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Why Do Victims Go Back to Their Abusers?

Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen dives into why victims of relationship violence return to their abusers, and exactly how abusers manipulate their partners not only into staying, but even defending them.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
September 7, 2018
Episode #213
image of a woman symbolizing being trapped in an abusive relationship

According to a CDC survey, one in four women and one in nine men are victims of physical or sexual partner violence or stalking. In same-sex relationships, the numbers are equivalent or even higher.

But no matter who is caught in the complicated and misunderstood cycle of relationship violence, outsiders wonder about both sides. First, why would anyone hurt someone they love? And even more puzzling, why would anyone go back to a partner who hurts them? Friends and family shake their heads, bite their nails, and throw up their hands. “Get out now,” we say. “You don’t deserve this.” “Why don’t you just leave?”

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If only it were as simple as “just leave.”

This week, we’ll look at the complicated reasons people go back to their violent partners and dive into the nitty gritty of how abusers manipulate their victims, even to the point of convincing them to recant criminal charges.

So let’s start with the big brush strokes. It used to be thought that people went back to abusive relationships simply out of fear—they were too intimidated to leave, they were financially dependent, or the partner threatened them into staying. These are all legit—fear is a huge factor, but it’s not the only force at play. Aside from fear, let’s look at four additional reasons partners stay.

4 Reasons Victims Go Back to Their Abusers

  1. Unequal Power.
  2. Manipulation.
  3. Hope.
  4. Love.

Let's explore each in more detail. 

Reason #1: Unequal Power.

This is number one for a reason. An abusive relationship is fundamentally about power and control. It’s about breaking down the victim’s self-worth and agency in order to control them. 

Power is taken and reinforced by making victims ask for money, controlling where they go or who they talk to, making all the decisions for the couple, and more. Abusers want to ensure that leaving isn’t an option by fostering a victim’s belief that this is all they deserve, or that no one else would want them.

Reason #2: Manipulation.

Abusers are often smart, charming, and magnetic, all traits that feed into master manipulation. They know how to pull people in, both the victim and those around them. As we’ll see later, this manipulation includes tactics like saying the abuse wasn’t that bad, denying it ever happened, saying the victim started it, or discrediting the victim as crazy, emotional, or otherwise not credible. A victim might start to wonder if they’re wrong or making a big deal about nothing, all of which makes it harder to walk away.

Reason #3: Hope.

This is another big one. We humans instinctively hope for brighter days ahead. Victims perpetually hope that things will get better. 

The reality, of course, is that victims can’t stop the abuse—only an abuser can decide to stop. But in a relationship where victims may pride themselves on having the magic touch—being the only one who understands or can calm the abuser down—there exists an illusion of control. And within this illusion, giving up hope for a better future would mean that they failed. 

In this culture, we’re told never to quit, to hang in there, that anything can be accomplished if we set our mind to it. And that’s a tough dream to reject. Leaving the relationship means acknowledging that things will never change. It means giving up hope.

Reason #4: Love.

Love is complicated. Relationships have good times and bad, and the good times can be a powerful glue. Love is the ultimate connection, solidified by months or years of time spent and energy invested. 

It’s absolutely possible to be in love without being safe. And in a society that tells us “love is all you need” and “love conquers all,” it can be hard to walk away from a life you’ve built together, even one that’s not safe or healthy.

All in all, love and hope, especially when paired with power and manipulation, are tough to push against. Even when victims find within themselves the courage to leave, press charges, or otherwise stand up for themselves, it’s common to get pulled back in.

But how exactly does this happen? How does a victim go from vowing to leave to defending the abuser, even in extreme cases?

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