‘Why Didn’t They Leave?’ and the Vicious Cycle of Abusive Relationships
The question ignores deep psychological trauma that survivors of intimate partner violence go through.
One in every three women faces intimate partner violence across the world, according to the World Health Organization. In a study, “Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India,” more than half of surveyed women reported experiencing some form of spousal abuse in their lifetime, and almost two-thirds of men admitted to having been violent against their wife or partner. And even though, by the same WHO report, one in seven men, and two of five gay and bisexual people, also experience intimate partner violence, the abuse primarily comes from men towards women.
The question “Why didn’t they leave?” pops up almost immediately in popular discourse when the topic of domestic violence comes up. When posed to or about survivors of abusive relationships, this question is inherently flawed and lacks nuance and understanding of abuse. It assumes that the nature of an abusive relationship is similar to that of a healthy one. It also denies the deep psychological trauma that survivors of intimate partner violence go through, which affects their decision-making ability regarding their survival.
To leave, a survivor has to take several things under consideration before making the move: access to resources like a job, independent savings, a place to go to, a support system of family, friends, and colleagues, shared family or property, etc. Added to this, the fear that the abuser might retaliate or escalate the abuse after leaving feeds into a simple reason why survivors of abusive relationships don’t leave: they’re stuck in a vicious cycle that they psychologically, socially, financially and logistically cannot escape. The latter three options can still be figured out somehow, but without sound mental health, the survivor is unable to take any affirmative action to walk away from the abuse.
“I thought it was my fault, a shortcoming in my personality that I was abused. I remember staying back just to improve myself and the relationship, hopefully,” says S.B., 26, a journalist from Mumbai. She used to be in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship with a man for six years. “He constantly undermined me, belittled my intelligence and chipped away at my independence. It destroyed my confidence in myself entirely. I felt trapped,” she says.
This is usually the starting point of abuse: a systematic and conscious breakdown of the survivor’s self-esteem, and their idea of reality and how a healthy relationship should be. Once the survivor is in a manipulatable state — worn down through belittling, humiliation, gaslighting, neglect and constant lying — the vicious cycle of an abusive relationship finds fertile grounds to begin.
In the lead up to the first of many micro-incidents of abuse within an abusive relationship, the survivor is brought to a place where they are fearful of their abusive partner, who uses threats of violence, intimidation, fear, and guilt, to keep them walking on eggshells, afraid to set off the partner. This is the longest phase of the cycle. Then ‘the incident’ occurs, which is when the abuse takes place. This can take the form of emotional, physical, verbal, sexual or financial abuse, or any combination of the above. This is also the shortest phase of the cycle, which becomes more intense and more frequent as the relationship progresses.
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The third phase is the reconciliation between the abuser and the survivor when the former switches from violent hostility to extreme kindness, tending to emotional and physical wounds of the survivor with love, sincere apologies, and a promise that it won’t happen again — all while blaming the survivor for provoking the attack. Think: “You shouldn’t have spoken to me like that, you provoked me.” The fourth phase is a period of calm before the proverbial storm when the abuse temporarily stops; some promises made from the last reconciliation are met, which leads the survivor to hope that the abuse will not be repeated. After some time, when the abuser’s temporary guilt passes, he takes liberties with his anger again, which repeats the first phase of this social cycle, developed by American psychologist Lenore E. Walker in 1979.
Payal, 28, a financial consultant from Mumbai, recounts this cycle with her emotionally and physically abusive ex-boyfriend, who went on to stalk her for two years after she found the strength to walk out on him. “When we first met, it was the honeymoon period on steroids. He would dote over me every day, and we moved quickly through the initial stages of dating,” she says. “Then came lots of yelling in public places for small things like missing calls, lying about his whereabouts, extreme possessiveness and hours of screaming at me about how dumb I am, how I don’t earn enough for the lifestyle I enjoy with him, how much weight I’ve put on, how I don’t communicate rationally with him … the list is really, very long.”
She goes on to explain how she ended up living in a constant state of fear and social isolation leading up to the first time he hit her. The trigger was her reaching 10 minutes late for a lunch date. “I had never heard the kind of abuses he hurled at me that day, and several times later in the relationship. It felt like sheer hatred,” she adds. “But immediately after, he calmed down; he profusely apologized for over an hour, brought me balm for a bruise he had caused, and cooked dinner for me. He promised it would never happen again, that he wouldn’t lose control, that he [would] never hurt me. I couldn’t help but buy into that; I was too deeply in his control.”
Yashaswini, 37, a homemaker from Chennai, perhaps explains the psychological obstacle in leaving when she says: “If he hit me, he would also be the one getting me the ointment. If he yelled at me, he would also be the most sensitive person after the act. It was all very disorienting. I wouldn’t even realize when we had moved past one incident of abuse to another. The whole relationship felt like I was in a daze.”
For S.B., the reconciliation and apology phase of the cycle consisted of a lot of crying. “He would cry like someone had passed away. He would howl and beg for forgiveness and convince me that no one could love me for the selfish, fat girl I am, more than he did. I believed him because I heard it at least 10 times a day. I had no sense of self by this point so when he — [in phases] — brought me flowers and was kind and sensitive, I would give in.”
A powerful photo essay by photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz in TIME magazine captures an abusive relationship as it slowly escalates into chilling violence. Craig Malkin, writing for Psychology Today, in an analysis of the photographs said: “If you look closely, [you can see] moments of enormous tenderness and vulnerability between the man and woman. Those snapshots are poignant reminders of what abuse victims hold onto in staying with their abuser. They don’t stay for the pain. Their desperate, often palpable hope, if you sit in the room with them, is that the abuse will go away. And they tend to block out all evidence to the contrary. In point of fact, they stay for love.”
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Besides the psychological trauma associated with leaving an abusive relationship, there are several other reasons why people don’t leave such harmful situations.
Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition, during the course of and after the end of an abusive relationship. One symptom of PTSD is dissociation, in which the survivor’s brain creates a false detachment from the reality of abuse and leads to them forgetting being hurt at all. Payal, for one, isn’t sure, to this day, if she was also sexually abused by her ex-boyfriend. “I don’t want to accuse someone of something so grave when I’m not sure about it. But so much violence happened in those four years, I don’t remember a lot of it. Maybe it happened, I don’t know. I’m glad I don’t remember,” she says.
Other reasons for not being able to leave include social isolation from friends and family, fear of retaliation or escalation of abuse (more than 70% of domestic violence injuries and murders happen after the victim has left), and fear and shame of how others will react when they find out that the survivors had “put up with” the abuse. This thought — what did they expect if they stayed — creates yet another obstacle for survivors to leave because it reinforces their shame.
Even the act of leaving an abusive relationship isn’t straightforward. A University of Michigan study on the process of leaving an abusive partner calls it “complex,” with several stages: “minimizing the abuse and trying to help the abuser; coming to see the relationship as abusive and losing hope the relationship will get better; and, finally, focusing on one’s own needs for safety and sanity and fighting to overcome external obstacles.” This is why, on average, a person in an abusive relationship will attempt to leave at least seven times before finally leaving for good. For Payal, it took three attempts and resulted in a stalker on the loose who sends her creepy messages telling her where she’s been that day.
Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle's Features Editor. When she isn't fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.