Many of us have trouble understanding why people stay in abusive relationships. For those who have experienced an abusive relationship, it's difficult to explain why you stayed for so long.
Some people leave after having a transformative experience, such as reading a book or an article that brings them to a new understanding of their situation. Before this, they may not even realize that the relationship is abusive.
One of the reasons abusive relationships are not recognized is that most of us associate abuse with physical violence, aggression, and shouting. While sometimes this is exactly what an abusive relationship looks like, in many cases, there is no violence or aggression whatsoever.
Psychological abuse is insidious — it occurs in a gradual way that at first seems harmless. Small insults or comments that make us feel uncertain or off in some way. In between these small incidents, however, is wonderful affection. The abused can come to believe that when their partner is affectionate, this is the real them, and when they are mean, they are not themselves, something happened to make them unhappy, and often it is the fault of the abused.
For the abused, there is a strong motivation to win back the affection they once had. This places the abuser in a powerful position of control over the quality of the relationship and the emotional state of their partner.
To understand the dynamics of unhealthy relationships, we need to look at the biological component of attachment and the effects of a constant cycle of distress followed by affection and comfort. The constant ups and downs of an abusive relationship is an aspect of what psychologists call "trauma bonding."
As infants and young children, our most crucial task in life is to develop an attachment bond to our parents. The attachment bond is essential for survival given that a parent that loves us will provide food, shelter, and protection. This bond is also necessary for healthy emotional and psychological development.
Anyone who has observed the behavior of young children and infants will notice that when a child is upset, only Mom or Dad can fix it. When Mom or Dad arrives with hugs, soothing words, and reassurance, the child will return to a quiet and calm state. For the child, important things are happening on a biological level. The heightened stress response (increased stress hormones, increased heart rate, and breathing) can only be calmed by the comfort of their main caregiver. This is one of the reasons we are "hard-wired" for love and affection, not only do we feel positive emotions, our nervous system is calmed and returned to a balanced state after an upset.
For most adults, our main attachment figure is our romantic partner. When we feel distressed, afraid, or upset, our partner is the one we turn to for support. If our partner responds with love and concern, we feel calm, reassured, and supported. Our stress response does not remain elevated for long; this is one benefit of a healthy and secure relationship.
An abusive partner acts as both the stressor and reliever of stress. Insults, emotional withdrawal, and attempts to lower feelings of competence and self-worth are strategic. This is because after we plunge emotionally, the abusive partner then fixes it with affection again. This situation is inherently toxic and unhealthy, and will eventually erode our self-esteem and cause long-term emotional and physical damage.
There are some people who, after escaping an abusive relationship, find a similar situation in the next relationship. This is common and can be very frustrating. It can lead to further decreases in self-esteem and a belief that something must be wrong with us if we can't find a healthy relationship.
We are often attracted to what feels familiar. These patterns may have begun during childhood as many people are raised in dysfunctional families or by parents who were struggling with their own issues. It is essential to understand and heal underlying issues if we find ourselves repeatedly attracting abusive relationships, or if we ourselves feel the need to control our partner with emotional ups and downs.
Therapy is an opportunity to discover our patterns and what drives us to certain types of partners. With healing, growth, and development we can learn how to recognize abuse when it is happening and understand that the abuse is not a reflection of us. In this way, we open ourselves up to the possibility of healthy relationships in the future.
About the author: Faith Niece, LMHC, LMFT, CSAT, is the founder of Lionhearted Counseling in Boca Raton, Florida. Lionhearted Counseling provides therapy for trauma, relationship counseling, and more.