I am a survivor of domestic abuse. Over the many years since I left my abuser, I have been asked “why do women stay in an abusive relationship?” There is no simple answer and certainly I would not be able to answer for all women but here are my thoughts.
Physical abuse rarely starts right away. Often, there is a highly-charged romantic beginning to abusive relationships. Our abusers shower us with attention and expect the same level of attention back. In the early stages of my abusive relationship, Joe was attentive, he called me every day, wanted to know about my life: what I did, who I spoke to, where I went. He wanted to spend every weekend with me. I was flattered, no man had ever been so intent on finding out what made me tick and showed such an intense interest in the every day activities of my life.
The jealousy was well hidden in the beginning, he disguised it as caring. He showed up at my job to take me to lunch to see and meet co-workers I usually lunched with, telling me that he wanted to get to meet people I spent time with. He showered me with praise and compliments and at the same time would fish for information on other people in my life. But as time went on, he could no longer hide his jealousy, interrogating me about male co-workers or friends I had known for years.
Still, I saw the jealousy as a compliment and that is exactly what he said, “I have never felt this way about anyone, I just can’t imagine you being with someone else, I want you in my life every minute.” And certainly, we had some good times. We joined his friends for dinner, for drinks, we even spent time with my friends, we went on vacation to the beach, we took walks, went on adventures. We laughed and talked. And all was fine as long as we were together and he knew what I was doing and who I was with.
But as time went on, his jealousy grew. There were times he couldn’t contain it, blowing up because I looked at a construction crew on the side of the road or a neighbor came over to borrow a tool when he wasn’t home or I took too long at the grocery store. By then, we had a son together and I was so emotionally entangled in the relationship, I couldn’t imagine life without him. Instead of fighting back, I started planning my days around his jealousy. I tried not to do anything that would cause him to think I was interested in anyone else. I paid attention to my every move, making sure he would never see me look at another man. He would compliment me one moment and insult me the next. He had me on such an emotional roller coaster I didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
It wasn’t until 8 years into our relationship that the first punch came. Even now, twenty some years later I can remember it in detail. I was in my car, my son in the car-seat in the back. I was dropping his dinner off at his job and then heading to a work function. He didn’t want me to go. He reached in the car as if he was going to give me a kiss and instead punched me in the jaw. My glasses went flying across the car, my son started crying. He walked away. He won that night - my jaw hurt, I had a bruise on my cheek and I went home, sore, hurt and emotionally beaten.
Two days later I left, but not for long. I returned when he called crying, apologizing, promising to change - until the next time. After that first punch, there were more. Six months later I left for good, not willing to stay and be a punching bag. But I had endured years of emotional abuse, not even knowing that it was abuse. Back then, there wasn’t much information about domestic violence and even less about emotional abuse. When the physical violence started, it gave me something definitive to talk about, to not accept.
I stayed because sometimes I didn’t think I had a choice. He told me he would never let me go. He told me he loved me so much it made him crazy. Sometimes he told me he would hurt me if I left, sometimes he told me he would kill himself.
I stayed because I didn’t know it was abusive. After I left, I read a book on emotional abuse and it was my “ah-ha” moment. I saw my ex in every page, the intimidation, the jealousy, the passionate apologies.
I stayed because I confused possessiveness and jealousy with love. I assumed that if he was jealous it was because he loved me. I had, after all, heard him tell me exactly that for many years.
I stayed because I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own. For years my ex told me why I needed him, he pointed out everything he did for me.
I stayed because I was emotionally dependent on him, exactly as he wanted me to be.
I know that those who have never been in an abusive relationship probably still don’t understand why I stayed, but for those who have or are, you know exactly how I felt. It has been twenty some years since I left my abuser. I am happy, in love with my current husband and know what a healthy love relationship is. There is life and love after abuse, you just have to reach out and take it, you have to take that first step and leave (as difficult as that it), you have to find support (I stayed at a shelter). You can do it - you deserve a better life.
Domestic Violence National Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
Eileen Bailey is the author of “The Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love”