October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and while you can find plenty of warning sign checklists and information about what abusive relationships look like (here and here are both fantastic resources), I want to talk about empathy for people stuck in abusive relationships.

People get so frustrated when a person isn’t ready to leave a relationship that’s so clearly abusive from the outside looking in. It is hard to love and support someone who’s being hurt and still isn’t ready to leave. It can seem that we care about them more than they care about themselves. We want so badly for them to see what we see that we often get frustrated and give unhelpful ultimatums and driving a wedge between them and their support: you.

Empathy

So let’s flex our empathy muscle. Feeling that the person should leave and getting angry that they don’t doesn’t help anyone. By understanding how domestic violence often starts and how hard it can be to leave, can make us better supports and less judgmental.

There’s a lot of literature painting abusers as heartless, calculating, terrible people who want to hurt others and sometimes that’s true. But that is never how victims see their abusers until they’ve left and sometimes not even then. Research shows us that most commonly abusers have low self-esteem and are intensely insecure. They are often disliked by their own families and have few close friends. Therefore, the little lambs that these lions seek out (whether intentionally or unintentionally) see their abusers as victims. They’re lonely and hurt and it’s not their fault. It’s easier to excuse abusive behavior from someone who’s been wounded and is perceived as a victim.

Why Do Victims Stay?

Another reason that victims stay is that abuse is often gradual and not so easy to spot. Abusers rarely start with physical abuse; it begins with name-calling, put-downs, keeping you away from family and friends with what seem like valid excuses. I got married in Florida. My husband’s entire family lives in Michigan. We were lucky in that his family was able to come and celebrate with us. If I were an abusive person and they couldn’t afford that, however, my asking him to have our wedding in Florida could have been an attempt to alienate him from his family so that I can then blame them for not loving him as much as I do.

This makes my opinion the only one that matters thereby removing his support system, giving me power and authority, and making it less likely he can reach out for help (they don’t really care that much, after all, right? They didn’t come to the wedding.) That’s abuse but I could simply write it off as wanting a beautiful destination wedding. That would, of course, be one of many many acts of abuse, but I feel like it clearly demonstrates how subtle the path to being abused can be.

A Disney Villian Amongst Us

That leads us to another reason people stay in unhealthy relationships. Abusers sometimes have personalities like a Disney villain. If I were to say “my husband took me away to Atlanta for my birthday so that I couldn’t see my family”, who would believe me? They’re going to first assume that he’s just a nice guy who wants to spoil me and I’m ungrateful and paranoid. Often times, people who are good at abusing others are charming and suave. They might have a lot of authority or be well-liked in their communities. Add this to a “grey” or “fuzzy” kind of abuse and not many people are willing to speak up.

They’re often gaslit into thinking they’re the ones who are crazy and imagining things. Their abusers insist that they’re just ungrateful and are misremembering or misinterpreting things. On top of all that, victims only real source of action is a restraining order or P.P.O. which may escalate the situation (leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for victims) and be seen as “just a piece of paper” by the abuser. It doesn’t actually keep them safe, it just provides a paper trail.

Financial Abuse

P.P.O’s and legal action also require time and time is money, right? Financial abuse happens as well and to someone trying to leave a relationship, money is often tight or non-existent. Many abusers control all the money in a relationship, including taking paychecks from their partner or making sure that they don’t keep a job (convincing them to have more children requiring more time off, showing up to their job and causing a scene, etc.). Someone in this position doesn’t have the time to pursue legal action since the burden of proof is on the victim.

Emotional Abuse

There are also emotional factors that play a role. The most addictive reward schedule is intermittent or variable (this is why gambling feels so good for some people). Guess what happens in an abusive relationship? There’s a cycle and it’s not always predictable. The abuser will often “love bomb” (shower the victim with praise and promises) their victim after an abusive blow-up. This creates a honeymoon period and often the victim is so determined to have a happy family (many times trying to make up for their own unhappy families from childhood) that they believe their partner will change. It’s not being stupid, it’s being desperate for that love and affirmation that they’ve done well and created a good family.

It’s also important to note that abuse isn’t always intentional. A lot of times abuse comes from trying to control things because of fear and anxiety. All caps so this is important: THAT DOES NOT MEAN YOU DESERVE OR NEED TO TOLERATE IT.

I know how painful it can be to watch someone you love to keep listening to lies, empty promises, and hurtful words (or actions) while their self-esteem and connections to others erode. It can be so hard to see their reasons for staying and it’s easy to get mad and say “well! I would never put up with that”. But abuse usually creeps in slowly and people in abusive relationships don’t need judgment or isolation; they need connection and unconditional positive regard. Let them know that you love them and that you’re here for them.

Connect with Perspectives Therapy Services to try and get the help you need.

Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.