Divorce lawyer David Pisarra looks at the universal reasons why people stay with abusive partners.
As a divorce lawyer who focuses on men in divorce and child custody cases, often times the men I represent are incapable of seeing that they are in abusive relationships. They just know that they “can’t take it anymore.” They started the relationship with the best of intentions, to find someone nice, settle down, have a family, and lead a quiet life.
But as in all relationships, problems crop up and the love of their life begins finding fault where before there was acceptance. The fault finding goes from “you did a thing I don’t like” to “you’re a bad person,” and eventually this type of behavior can escalate into greater power plays. Control over the finances, control over which set of friends to associate with, control over how the children will be disciplined—these are all difficult areas in which to see abuse, because in any healthy partnership or relationship responsibility and control must be shared.
Men have a particularly hard time seeing when they are giving up too much responsibility, because they frequently labor under the belief that their role is limited to being the provider to the family. They sometimes lack the perspective of seeing that their contributions to childrearing extend to emotional development as well.
Men who are in relationships also have trouble seeing that they are being abused, because they are conditioned from the time they are little boys to be tough, to minimize their fears, and to play a role that is based on a false construct of self-sacrifice as the “right thing to do.”
Domestic violence or abuse is about control. It has as many faces as there are people. Why it happens, who it happens to, and how to prevent or stop it are all very difficult issues to discuss, especially for men, who have so much of their self image imposed upon them by societal roles popularized in the media.
So when a relationship does turn physically violent, why does a man stay? Interestingly, he stays for the same 13 reasons a woman does.
Fear: Fear of being alone, fear of losing their children, fear of being hurt in the process of leaving. Men are just as capable of being afraid of the unknown, single life as women. Fathers love their children and don’t want to be relegated to every other weekend and a Wednesday night pizza dinner, so they stay just to see their kids more. Men can also be hurt or killed when they try to leave abusive relationships—we’ll never know for sure, but that may be part of what triggered the murder of Travis Alexander.
Children: Men are often scared that they’ll never see their children again if they leave. The threat “I’ll never let you see them again,” is uttered in many a divorce and child custody case. Those words constitute abuse, and the abuser will often use the children as pawns by threatening to take them away if the father attempts to leave.
Promises of Reform: False belief in the ability to reform and stop abusive behavior is a common problem for men. They want to believe that a person can change without help—it’s part of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality we all grow up with—but the truth is that without professional intervention, change is hard for everyone.
Guilt: The man may believe that his partner is sick and needs his help. Men are trained to think that they can and should save their abusive mates, that their partners can change. Thus, the idea of leaving a spouse can induce feelings of guilt.
Lack of Self-esteem: The man may come to believe that he somehow deserves the abuse to which he has been subjected (and has likely been told this repeatedly by his partner). Lack of self-esteem and the belief that he doesn’t deserve anything better can be paralyzing for a battered man. This lack of self-esteem cuts across racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic lines. Men of all types and professions can be, and are, battered.
Love: Most people enter a relationship for love, and that emotion does not simply disappear. Most men want to stop the abuse but don’t know how to end it safely.
Sex-role Conditioning: A man “should be able to take a hit” is a common misconception among men and women as part of the ‘macho man’ ideology. The construct is that a man is supposed to accept abuse. No one is supposed to accept abuse, ever.
Societal Acceptance/Reinforcement of Marital Violence: From TV to movies to the family of origin, our society reinforces the idea that marital violence is acceptable. TV shows regularly use the comedic situation of a wife hitting her bumbling husband to get a cheap laugh. We then see this lived out in real life with the phrase “A little slap will keep him in line.”
Economic Dependence: The economic reality for men (particularly with children) is a bleak one. Two homes are much harder to support than one, and the financial burden falls primarily on the man in divorce and child custody cases. Economic dependency on the spouse, or fear of economic ruin as a result of divorce, is often a very real reason for men remaining in an abusive relationship.
Religious Beliefs: Statements such as “I don’t believe in divorce,” and “we took vows” are used to reaffirm a commitment to a bad marriage.
Cultural or Ethnic Background: American men often have a hard time admitting they have been abused or battered—it’s an attack on their masculinity and sexuality—both key components of the American self-concept. In a vain attempt to cover up and present to the world an image of “manliness,” they stay.
Stigma of a Broken Home: Outdated language such as the “broken home” concept attaches stigma to divorce, as if coming from an intact nuclear family is somehow intrinsically better even if violent than a safe single-parent home.
Satisfaction with the Relationship between Incidents of Battering: Abusers are often very charming and loving when not abusing the victim. “Make up sex” can be the best. How often have I heard that? It’s a poor excuse to stay in an abusive relationship but it often does happen.
In sum, many of the reasons men and women stay in abusive relationships are the same. Domestic violence knows no barriers. Men or women can be abusers, men or women can be targets, and it always negatively affects the children. The only way to prevent abuse and help people escape from it is to dispense with preconceptions and talk about it more openly and candidly.