Abusive relationships are marked by recurring patterns of violent, abusive behavior. The abuse is a way for the abuser to maintain control over their partner and comes with a high risk of harm to the person in the abusive relationship. Therefore, their close ones and even professional support might not understand why they don’t leave immediately. 

Do they know they are in an abusive relationship?

People might actually be unaware that they are in an abusive relationship. This can happen when the person has a lack of self-made or even second-hand experience of healthy relationships. The abuse does not necessarily need to be of physical nature, but can also be sexual, emotional and/or psychological. A person in an emotionally abusive relationship might minimize the harm they experience. They might compare their relationship to the physically abusive one of one of their close ones and think “at least my partner is not beating me so there is no harm”. 

Teenagers in abusive relationships

Especially teenagers only have limited prior experience of romantic relationships and have therefore difficulties to understand signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships. They might even associate abusive behavior like physical violence or coercion with greater passion and intimacy in their relationship. It was found that parent-child communication is a great tool protecting teenagers against the risk of ending up or remaining in abusive relationships. Unfortunately, parents are still largely unaware of the incidence and dynamic of abusive relationships amongst teenagers. But also adults that experienced abusive relationships in their teenage years tend to have a more difficult time recognizing the abusive nature of their current relationship. This is because those early experiences of abusive relationships normalize abuse in the relationships to come. 

Why are people not leaving their abusive partner?

Some people immediately leave a potentially abusive relationship. However, there are different reasons why a person might stay in an abusive relationship or repeatedly come back after ending it. One of them is a feeling of prior investment in the relationship, like feeling committed to a long-term relationship. The person might have shared children with their abuser and assess that staying together might be the best for them. Sometimes people stay out of feelings of love or of fear of retaliation. Or they could feel trapped due to their financial situation and possible dependency on their abusive partner. Being dependent on their partner might make the process of leaving even more complicated, stressful and scary. Some people also stay because they feel like it’s the right thing to do due to social norms or religious beliefs. 

Additional factors for teenagers

Especially teens are highly influenced by their social surroundings and want to be accepted. They might be especially inclined to remain in the relationship out of peer pressure and fear of negative social implications. Technology also tends to play a great role especially in teenager’s lives. It can be a useful tool as it helps with accessing resources. On the other hand it represents another potential way for the abuser to maintain control over the person experiencing the abuse. 

As you can see, there is a variety of reasons people stay in abusive relationships. Are you in an abusive relationship or know someone that could profit from assistance on this issue? Part two of this Blogpost will cover dos and don’ts for helping a close one who is in an abusive relationship. 

Feel free to make an appointment here for further information and assistance. 

Olivia Szewczykowski is currently studying psychology in Graz, Austria and interning for Willingness. She is interested in various topics regarding relationships, sex and family dynamics.

Ahrens, C. E., Dworkin, E. R., & Hart, A. C. (2021). Social Reactions Received by Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence: A Qualitative Validation of Key Constructs From the Social Reactions Questionnaire. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 45(1), 37–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684320975663

Murray, C. E., Crowe, A., & Flasch, P. (2015). Turning Points: Critical Incidents Prompting Survivors to Begin the Process of Terminating Abusive Relationships. The Family Journal, 23(3), 228–238. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480715573705

Murray, C. E., King, K., & Crowe, A. (2016). Understanding and Addressing Teen Dating Violence: Implications for Family Counselors. The Family Journal, 24(1), 52–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480715615668