Why doesn't she just leave - why do we stay in abusive relationships?

Many of us have asked the question - why do I stay in a relationship that feels abusive? Or we may wonder about it from an outside perspective on behalf of someone we care about - why does she stay with him? Why does he keep going back to her, when she treates him so badly?

For good or ill, our early experiences of relationships in our family form our 'template' for what is normal in relationships. For example, the way my parents treated each other, the way each of my parents treated me, how adults responded when my siblings and I needed guidance about how to work through conflict - all of these experiences combined form our internal working model of how relationships should be. As children, we don't question these, even when they don't feel good. After all, we have no other frame of reference. 

What complicates this situation even further is that for children, their need for survival affects how they make sense of their most important relationships. That is - they may be scared of the same person who they need to ensure they are fed and clothed. Children make sense of this by making themselves the problem - "If I just behave better, Dad won't hit me" or making other dependent family members the problem - "If Mum had just done what Dad asked, he wouldn't have needed to hurt her".

As adults, we may pride ourselves on having moved beyond these early-learned templates. However, they become activated in our most intimate relationships, and can also be awakened when we find ourselves in a situation where we are dependent (financially, emotionally, mentally or physically) on another person.

If my early-learned response to being treated badly is "I must have done something wrong for that person to treat me this way" then it is unlikely I will leave. It's more likely that I will simply work harder at changing myself to avoid being further abused, and when this fails, I will conclude that I am the reason things are not improving. I may complain because it feels so horrible, but as long as I feel it is my fault, I am unlikely to walk away.

We may also resort to abusive behaviour ourselves when our back is against the wall - after all, the abusive behaviour is also a part of our internal working model. We may have a poorly developed sense of how our behaviour is affecting the people we most care about, if our internal voice tells us that it is their fault for not behaving better. It's like stepping into a play - I either become the 'victim' or the 'abuser'.

To do this differently is hard work! Counselling may be key in helping to do the painstaking work of identifying and mapping our existing working model of relationship, and constructing a new one (understanding that when we feel vulnerable, the initial template may always operate as the default position which we need skills to learn how to over-ride and replace with healthier and safer ways of relating).

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