Why do women stay in less than satisfactory relationships?
It’s an age old question, why? Why on earth would a woman stay in a relationship with someone who is mean, controlling, manipulative or straight out abusive? There might be as many reasons as there are women (and yes, men can be in bad relationships too).
- She has low self-esteem.
- She doesn’t value herself or see that she can do better.
- She has an unhealthy attraction to the wrong kind of guy.
- She is desensitized to the poor treatment from being in it so long.
- She has forgotten who she really is because she has tried to change herself to be who he wants her to be.
- She is too nice and thinks that if she keeps on trying to please him he will suddenly wake up and appreciate who she really is.
- She has been abused all her life and doesn’t know what it is like not to be abused.
- She figures she is going to give it one more try to see if he comes around.
- She is too gracious and understanding and he takes advantage of that.
- She is afraid to leave because he has threatened her, hit her, or threatened her children.
- She doesn’t have support or resources to leave because he controls all of the finances.
I have to admit that when I have a woman in counseling who is not treated well, I am more than eager to help her out of that relationship. I am pretty sure that my enthusiasm has caused a few clients to leave counseling prematurely because they just aren’t ready to leave. I have to pace my eagerness to help, and recognize that once they see it for themselves they will know what they need to do. Some women keep trying to make it work and others start to see that staying longer isn't going to bring the change they desire. They then begin to move forward with the painful process of leaving.
It can be absolutely heart wrenching to watch helplessly as a woman continues to choose a destructive relationship over and over and over again. Sometimes I think I want them to get out of the relationship in order to put myself out of my own misery. I feel so much heartbreak from observing the poor treatment she receives.
I, myself, have been in an abusive relationship during my dating years, before I met my sweet husband and married a truly wonderful man. My boyfriend never hit me, but he was verbally and psychologically abusive. He was also spiritually abusive. Thinking that I was in love, I endured a lot of mistreatment. The interesting phenomenon I saw in myself (only in hindsight after I was well out of the relationship), was how my frame of mind, and sense of self had become so distorted over time.
After it was over, I think it took me a full year just to feel somewhat back to myself again. I had gotten so far away from me that I had to engage in a long recovery time to get the manipulative mind twists out of my head. I realized that true love doesn't control or manipulate. True love lets you be yourself.
My frame of reference was so changed, and I realized that I had to get back to me. It was even more challenging because he was a spiritually minded person who was leading a ministry at the church I attended, and he was going to seminary at the time. From the list of what I thought I wanted, he fit the bill, from the outside at least.
People would often comment on how he treated me so well. What they didn’t know was that he had just spent a good hour or so beating me down emotionally and psychologically beforehand. They didn’t see that it was all a show. He would switch from a mean and manipulative person, to a kind and expressive person who appeared to be “wonderful” within moments. Friends and acquaintances had no idea.
Looking back I had been in a year long argument. There was rarely a time when he wasn’t arguing his point and wearing me down. It was exhausting, which brings up the question, “Why didn’t you leave right away then?” There are many reasons that I have reflected on. One, was that I was a people pleaser and a hard worker. I think I convinced myself that if I was just a better girlfriend then he would see that about me and finally appreciate me. So, I worked harder at the relationship to be better.
The other reason was that he had an intuitive sensor. He sensed when I grew weary of the manipulative techniques and suddenly became “Mr. Wonderful.” This was very confusing and threw me off course. It was hard for me to believe that someone I cared about could be so mean. I was truly in denial.
I see abusive relationships as a lot like slot machines at casinos. We know that if we keep trying we will get our moment of happiness. We remember a time when things were better and we keep at it until, finally, the happiness is briefly abundant, until the winnings come. We know it’s there, it has to be, it was before, “I’ll just try a few more times.”
The problem with the abuse cycle is that it is cyclical and the “honeymoon phase” tricks you into thinking that everything will be okay. The controller can be extremely confusing and cause you to feel like you are the crazy one. Sometimes it is flattering that he is so into you. There are around 14 differently verbal abuse methods described in The Verbally Abusive Relationship book by Patricia Evans. What I like about her book is she also gives you specific ways to respond to each one, and has a chapter on deciding if you stay or not.
If it wasn’t for good friends who confronted me, and for my own resolve, I would have kept going back. Prayer gave me the strength to move forward, to grieve (eventually I wondered why I had been so sad about saying goodbye to someone so mean), and to heal.
Women are often socially isolated because the controller limits their interactions with friends and family by monopolizing her time. This way she doesn’t get an outside perspective to help her see or think clearly. Often she has lost track of her support system a long time ago and is very much alone in the struggle. Friends grow weary of telling her to not put up with it anymore, and eventually they move on.
If you are in this situation, or know of someone who is, there is help and there are resources available. Reading books on the topic helps validate and describe common experiences of women in this situation. It helps women realize that maybe they aren’t the one who needs to keep doing pretzel twists to be what he wants. Support groups like Celebrate Recovery can also help (you can do a google search in your area using search words such as; relationship help, support group, recovery, your town and state). Get back into contact with old friends and start to tell your story. Reach out for help and for support. Recognize that you are worth it!
Best wishes- Gretchen