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  • Masha Stefanovic

The Deadly Attraction: Why Abused Women Stay

In the midst of the #MeToo movement and public outrage on violence against women, there are still thousands of women quietly suffering abuse at the hands of their "partner". Some stay despite knowing it could be fatal. Why?


While social, political and economic factors play a role in creating an environment conducive to abuse, in order to have a full picture one needs to understand the deeper psychological mechanisms of women who decide to stay with their abuser. In this article, I will discuss the dynamics and patterns that I witnessed in my work as a counselor to female victims of abuse, in order to help explain their seemingly inexplicable compulsion to stay.


Emotional addiction



To grasp the complexity of emotional attachment to an abusive partner, one needs to understand the addictive aspect of these relationships. Prior to working with abused women, I counseled people with substance abuse disorders. Soon after beginning my work with abused women the parallels between the two groups became evident - I would often hear women say "it's like I was addicted to him".


While people with substance addiction are addicted to drugs or alcohol, the abuse victims are "addicted" to a person (in some cases also to substances). To illustrate, let's look at some of the parallels.


Loss of control

During substance addiction, the person gradually loses control over their use of the substance. Likewise, while in the seduction phase of an abusive relationship the victim is typically under the impression that she is in control, but with each attack, even the semblance of control quickly diminishes. The abusive partner slowly takes over control and power.


Increased tolerance

Another component of substance addiction is "increased tolerance". The drug addict normally starts with lighter drugs in small doses, and as the tolerance develops more is needed to feel the high. While the victims of abuse do not wish to be abused by any means, their tolerance for being abused gradually grows. As time progresses, the abuse tends to get more violent and the victim learns to tolerate more and more.


Continued use despite damages

This is a well-known element of substance addiction. The same happens to the abuse victims. If they stay, they often lose their connection to their loved ones, their health, career, resources, and more. And even when injuries require medical care, some still go back to the abuser.


Craving and withdrawal

Just as it is for substance users, craving and withdrawal play an important role in the creating of a vicious cycle. Even when the abuse victim leaves, she is very likely to experience intense 'craving' for the good times she had with the abuser. Emotional withdrawal symptoms may include feeling depressed, hopeless and unbearably empty or worthless. This is often accompanied by the hope that the abuser will change, repent and prove that he does love her (read - that she is worthy).


Codependency develops in most abusive relationships - with one person being completely focused on the needs of the other and losing herself in the process. Thus, it should come as no surprise that support groups (CoDA), designed to help codependent people, use the Twelve Step program - a program originally developed for alcohol addiction.


The perfect storm



To understand how this emotional addiction develops in the first place, one needs to grasp the inner makeup of both sides of abusive relationships.


On the one side, there is a woman who is vulnerable. Most women I have worked with have either suffered childhood neglect and abuse or have witnessed emotional or physical abuse growing up. Through this, they have internalized abuse as “normal”. While not all abuse victims have had a traumatic childhood, there is always a presence of a deep unmet need which results in their vulnerability. A common thread in all the women I have worked with, is that they have all desperately tried to fulfill their unmet needs through the relationship. For some women, it is the need to feel safe and protected, for others it is the need to be taken care of or to feel loved, worthy or special.


On the other side of this equation, there is a man with a highly developed radar for emotional vulnerability and almost psychic ability to sense unmet needs. Often very attentive and charming in the beginning, he soon starts showing his controlling, possessive, narcissistic and manipulative side. Most women report that their abusive partner initially displayed so much interest in them, asked profound questions and really listened. The initial attention and charm disarm the victim, who usually discloses sensitive information, which he first uses to seduce her and later to abuse her.


The paradox of unmet needs


The abusive partner uses his partner's unmet needs as a 'bait' to hook her in, by giving her what she longs for the most in the beginning. This creates such a feeling of being 'high', that she is willing to suffer the costs, in the hope of getting that feeling back. Such an emotional attachment is very difficult to break. The short examples that follow illustrate this difficulty.

Jannine grew up in a very dangerous neighborhood and was very fearful of going out by herself. Her new boyfriend filled her need for safety by acting like her savior and protecting her from everyone else. Finally, she was protected and safe. Gradually, she would only go outside with him, as he would never let anyone hurt her, however she would suffer the abuse from him at home.


Anne-Lee grew up in scarcity and started working at 16 to provide for herself and meet her need for financial stability. When she met Alex, he showered her with gifts and provided for her. He even encouraged her to leave her job, so he could take care of her. Seven years down the road, she is an unemployed mom of two, staying in an abusive relationship, because she believes that without him she wouldn't be able to have her financial needs met.


Hannan never felt worthy or beautiful. However, when she met a man who made her feel beautiful, she felt seen and fell deeply in love with him. As the relationship progressed, he started criticizing her, making comments about her weight and appearance. He would diminish her self-confidence and self-worth by telling her that she is ugly and that no one would want her. She believed him.


This so-called initial 'love-bombing' strategically targets the victim's deepest unmet need and creates an irresistible 'high' when that need is met. However, this only lasts until the woman is hooked. The paradox is, that once she is emotionally hooked, the abuser will pull away from her the very thing she craves the most and use it against her.


Cycle of abuse



Abusive relationships tend to follow a predictable pattern deemed the Cycle of Abuse (Lenore E. Walker). Understanding how the emotional 'bait' fits into the abuse cycle is fundamental in understanding why the addiction (read attachment) is so strong.


Tension build-up

Once the initial honeymoon phase is over, the tension starts building up. The more the abuser's dissatisfaction with the situation grows, the more the woman tries to appease the tensions and comply with his demands. She gives up her power and control in the hope of him once again becoming the person he was when he seduced her.


Acute violence

Eventually, there is an aggressive outburst, which may be emotional, verbal or physical. If he knows that her biggest trigger is rejection, he might also pull away, to trigger her feelings of craving and withdrawal. Other abusers take the victim role and blame her for making him do it.


Short-lived honeymoon

When the abuser sees that he went too far - that she may leave, call the police or get help, the reconciliation or honeymoon phase begins. This is where he shows remorse, and uses the emotional bait of fulfilling her needs again, in order to hook her back in. This is where she once again feels in control, regains hope and feels the 'high' again, at least for a short while.


The calm before the storm

After the reconciliation, there is usually a period of calm, where the woman feels like everything is back to normal and believes that her abuser may have even changed. But before she knows it, the feeling of 'high' is replaced by tensions that start building up, and the 'bait' is pulled away from her again, once again triggering the emotional addiction.


Imprisoning beliefs


In addition, abuse victims tend to hold a set of beliefs that keep them stuck. In an abusive relationship, these beliefs get reinforced and keep the person captive.


Religious or cultural influences may bring the victim to believe that divorce is not an option. I have heard both Muslim and Christian women saying that to be a "good Muslim" or a "good Christian", one must make the marriage work. Also, common ones are "a good mother doesn't take kids away from their father", "marriage is for life" or "if I divorce, I am a failure".


Adverse childhood experiences shape beliefs such as "love hurts", "relationships are painful" or "it is normal that he gets upset". On an unconscious level, a woman might even believe that negative attention is better than no attention. The constant undermining of her self-confidence strengthens beliefs such as "I will not be able to take care of us financially", "no one else will want me" or "I deserve this".


And the big ones are "only I understand him" or "I can help him heal or change". Women are naively very sensitive to the stories of a difficult childhood that their abusive partner shares with them. They understand his brokenness. Abusive men know this weakness and they use it when needed.


It is so ironic that the very hope that keeps women in abusive relationships, brings them to the place of utter hopelessness.


Isolating shame


We cannot talk about abuse without talking about shame. And where is shame, there is secrecy and isolation. While the abusive partner usually skillfully manages to distance the woman from her family and friends, it is often the victim who furthers her isolation because of shame.


Being abused can be deeply humiliating and it is very difficult to admit it to friends or family. Many of these relationships often begin as a whirlwind romance, which makes it difficult to face the ugly new reality. Women know that people would be shocked to know what they are going through and they fear that no one will understand the love that they feel.


Dangerous reality



While emotional factors play a big role, we cannot finish this article without highlighting the actual physical danger and financial risks that women face when deciding to finally leave their abuser. Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the weeks after leaving their abusive partner than at any other time during the relationship (Source: Domestic Violence Intervention Programme). Leaving an abusive partner without solid safety measures in place can truly be fatal.


Financial abuse occurs in 98% of all domestic violence cases reported in the United States. Many domestic violence survivors stay or return to the abusive relationship because the abuser controls their money supply, leaving them with no financial resources to break free (Source: Huffpost).


If we compile the underlying psychological mechanisms with the reality of physical danger and the financial difficulties they face, it is not surprising that it takes a woman, on average 7 attempts to leave an abusive relationship (Source: Standffov).


Awareness and support


My hope is that if you are still reading, you now understand why some abused women struggle to leave and that you understand the complexities and difficulties of leaving an abusive relationship. They can't "just leave".


There are no easy answers. However, any change starts with awareness and an understanding of the dynamics at play. This begins with the education of children during their formative years, police officers, social workers and anyone else in touch with abuse victims. Immediate support such as safe spaces, shelters, counseling and career development support is also vital to break this cycle. And making sure that information on what is available actually reaches the people that need it.


It is almost impossible for these women to leave such relationships without help. But if help is available, when the woman is ready, there is always a way out.


Disclaimer: Abuse victims may be of any gender, but as this article is based on my experience with abused women in the South African context (St Anne's Shelter for Abused Women and Children) - it only focuses on women.


Acknowledgment: Using drug addiction criteria to help family members of people with substance use disorder understand their own "addictive" emotional attachment is a technique used by Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre in their workshop for family members.