of poor behavior.
Maybe I provoked or deserved or started it. My abuser was eager to tell me I did. He didn’t hold back in pointing out my flaws, and when you’re constantly told you’re worthless, you start to believe it.
Then, I wasn’t certain if my depression came because I’d done something or because he told me I had. The struggle, the emotional pull of loneliness coupled with my own psychological warfare, left me hoping maybe I could fix the shame by fixing our problems. Maybe, even if I was partially to blame (which I wasn’t), I’d be able to help myself feel better about my mistakes.
Maybe going back would help me overcome the embarrassment of getting into this relationship to begin with. Maybe I’d feel more like a human again, instead of feeling unworthy of the life I had.
Abuse victims feel bonded to their abusers.
Trauma bonding, also called Stockholm Syndrome, is not a new theory, but it’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked. When you survive trauma, alienation becomes normal. You don’t feel like anyone understands you anymore. How can they, if they haven’t experienced what you have?
The people you’re most likely to bond with are the ones who went through the same events as you, even if they caused your pain. My abuser provided me basic needs and, sometimes, relieved my pain by showing me affection.
Looking back, I know he wasn’t capable of loving me, but he was good at pretending he did. And, because of that, I was irrationally pulled into him further, believing he knew what I was feeling and how much I loved him, even after his violence.
Abuse victims are in denial.
Even on the days I was able to articulate how unhappy I was, I wasn’t convinced our relationship was abusive. To clarify, my abuser was financially, emotionally, sexually, and physically abusive. There weren’t many people in my life who couldn’t see me changing, except me, because my body was trying to respond to the trauma while I was trying to figure out what was happening. Technically, my brain was in survival mode, and while you’re fighting for your life, you’re not usually able to be logical.
To acquiesce to this, I made excuses for him. It wasn’t bad every day. He only hit me when he drank. If we lived closer to his family, he’d be happier.
Every person wants to believe their partner is genuinely good.
And it took a year of repeated victimization before I accepted the reality of my situation.
The aftermath of all of this, once you actually leave, is that you have to deal with it all: not only the abuse, and the criticism and healing, but you have to come to terms with the fact that your mistake was as simple as believing someone you love couldn’t possibly be a monster. More often than not, it’s too much to handle.
And it’s why people return.
All abuse victims, the children, men and women, who suffer behind closed doors, have their own reasons for staying or returning. But mostly, it’s because we feel ignored, misunderstood, and broken.
It wasn’t until I felt his grip choking the life out of me that I knew I could never return. But even in the moment before that one, when he’d picked me up off the floor and screamed in my face, I still held onto hope. To denial and shame and connection. You see, the abuse wasn’t enough. I convinced myself I was stronger than it all. But when he truly tried to kill me, that’s when I knew the aftermath would be better than death.
Because, even when you’re in pain, you’re still alive.
Photo: Behzad No/Flickr