I recently overheard a conversation where a man that I have great respect for made the comment that “if a woman is in an abusive relationship she should just leave”. The man who made the comment is very intelligent, kind hearted, and has great has respect for women. Because of my own personal experiences with the issue, I felt compelled to write with the hope that others may better understand what keeps a woman in bondage to a destructive relationship and what is actually needed for her to break free.
Imagine yourself attracted to someone who delights in you and accepts you, someone who thinks you have tremendous value. When you are with them you feel safe, accepted, respected, protected, important, attractive, and loved. You have never felt so wonderful in all your life, in their presence your insecurities melt. Overtime you come to trust their assessment of you. You find yourself admiring them, their qualities are intriguing and exciting. You feel alive when you are with them. As time goes on you give more and more of yourself to this person. You become more dependent on them and they become more dependent on you as the relationship progresses. Thus you are more vulnerable to their opinions, their emotions, and the consequences of their choices and actions. This is all natural and good in healthy relationships. It is how God designed us to function, every single part of it from our brain chemicals that create those euphoric feelings to our interdependency on one another that creates mature love and personal growth. As the healthy relationship grows there is mutual submission, encouragement for growth, support for weaknesses, and a deepening of trust, vulnerability, and love.
However, in an unhealthy relationship this dynamic takes a negative turn as the pendulum for power and control swings violently in the relationship. It is as if the couple is drowning in a violent storm, both are struggling for life, and only one will be allowed to survive. Typically one or both of the individuals in the relationship struggle with some personal insecurities and often have had some significant emotional wounding. This is true of myself and of every single person I have worked with through my career. The way this is manifested in the relationship for the man is that he believes he must prove he is manly, powerful, and in control, anything that touches an area of vulnerability is seen as disrespect and a threat to his manhood. For the woman it is demonstrated in her desperate attempt to hang on to security, acceptance and self image from the man. The woman begins to exchange her God-given identity, value, and resources for what the man is telling her. They both exchange God’s truth for a lie.
For the woman, who she is as a person, is now intrinsically bonded to this man’s assessment of her. Additionally, she may have given up much of her financial resources, lost the respect and support of many of her friends and family, often she is isolated either because of his control or her personal shame which has imprisoned her. She may also be fearful of retaliation from him whether it be in the form of physical violence, emotional abuse and manipulation, threats regarding children or finances, or the destroying of her reputation. These are not typically irrational fears, these are often things she has consistently lived through prior to even coming to the point of considering leaving the relationship. For her to leave the relationship she has to be willing to risk losing everything, without a guarantee of gaining anything. It is terrifying! With each failed attempt to leave she sinks deeper into isolation, fear, shame, self-hatred, and hopelessness. She is left emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted and depleted.
There is also the cycle of abuse that needs to be considered. Typically there will be a dramatic emotional blow up that leads to her having the desire and energy to leave. But when she tries the man has a change of heart and goes back to all the wonderful things he used to do, once again wooing her back and fanning the flames of hope for the relationship. He may or may not recognize that he actually has his identity tied up in her as well, and needs her to validate his manliness. By wooing her back he remains in control of the relationship and maintains the power. When she stays she is at least momentarily rewarded by his positive comments and grand gestures of love, things she has been starving for in the relationship. She is lured in by the idea that “this time things will be different”. She does not want to give up on the chance of having the dream of them having a wonderful relationship become a reality.
The only way for her to truly escape the relationship is to regain her identity. She needs to build her identity on something that is secure and immovable and true. Once she can reclaim her true identity she can develop the core muscles that are needed to stand on her own again. The best solution I know is for her to reclaim her identity in Christ as one who is dearly loved, never alone, fully accepted, uniquely created, and specially crafted with a purpose beyond herself. She will have to fight through the lies day in and day out as they are being spewed not only from the mouth of her partner, but also as they resound in her own mind. This is a vicious battle.
She will also need a strong support system. This means she will need to build outside supports who will speak life and truth to her. They will need to boldly stick with her as they also have to go through all the emotional upheaval and heartbreak. They have to be willing to speak truth in a way that is tender and loving enough that it won’t break her already fragile spirit. This is a daunting task for any individual to undertake, whether you are the one asking for the support or receiving the support. Not everyone is ready to set themselves up for such heartache.
Additionally, she will need people who will be willing to also provide the practical supports she may need for childcare, housing, and finances. Imagine how difficult it might be for a woman in this situation to try to build these resources under cover so she doesn’t risk attack from her partner while she is doing what she needs to do to survive.
Once all this is in place….she needs to find the energy and courage to bravely jump ship and abandon everything in life as she knows it. It is terrifying! So, why doesn’t she just leave him? It is easier to slowly self destruct in a world that is known than to risk the fear of the unknown. Because after all what if he was right and she really was just a messed up, crazy, stupid, ugly piece of trash that no one would ever want.
If you or someone you love is struggling with this please feel free to contact me. I have loads of resources and will do what I can to help. I have a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Liberty University and am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in NYS. Additionally I have over 20 years experience in working with and counseling women in destructive relationships. Currently I am in a time of transition and healing working at a Behavioral Health Agency in Wilmington, NC.
*Disclaimer-I acknowledge that there are also relationships where the woman is the abuser and it is the man that is being abused and that there are also similar situations in same sex relationships. For the sake of simplicity, and the fact that it was written because it touched a cord in me, I wrote it from the only perspective with which I have personal knowledge and experience.