What goes on within a person being abused (and between them and the abuser) is complex and different people have different ways of dealing with it. While some individuals can hold the fort and are quite clear that what they are experiencing is abuse, many of us have to wade through a lot of internal ambiguity/ denial before we let ourselves recognize what is going on. Sometimes, a lot of people may not do so until the situation has played itself out to such an extent that it is detrimental to their mental and physical well being.
Especially in the case of emotional abuse.
Often as bystanders we may find ourselves wondering in frustration, “Why don’t you leave?”
What victims of abuse experience is quite difficult for family and friends to stand by and watch, but often individuals may not be ready for interventions. They may want to for reasons conscious or not, protect the status quo. The behaviours may be covered up, explained away, or suffered in silence for many reasons ranging from shame, guilt, financial dependance, confusion and fear.
Emotionally (and even physically) abusive relationships don’t always start off as abusive. Like most relationships, they are interspersed with affection, care, concern, attraction and solidarity. The abuser can be someone who you may know deeply, who you have shared a lot with, and who you feel for. They also may be people who are supporting you, financially, physically or emotionally.
And quite often, especially in the case of emotional abuse, things don't blow up immediately. It starts off small - complaints that they didn’t get to speak with you today, saying that you want to spend more time with your family and friends, that you don’t care about them, that they are sorry they have a temper and are working on it, and sometimes, words that go along the lines of “I am not trying to control you, I am just looking out for you”, “You don’t know better,” followed by an-in-the moment example of how that is so. They follow that up with how they trust you to make the right decisions, till it reaches the “Why do you always do this when you know I feel this way”, “You made me do this,” stage.
All of this while you also enjoy a close personal relationship, sometimes, a relationship where this person has actually been supportive and close.
It can be a little twisted.
This discrepancy/ dissonance we are experiencing initially is then compensated with a lot of sympathy; sympathy towards the abuser. I say sympathy, only because the behaviour that follows does not account for the presence of two people in a relationship; it caters to the needs of one.
It is hard to come to terms with the idea that the same person who seems to care about you so much and who knows you so well and loves you, is also a person who is hurting you. The internal conflict can be unconscious and hard to bear, so much so that we need to explain it away with understanding.
And so, we sympathise.
We sympathise with our abusers to an extent that we would want to protect them first in our minds and then before our friends and family. We are able to see this person as a vulnerable individual dealing with their own internal demons - “ I am sure they will improve”, “It was a moment of weakness it can happen to anyone”, “Maybe if I just understood it better I would be able to help them”, “I need to change”, “I need to be better”.
For some reason, it becomes important to believe in the person and believe that if given the right environment, or if given the right response, they will change; they could have been different; it almost hurts to think otherwise. Even if we choose to hold our ground and not sympathise, and maybe call them out for what they are doing, we would still need to weather their agitation and accusations of being insensitive, not understanding, stubborn and even abusive.
Which can be a very confusing place to be.
Sometimes, weathering the storm of an abusive environment also brings with it a sense of accomplishment and sometimes embeds itself in our identities in such a way that we may judge ourselves as failures if we weren’t able to “deal with it”. Maybe we have been unconsciously conditioned to assume that role. Maybe our interactions with the abuser have convinced us that this is our responsibility, maybe we are scared of them hurting themselves if we leave, maybe we are scared that they will hurt us if we do.
The consequences of this is a lot of confusion, self blame, guilt, hurt and frustration. Our sense of reality is skewed and so is our sense of self. The “How do I leave?” and “Why must I leave?” gets confusing.
However, even then, there are many people who find their way out, maybe after recognising how they have changed, or through friends who have been supportive or family who have intervened. This requires a lot of support, courage and a space for one to understand their journey in an atmosphere of acceptance.
Yes, asking someone ‘why didn’t you leave?’ surely comes from a place of concern and care. But remember that what it also does is add to the guilt, shame and confusion that is part of that situation.