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Why It’s So Difficult to Leave Abusive Relationships, Explained by a Therapist

Why It’s So Difficult to Leave Abusive Relationships, Explained by a Therapist
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​Emily Rose profile
​Emily Rose May 21, 2019

No two stories about domestic violence look the same. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of this nature, and most will never be told.

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No two stories about domestic violence look the same. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of this nature, and most will never be told.

One in five women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition on Domestic Violence , but the abusive behavior is rarely one-off. Rather, intimate partner violence (IPV) operates on a larger cycle of manipulation that can make it extremely difficult for victims to leave their abuser.

Jeanette Raymond is a licensed clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and relationship expert who treats those in abusive relationships from her private practice in Los Angeles. She told Step Up Magazine that there is an important psychological element keeping victims attached to their partners. This “sado-masochistic system," also known as the wheel of power and control, often underlies violence and can cause victims to feel that they deserve it.

“It involves the person (in) power offering the possibility of the longed-for desire to be the one and only, to be the one to light up the other, the one who is indispensable and therefore depended on," Raymond said.

The cycle is often defined in three phases: “honeymoon," tension or manipulation, and violence.

In the honeymoon phase, the abuser and victim get along or, at least, don’t act violently or coercively. This is the point at which the abused feels desired and the batterer feels powerful over them. Either the relationship has just begun, or the couple have recently reconciled after the abuser apologized for past violence. Abusers can draw their partners deeper into unhealthy relationships during this phase by appealing to their senses of sympathy, love, or hope and by promising to reform.

As time goes on, though, the couple will enter the tension phase. Victims feel as if they are walking on eggshells to avoid angering their abuser again. Before the abuser is directly violent towards their partner, they may build up this tension using emotional or verbal abuse, intimidation, violent behavior towards pets or children, economic control, or forced isolation.

Psychologically, these tactics contribute to the victim’s disempowerment. They worry that they aren’t doing enough to earn their partner’s affection or that they should be punished.

The final phase is the actual violent episode, the crime of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse towards the abused partner. The abuser will move back into the honeymoon phase from here, often apologizing quickly afterwards. This is what traps the victim in another heart-wrenching cycle of false hope, betrayal, fear, and pain.

“The abused has an incentive to allow the abuse, because the abuser then fears the loss of the abused, atones, wipes away the tears, and promises eternal worship," Raymond said. “The abused gets the reward of having an apology, of promises of never being hurt again, and [of] being the apple of the abuser's eyes."

The cycle can emerge in any relationship where there is an imbalance of power. While anyone can experience IPV, Raymond said there are risk factors that may make someone more susceptible. For example, it’s common for victims to have witnessed a similar cycle in their lives that warped their perception of a healthy relationship. These past life experiences can teach someone to regard the cycle of control as a source of validation.

“It becomes the model for relationships, as all my clients discover when they end up in therapy either trying to leave an abusive relationship or recover," Raymond said. “When she does think of leaving, there is an addictive [or] obsessive quality to it that prevents a clean break, since the relief and ecstasy of the abuser atoning is so addictive."

According to Raymond, IPV survivors who have escaped must face another challenge: regaining a sense of self and believing that they can feel happy and needed without their abuser.

But, getting to that point can be challenging. She said that feeling empowered to leave the relationship in the first place can require major changes in self-perception.

“The first step is for the victim to experience a shift in the balance of reward to fatigue and displeasure," Raymond said. “The victim becomes fatigued with trying to get that special feeling. The price becomes steeper and the reward diminishes. That makes room for the victim to stand back and become aware of their fear of being alone, empty, and unattractive to anyone else."

From there, they must accept that the abuse isn’t their fault, nor is it something they should feel ashamed of experiencing. Knowing that they aren’t alone can also help survivors realize that they deserve to care for themselves by leaving the relationship.

“Once the victim gets visibility to the reality that they are not the only ones, they get a foothold in reality—a necessary step in separating emotionally from the abuser as the only reliable source of love," Raymond said.

From there, she said the victim must have a “reality check" and pay attention to those who understand the abuse for what it is, such as a therapist or caring friend. This is often the switch in mindset that pushes victims to seek resources or plan to leave their partner.

That’s why Raymond recommends that survivors of IVP enter therapy. She said working with a professional can provide “a safe place to grow their minds in a nurturing environment while going through the terror of withdrawing from the abuser."

Sometimes, however, this can seem overwhelming or impossible to survivors as a result of their trauma; in 2015, fewer than 20% of abused partners accessed victim services, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime . Shame, fear, love for the abuser, and barriers to access within marginalized or oppressed communities contribute to that, as well as to the national under-reporting of IPV.

Finding support is not the last step in the recovery process, however; there are still psychological obstacles to be overcome.

“I have found that those who don’t make it and give up do so as soon as they come to the point where they have to be assertive and show self-care," Raymond said. “They fear being rejected and destitute and leave therapy at the exact moment of tasting self-empowerment."

What’s important in the recovery process is helping survivors establish self-worth, which helps prevents them from entering another violent relationship in the future.

Suzanne Dubus, CEO of Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Massachusetts , said in an interview with NPR in May that no matter how hopeless a situation may seem, there are always resources available. As a survivor of IPV herself, she said those currently experiencing abuse have options.

Every state in our country has a statewide coalition of domestic violence programs, and it's a listing of all domestic violence programs in each state, and so to find a domestic violence program, they're out there," she said. “Call an advocate. Call a therapist, someone you know and trust and begin to tell your story, and then things change. Things really do change."


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