What keeps people in abusive relationships

A question I am often asked is “why do people stay in abusive relationships? What keeps them hooked?” There is never a simple answer to this type of question, but I will share the observations that my colleagues and I have made. Although men also find themselves in abusive relationships, the majority of victims are women, so I will write assuming that it is the woman who is the victim and the man who is the perpetrator, but I am not labeling all men as abusive or all women as victims! One of the key issues in abusive relationships is that the abuser needs to be in control. What is ironical is that the characteristics that make women vulnerable to abuse are precisely those that she has been taught are feminine and lovable. Women in abusive relationships find themselves with a partner who:

  •  Assumes the right to control how she lives and behaves.
  •  Demands that she gives up important people and activities to keep him happy.
  • Devalues her feelings and opinions.
  • Yells, threatens or withdraws when things don’t go his way.
  • Is easily angered by what she says or does, leaving her anxious and cautious most of the time.
  • Confuses her by switching from charm to rage.
  • Is jealous and possessive.
  • Blames her for what goes wrong in the relationship.
  • Controls her by cutting off finances and narrowing her circle of support.

Romantic blindness and rationalization

Why would a person stay in that setup? Part of the answer lies in the way relationships evolve and change. Most abusive relationships start out as intense and wildly romantic. Most move very fast and perceptions are blurred. Many women ignore everything that does not fit into the romantic picture. Not every intense romance will end in abuse and many turn out fine, but if one senses panic about losing the person, too quick bonding and a purposeful blindness, danger may be lurking. As the dark side of the abuser becomes apparent, women may begin to rationalize. Rationalisation is when one smoothes over any insight that interferes with one’s good feelings. Instead of heeding warning signs, one re-labels them to explain away bad behaviour. This is different to ignoring them. One is aware that things are not ok, but one explains them away. Examples are:

  • Yes, he’s been married three times, but no one understands him.
  • Yes, he hit his ex, but she provoked him.
  • I know he drinks too much but when we’re married he’ll stop.
  • He terrified me when he yelled at me, but I must be tolerant because he is under pressure.

So one thing that keeps women hooked is the tendency to minimise or ignore the link between the abusive behaviour and her pain. She sees that the behaviour is unacceptable, but explains it away by reasoning He only did it because……

Increasing dependency on the abusive partner.

Most women in abusive relationships say they stay because they love their partner. No one is completely good and no one is completely bad. Aspects of the relationship may be fulfilling, so women will put up with the pain to hold onto what is satisfying. The relationship becomes addictive in that the person feels intense pain when deprived of her partner. She believes she cannot live without him. She is isolated from other people and is dependent on him for good feelings and a sense of connectedness. The more dependent she becomes, the more important he becomes. The more important he becomes, the more she gives up for him and the more trapped she feels. In relationships like these, the partner is loving and kind at sporadic times.


The woman hangs in, waiting for the pay-off, much like a person playing a slot machine (gambling). The pay-offs come sporadically and often enough to keep hope alive. The woman is frantically trying to avoid being hurt and to be rewarded for pleasing her partner. This creates and addictive tension and anxiety/excitement. The victim seems to embark on a frantic search for the right way to behave so that her partner will be consistently loving. She has surrendered her control to him. He may constantly remind her that he would love her if she would stop this or change that. Her emotional well being becomes tied to his moods, which really have NOTHING to do with her behaviour. Many women are hooked by hope. They fantasize that something will change and that they will “go back” to their early, heady romance. Outbursts are often followed by flowers, tears and apologies, which feed hope that there will be a magical solution.


Fear is a powerful trap. Many women stay because they are afraid to leave. For the victim, there is the fear that she won’t make it on her own financially, fear of being unable to cope with the children and fear of being alone. Some women are afraid of what the abuser may do if she leaves, including harming her, the children or himself. Accepting blame and taking all the responsibility for the relationship.

Some abusers use the tactic of convincing the victim that she is at fault for everything that goes wrong. The woman who is desperately trying to fix the relationship may give in to the verbal abuse and constant accusations leveled at her and may begin to believe that the failing relationship is her fault. Once she accepts that, her perceptions become so distorted that she stops seeing the relationship as it is – one of coercion and control. She may actually begin to think that her abusive partner is trying to help her and in this way she begins to collude with the abuse rather than challenge it. She may reason “he is trying to make me a better person,” or things like “I must work on my jealousy when he flirts with other women,”or “I must lose weight to be more attractive so he will stop his affairs.” Another is “he only stops me having hobbies because he loves me so much he can’t bear to be away from me.” At this point the abuser need not take responsibility for his bad behaviour. Many abusers do not resort to obvious cruelty, physical violence or screaming, but wear their partner down through relentless criticism and fault finding. This type of abuse is difficult to detect because it is often masked as an attempt to make her a better person. The cumulative effect over time is very damaging, wearing one down as water wears crevices in solid rock.

The desire to rescue and help.
Rescuing is often an important component of abusive relationships. Contrary to the way things look, the abuser usually has low self esteem and is fiercely dependent on his partner. Most abusers are masters at shifting the blame-to the partner or others. All his worries are seen as the result of what others have done. Those who are blamed may be parents, who never did/gave enough, business partners, the ex wife who “took him to the cleaners” or a boss who fired him ”for no reason” He may lie and say he paid the bills when he did not, run into debt and leave his partner to pay it and when confronted will react angrily with his partner for “doubting him” or “not supporting him.” Many women are drawn to these so-called “tragic heroes” because they are sympathetic and want to help and give. Rescuing can make her feel needed and important. Many women believe that the abuser can be transformed by the power of love, and that her love can heal him of his problems, whether gambling, compulsive spending, drug or alcohol abuse, unsatisfactory relationships or bad temper.

There is a big difference between helping and rescuing. We all need help and support from time to time, but rescuing is a repetitive action to bail a person out of habitual problems, for which he or she does not take responsibility. There is a pattern of chaos in the life of the person being rescued. Many compassionate people with a need to be needed and important to someone fall into the trap of repeatedly rescuing their partner and feel too sorry for him or her to leave the relationship, believing the abuser will never cope alone.


Taken all round, women stay in abusive relationships because the abuse evolves over time. It is like putting a frog in a pot of water and heating it slowly – the frog will stay there, but if you plunged him into a pot of hot water, he would jump out. Abuse unfolds as the relationship progresses. Abuse distorts a person’s perceptions and self-concept over a period of time. As the victim desperately tries to avoid pain and elicit the good times, she surrenders more and more control and abuse is all about control. It is particularly difficult to see the situation clearly if one believes that the partner’s abuse is actually a loving effort to help one improve and become a better person.

If you are in a serious relationship, take the time needed to get to know your partner well. Once you are aware of the distorted patterns in an abusive relationship, they are easy to spot. If you know someone in an abusive relationship, give them your support. Don’t judge and don’t isolate them. Abuse can only survive in an atmosphere of secrecy. Outside support can be life-saving.

The ideas for this article come from the following reference:

FORWARD 2002. Men who hate Women & Women who love Them. Bantam Books: USA



Olive Branch 37 Wordsworth Avenue Farrarmere Benoni
Tel: 072 122 4766 / 011 849-7473.
Email: drwade@olivebranch.co.za
Dr Barbara Wade is an accredited member of Saaswipp (the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice) and practices in the field of individual and family therapy, as well as specializing in all forms of trauma