It’s easy to advise someone who is in an abusive relationship, “You should just leave.” After all, why would anyone stay with a person who hurts them? Unfortunately, the decision is nowhere near that simple, says David B. Wexler, PhD, author of When Good Men Behave Badly and executive director of the Relationship Training Institute in San Diego.
For one thing, taking off puts an abused partner at risk. “There’s a spike in abusive behavior when a victim tries to leave the relationship,” Wexler tells Health. “It’s the single most dangerous time for the victim.” Instead of judging a friend or loved one for not breaking things off, know that they are probably weighing many variables and figuring out the safest course of action. Here, Wexler explains what a few of those variables can look like.
They’re afraid their abuser will come after them
As Wexler explained, leaving the relationship automatically puts an abused partner in an unsafe situation. Would he track me down? Attack me? Ruin my reputation? These are the thoughts that typically race through a victim’s mind as they contemplate ending things. Says Wexler: “The person may actually be making a calculated decision that the relationship is abusive, but if I leave it could get even worse.” That’s especially true if the victim doesn’t have a safety plan in place, such as housing arrangements and a go bag of essentials.
They’re worried about finances and family
Financial dependence, a family who needs them, pets to take care of—all of these can make splitting from an abusive partner feel impossible. “If someone is financially dependent on their partner’s income, [they may worry about] being able to support themselves if they leave,” says Wexler. These practical issues are compounded when young children are involved, since leaving will create further hardship for their kids.
Sharing the responsibility of children is the most profound bonding experience ever, and breaking that bond can be a scary prospect, even if a victim shares the care with an abuser. “The prospect of breaking that bond becomes much more formidable,” adds Wexler.
Wexler says he has never met with a victim who didn’t feel some shame about the position she was in. That shame leaves an abuse victim terrified of judgments and accusations from outsiders. “The idea of letting other people know [about the abuse] and the possibility that they might pass judgment—Why did you choose him? Why did you stay with him? What did you do to make him do this to you?—is really scary,” he explains. “Nobody wants that.”
They still love their partner
As anyone who has ever been in a tricky relationship knows, love is not logical—and just because someone hurts you doesn’t necessarily make you hate them. “Many people who are in abusive relationships want the abuse to stop, but they still love the person,” explains Wexler. “They still feel emotional attachment and value a lot of aspects of the relationship; they just want the abuse to go away.”
If the abuser engages in both physical and psychological abuse, the relationship is next to impossible to repair, says Wexler. But if they are able to take responsibility for their behavior, make determined efforts to change it, and show genuine empathy for the effect the behavior has had on their partner, recovery can be possible.