I once heard a statistic that the average woman leaves an abusive relationship nine times before she leaves for good. Nine times. I still haven’t been able to track down the exact source of this statistic, so I can’t validate its accuracy. But I can tell you from my own experience, and the experience of close friends, this sounds about right to me.
Add to this the fact that 1 in 3 women will be abused in her lifetime and what you have is an epidemic of women who, during one of the most “liberated” times in our culture are still being controlled by violence and oppression.
You might think this is an issue that doesn’t apply to you. But if the statistics are right, you have a high likelihood (33%) of being in some kind of physical altercation with a romantic partner at some point in your lifetime. And even if you don’t ever find yourself in that place, pick your two closest friends, because one of them will.
Read this for them. Read this for yourself.
Read so women everywhere can be set free.
Why do women stay?
This is of course the most often asked question about abuse, and it’s a valid one, although it can feel a tiny bit insulting to the victim—who does have valid reasons for staying, even if she can’t fully articulate them. Still, it’s an enormously important question to ask—and to answer—because until we understand how and why abuse works, we can’t begin to unravel it.
I’ll never forget watching this TED talk and listening for the first time to a smart, capable woman talk about staying with a man who beat her.
I was mesmerized.
I was in tears.
Because finally—finally—this gave me permission to see that victims of abuse do not always fit the stereotype we give them. It gave me space to see that a woman could be smart, independent, capable and successful and still fall into an abusive relationship. Maybe so many women fail to admit the abuse they’ve suffered because they’d rather stay trapped and in denial than to embrace a title that makes them seem weak and ineffectual.
Especially when what they know to be true, in their spirits, is that they are incredibly strong. They are fighters and survivors.
It must be mentioned, too, that just as victims do not always fit the stereotype we give them, neither do abusers. They can be kind and charismatic, leaders in their community, with plenty of friends and a considerable amount of influence. As long as we think of victims and abusers as having to fit a certain profile, we will, for the most part, miss them.
Abuse? What’s abuse?
One of the big problems with the epidemic of abuse in our culture is that those of us who participate in abusive relationships often do not know we are doing it. This confusion happens for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact that we don’t talk much about abuse, to the fact that abuse is learned behavior, so anyone who has experienced abuse is likely to repeat the behavior that led to it.
As it turns out, this has a good deal to do with brain chemistry.
In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk explains how the abuse cycle literally changes your brain. Your neurological pathways are routed so that once you’ve been in an abuse cycle once, you become predisposition to go back to abuse, again and again. It’s like a strange safety-blanket for a child.
Most [victims of child abuse] suffer agonizing shame about the actions they took to survive…the result can be confusion about whether one was a victim or a willing participant, which in turn leads to bewilderment about the difference between love and terror; pain and pleasure…
Did you catch that? Bewilderment about the difference between love and terror, pain and pleasure. What a confusing world to live in where you can sense something is “off,” but where you have no other choice but to assume that this is just “the way it is”.
No wonder we’re so confused.
The nature of the abuse cycle.
The other thing that makes abuse so confusing is that abusive relationships tend to follow a predictable but confusing cycle of abuse, which moves from good to bad, and back to good again, without much warning or explanation, making it difficult for anyone to get a grip on what is truth and what is fiction.
I’ve written about the abuse cycle before, but essentially, it has four stages.
- Tension building
- Violent or abusive act
A skilled abuser will use flattery and gifts and what’s called “lovebombing” to win the approval and attention of a woman. Then, after he’s endeared her to himself, the abuse cycle begins. If the abuser knows what he is doing, there will be enough time spent in the non-violent stages of the relationship for a woman to have hope that the connection can be maintained and eventually restored. When in the “abusive” stage of the relationship, she will probably think:
“If only I can fill-in-the-blank, we will go back to that time when he admired me and loved me…”
Like an obsession, this becomes all she can think about until she has achieved that end. The only problem is, she will never achieve that end. Because the very nature of the cycle is that it goes around and around and around.
The only way to end the cycle is to get off the merry-go-round.
What ends the abuse cycle.
I was talking to a friend the other day who bravely ended an abusive marriage. The violence in her house was physical, emotional, spiritual, financial—pretty much the entire spectrum. As we sat on her couch and talked about the specifics of what happened to her, we shook our heads at the ways we blind ourselves to what is really happening in order to survive.
If you were to meet my friend in person, you would be shocked to think she could end up in that kind of relationship. She is an Nationally awarded network TV producer, who has literally been trained to communicate clearly and effectively with celebrities, political candidates, high profile personalities, even convicted felons.
Again—abused women really do come in all shapes and sizes.
She also shared how many times she would think, “as soon as… [this stressful season is over, we live in a new city, we have a stronger support system, we can get into therapy, he gets a raise, I get a new job…] the abuse will end.” Victims of abuse will often do this. We blame the abuse on ourselves, on our outside circumstances—anything but the abuser himself.
The truth is the abuse never ends because outside circumstances change, or because you have suddenly learned to do a better job of following instructions.
For abuse to end, the abuser has to change. And you have zero control over that.
She thinks it’s her fault.
This is what keeps so many women from getting off the merry-go-round of abuse: the underlying sensation that whatever drama is going on in the relationship is her fault. It was something she did or didn’t do, something she said or didn’t say, something about her that is fundamentally wrong. If only she could find a way to change that thing—whatever it is—everything would be okay. So she spends all of energy trying to figure that out.
Meanwhile, the merry-go-round spins on.
If you’re wondering why a woman would take on this kind of responsibility, the answer is simple.
She has been cultured to feel this way.
Women are—statistically—less confident than men, less likely to express their opinions in a meeting, more likely to qualify their opinions when they do express them, more likely to apologize for something that isn’t their fault, less likely to trust their intuition or instinct, and more likely to defer big decisions to someone else—usually the men closest to them.
This is not to say all women feel this way, but so many women do, partly because the idea that women are less-than is woven deep into the fabric of our culture.
When a woman finally decides to walk out the door (time #9) it’s usually because she has decided to put an end to this way of thinking. She’s found a way to say, “This is not my fault. There is nothing I can do to change him.”
It’s woven into the fabric of our faith
Speaking of the fabric of our culture, I can’t address this topic and not talk about the fabric of our faith communities and the tremendous role they play in encouraging women to stay in abusive relationships.
I read a book recently by Ruth A. Tucker called Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife that does a great job of unpacking this phenomenon. As a woman who was married for two decades to a pastor who beat her repeatedly, Ruth talks about the terrifying way so many faith communities teach women to stay—even when it may cost them their life.
The message is, “this is just part of the program.”
Check out what John Calvin—one of the great church fathers—has to say about a woman’s “duty” to her husband in the face of abuse.
We do not find ourselves permitted by the Word of God, however, to advise a woman to leave her husband, except by force of necessity; and we do not understand this force to be operative when a husband behaves roughly and uses threats to his wife, nor even when he beats her, but when there is imminent peril to her life… we… exhort her to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her; and meanwhile not to deviate from the duty which she has before God to please her husband, but to be faithful to whatever happens.
Not only is a woman not permitted to leave her husband when he beats her, but additionally, she must fulfill her “wifely duty” to “please” him in spite of his abuse? And this is what God wants? This text is from a few hundred years ago, but if you’ve spent any time in church culture recently, you know the whisperings of this ideology have not fully faded.
How many abused women have been sent back home to their abusive husbands by a church that believes it is her role to “save” him?
Pastors, church leaders—you have to be more careful about this.
For the women who have suffered or are suffering.
For women who have suffered an abusive relationship in the past, or who are suffering now, first I want to say: I’m deeply sorry. But I’m also deeply hopeful. Because if you have demonstrated the kind of courage and resilience it takes to face of this kind of terror and survive, imagine how much power and resilience you will have when that opposition is out of your way.
You are already so brave and so powerful.
And you have only scratched the surface.
First and foremost, if your safety is in immediate danger, call an abuse hotline. There are resources out there for women. As scary as it can seem, you can make a decision that is right for you. You can do this. Think of all you have already survived.
If you are unwilling or unable to take that step right now, or if you’re not sure you need to, I want to urge you to tell someone. It doesn’t have to be someone specific. Trust your gut with this. Sometimes you’ll have a sense that one person is “safe” and another person is not safe. Trust that. Tell someone who seems safe. You’re holding a tremendous weight. Let somebody hold it with you.
If you are reading this and questioning yourself—thinking, “something feels off about my relationship but I’m not sure…” my advice is the same. Tell someone. Breaking the silence is your first step to freedom. If you think your partner would be angry that you told another person, well, there’s a good hint that what’s happening probably shouldn’t be happening.
Evil hates to be exposed.
Love has no fear of exposure. Love is light.
Ultimately, the biggest thing to keep in mind is that if you feel there is something wrong with what is happening to you, there probably is. You can trust yourself. You can trust your perception of the world.
For the friends and family members of victims.
There are a few specific things I want you to hear.
First of all, don’t assume that because your friends have never told you that they are in an abusive relationship, that means they aren’t. Just because you don’t think you know anyone who is stuck in the abuse cycle—doesn’t mean you don’t. Abuse victims come in all shapes and sizes and have become incredibly good at hiding.
Second of all, the best thing you can do for someone who you think might be in an abusive relationship is just to be there. Don’t push the issue. Don’t try to convince her to leave. Just be the kind of person she could come to when she’s ready to “tell someone”. Listen and don’t try to fix. If you push her, you may push her away.
Instead be someone who says, “what do you need? How can I help?
Make sure she knows, “anytime you need to call, come over, spend the night, etc—I’m here.”
She will come to you, eventually. Hopefully before it’s too late.
There is so much more to say on this subject, I couldn’t possibly fit it all here—even in this long format. I’m certain I’ve left something out. I’m certain I’ve misspoken. I’m not a trained expert on this subject. I’m just a woman who has suffered and who is passionate about doing anything I can to light the way for others.
All that to say, don’t let the conversation end here!
Share your stories. Share your experiences. Share your resources. Share your advice. Share this article and talk about it.
So much good work has been done for women in the past 100 years and I’m so enormously grateful. So much progress has been made. I am able to do work I love and support myself and live in peace and freedom because of the sacrifices those good women and men made.
There is more work to do.
- Why Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, Time Magazine
- The Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse
- The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- Jackson Katz TED talk, “Violence Against Women—It’s A Men’s Issue“
- Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, by Ruth A. Tucker
- Leslie Morgan Steiner TED Talk, “Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave“