Why it’s so hard to escape an abusive relationship

3 December, 2020

In her second blog about her survival after domestic abuse, Elaine* writes about why she stayed with her abusive ex for so long. She explains why the mental and emotional manipulation that takes place in abusive relationships makes it so hard to ask for help or to leave.

I can’t keep admonishing myself for what I believed I was powerless to change.

Many years passed during which I lived with abuse but couldn’t take action to stop it. I was in a fog, confused, beaten down, tired, controlled, manipulated, depressed and lonely. Often I had periods of being happy, of thinking things were okay, and the sun was shining once more. I thought: “It really isn’t that bad and perhaps if I just keep the peace, it will all be perfect again”. Until the next time.

In his eyes I quickly went from being the most beautiful, independent, successful, fun loving woman he had ever met, to someone who was miserable and incompetent and unable to keep a house tidy. I had feelings of love, loyalty and dependency towards him that caused cognitive dissonance.

I could never comprehend that the one person who was supposed to love and protect me, the father of my child, the man who took vows to love and honour me, was the same person who was deliberately hurting and destroying me. So, I lived in denial and that became my normal.

What made it worse was my belief that after the abusive episodes, the only person who could relieve the feelings of hurt and pain that he inflicted, was him. He became my rescuer, my saviour. Trauma bonded me to him.

I felt guilty. I wanted a happy family and home so I mended and fixed because I believed my abuser to be a good man and capable of change. I settled. I tried to reason and explain my feelings and to appeal to the love I was sure must still be there, if only he could tap into it.

The situation took a massive toll on me. My reality was slowly stripped away along with any confidence and self-esteem I had left. I was depressed, anxious, on medication, sleep deprived and hollowed out. I feared for my future, that he would take my child, hurt my family and friends and my pet. I was ashamed. I was told I had a mental illness and I believed it was my fault. I believed I was powerless.

I learned that objection was futile and led to further pain. I was a hostage in my own home, subject to intimate terrorism. My world became smaller and smaller and the outside world became a frightening place for me. I was too scared to leave and too scared to stay.

How was I supposed to form a plan to leave, just like that? I was sleepwalking through my life. He told me what to think, what to watch, what to listen to, how to spend my money. He told me I was useless, frigid, delusional, that nobody would want me. My decisions were all wrong. Nothing I did was ever right. I’d lost too much autonomy and confidence in my decision-making skills to make my own escape plan.

Even now, making simple decisions is incredibly hard and my independence and communication has had to be relearned.

"My ex broke my heart, my mental health, my soul. He stole years from me. He robbed my family and friends and especially my son of the whole person I could have been."

My abuser believed he was entitled to control and abuse me. He went to extreme lengths to enforce his sense of entitlement. Nothing I said or did would change him. I spent decades trying, but the goal posts were constantly moving, leaving my head spinning.

My ex believed he was entitled to remain when he disrespected me, he lived like a single man, lied, cheated, abused my money, my trust, my goodwill and my body. He believed he was entitled to sex whenever he wanted it. He controlled me through fear and punishment using the most dehumanising methods. He used a cycle of sweet and cruel manipulation, verbal abuse, gaslighting, lies, contempt, assault, physical threats and subtle coercion to control me.

We can change ourselves and our responses if we choose to, but we cannot change our abuser. Abusive men don’t change.

Accepting this allowed me to gradually strengthen my resolve to a point where I could see a way out with the support of Scottish Women’s Aid and Victim Support Scotland.

The abuse escalated and it came to a point of crisis and survival, involving the police and the courts. And then I faced the aftermath. It’s very difficult to be free from this kind of manipulative and controlling behaviour, but I found a bravery and calm resolve I never thought I had.

My ex broke my heart, my mental health, my soul. He stole years from me. He robbed my family and friends and especially my son of the whole person I could have been.

But I refuse to be kept down by him. I am moving on. Remember, an abuser’s sense of entitlement is not a right to keep you hostage. You do have the power to move forward, with the help of the professionals where needed, when YOU CHOOSE to do so.

*Name changed for confidentiality 

Victim Support Scotland is here to help anyone affected by crime. If you need support, please contact us via our helpline (0800 160 1985), our webchat service (see bottom right) or our contact form.