Why don't people necessarily recognise when they are in an abusive relationship? Why don't they all leave immediately?
The answers are far from straightforward. It would be near on impossible for either a professional or a victim of abuse to give a conclusive answer. Based on my experience of domestic abuse, personal research and an awareness course - these thoughts are a starting point:
- To acknowledge the existence of domestic abuse in a relationship, we must understand exactly what domestic abuse is. Physical violence is a fairly obvious example. As is rape and sexual assault. Whereas financial, emotional and psychological abuse are more difficult to recognise.
- The domestic abuser is often someone that the victim loves. The abuser moves from monster to lover constantly. They manipulate. This does not mean that the victim is stupid, it means the abuser is a master of their art. They were manipulating their victim from day one. They know how to charm. They know how to get what they want. The more sociopathic the abuser, the harder they are to spot.
- Once you love someone, it takes some time to unpick your feelings. The victim is trying to recategorise their abuser into someone who is a million miles from the person they thought they knew. This can take time. Whilst the victim tries to make sense of their feelings, the abuser is trying to win them over in any way they can - from declarations of love to suicide threats.
- When we love, we idealise. We make allowances for personality flaws. We make excuses for misdemeanours. Yes, even if it means operating in opposition to everything we believe in. It sounds incredulous to suggest that a victim of abuse can accept the abuser's excuses if there has been physical or sexual attacks. But we must remember that the victim has invested in the relationship. The abuser may well be a master of manipulation. They will go to great lengths to hold onto the object of their control.
- Sometimes victims are vulnerable upon entering the abusive relationship. They may have physical or mental illness prior to meeting the abusive partner. This makes it easier for the abuser to abuse.
- Mothers fear for themselves and their children. The abuser may threaten to kill them if they leave. Escape may seem difficult, even impossible. Remember abusive people seek to undermine autonomy. Thus the victim may not feel in control of their lives. This doesn't happen immediately but over time they may be scared to leave and scared to stay.
- Abusers can physically prevent their victim from leaving by restraining them and / or harming them. They may continually suggest that the police won't help. The victim may start to question their own sanity.
- Victims often blame themselves. We are taught to take responsibility for our own actions and we are told that their are two sides to every argument. Only the most self-important of people fail to ponder if they might be partly at fault when contentious situations arrise. And abusers blame the victim anyway thus the victim's doubts are internal then reinforced externally. This may be seen as the 'blame trap'.
- The 'blame trap' supports the abuse. The victim blames themselves. The abuser blames the victim. Onlookers treat the victim with contempt because they cannot comprehend how they ever ended up in an abusive relationship. The victim feels ashamed because no one wants to appear vulnerable or weak. The abuser feeds that fear. Contempt from other people feed that fear. And so it continues.
People think they know exactly how they'd respond to a domestic abuser. They believe they'd recognise manipulation and control as soon as it begins. Yet the reality is quite different, for the reasons outlined above and likely others not discussed here.
As indicated, those who haven't experienced abuse can look towards the victims with contempt. They ask: surely domestic abuse is obvious and boldly suggest that everyone would leave at the first sign of it. This, at best, is a partial viewpoint and at worse both inaccurate and indirectly contributory. Moreover it completely misses the real issue.
As human beings we should seek to educate ourselves on the signs of domestic abuse. We should support family and friends, if we believe they are victims of abuse. Domestic abuse is always unacceptable. Not only does it damage lives, it can end them. Every time we are incredulous towards the victim, we fail to acknowledge the reality: the fault lies with the abuser and a society that allows domestic abuse to continue.