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Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?

Not all abusive relationships involve physical violence. The term ‘domestic abuse’ covers a range of types of abuse including psychological and emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can be hard to recognise and, in general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and behaviours that wear down self-esteem and undermine mental health.

Why do I stay in an emotionally abusive relationship?

An outsider might ask why one would not simply leave such an unhappy and toxic environment, but it is not that simple for those experiencing emotional abuse for a number of reasons:

  • Victims often focus on what their partner was like at the beginning of the relationship. Emotionally abusive relationships are usually very romantic at the start and abusers can make things seem perfect. They are charming and go out of their way to show attention and affection and it is easy to be lured to them. This is often done as a ploy to distract from early signs and what is to come. Many victims believe if they stay things will go back to how they were at the beginning.
  • Emotional abuse is designed to chip away at self-confidence and feelings of self-worth and independence. Constant criticism and being made to feel worthless over a prolonged period of time leaves victims feeling as though there is no better option and no way to start afresh. Emotional abuse also impacts the victim’s mental health and can result in depression and anxiety.
  • Domestic abusers work on isolating their victims, including weakening their connections with family and friends so support cannot be sought. This is done to prevent them from recognising they are in an abusive situation and to increase dependency on the perpetrator.
  • Emotional abuse is often not recognised as abuse because there is no violence involved. Emotional abuse is downplayed because people don’t think it is as bad or as serious. The impact is overlooked not just by outsiders but by the victim too. In fact, research suggests that the impact of emotional abuse is just as severe as that of physical abuse.
  • After an incident, the abuser will usually be apologetic, ‘spoil’ their victims and promise it will never happen again; ‘the honeymoon phase’. This results in their behaviour being minimised and played down.
  • Victims of emotional abuse frequently say they stayed for fear of breaking up the family unit or they put up with the abuse for the sake of the children. They may be religious or strongly feel that divorce is not an option.
  • Financial and economical control often comes hand in hand with emotional abuse. This includes behaviour such as rigidly controlling the finances, withholding money and making their partner account for all spending. They will try to prevent their victims from working or furthering their career. This means victims are not financially independent and so feel unable to leave as they cannot meet their needs or needs of the children alone. The victim feels trapped.
  • Abusers are good at making excuses for their behaviour and shifting the blame. They minimise or deny the abuse and will often make victims feel as though their behaviour is because of something they have done. They will use emotional blackmail to manipulate and control their victim. This is known as gaslighting.
  • It is dangerous to leave. On average a person tries to leave an emotionally abusive relationship 7 times before they finally leave. Perpetrators of emotional and psychological abuse often use intimidation or threats of physical harm to control. There is a huge rise in the likelihood of violence after separation.

What to do if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship

  • The first step to making a change whilst in an abusive relationship is recognising that you are in one. Once you are able to be honest about what you are experiencing and feeling you can begin to take control of your life again.
  • One of the most important things you can do is to create a safety plan. This is a personalised, practical plan which helps you look at ways for you and your children to remain safe whilst in the relationship, build up your support network, talk about what you are going through and remain positive. One of the charities listed below can assist you with creating your safety plan.
  • Contact one of many charities that can support and help you during this time:
    • National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
    • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
    • Refuge Helpline- 0808 2000 247
    • Samaritans– 116 123
    • The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
    • Women’s Aid
  • Work on your exit plan and how to safely leave the relationship. This is dealt with in more detail in our blog on how to leave an emotionally abusive relationship.

If you are in an abusive relationship and you would like to consider your legal options in relation to finances or your children, our family law specialists can assist you. We can also advise you on protective court orders which may be available for you to apply for.


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