February 26, 2019 |Gideon Hanekom

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I read an article recently where a woman wrote in to ask for advice about the abusive relationship she was in. The advice she got from the person she wrote to was to get marriage counselling. This resulted in a backlash where other experts responded by calling it the worst advice they’ve heard. And it makes sense. With 33,100 Google searches per month, abusive relationships are real and happening and we (counsellors, therapists, coaches, professionals etc.) need to get our advice, suggestions and offered help right.  Here are my thoughts.

Before we get to some practical steps you can take to leave an abusive relationship, let’s get very real very fast with some daunting stats about family violence in New Zealand.

And yes, you would have picked up by the title of this post that as a married man, dad, son, brother to a sister (and brother) and a relationship coach, that I have only ONE piece of immediate advice for any person in an abusive relationship – LEAVE!

Marriage counselling and relationship coaching are great and can do so much good, but NOT when it comes to abusive relationships.

The first and primary focus is the safety and wellbeing of the victim(s) before anything else. In my opinion.

In fact, counselling could actually increase the likelihood of violence, either by means of 1) wrongly keeping a victim in their dangerous situation longer than they need to be, or 2) causing an abusive partner to lash out even more against their partner after a counselling session due to feeling threatened or offended.

According to areyouok.org.nz about half of all homicides in New Zealand are committed by an offender who is identified as part of the family.

76% of family violence incidents are NOT reported to Police.

Police investigated 118,910 incidents of family violence in 2016 or about one every 5 minutes. This was an increase of more than 8,000 in 2015. There were more than 101,955 investigations in 2014 and 95,101 in 2013. It is not clear whether the increase is due to an increase in violence or an increase in people reporting family violence incidents.

In the four years from 2009 to 2012, an average of 13 women, 10 men, and 9 children were killed each year as a result of family violence. 

24% of women and 6% of men report having experienced sexual assault in their lifetime.

Disabled women are about twice as likely to be victims of violence or abuse compared to other women.

50% of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) deaths occurred at the time of actual or intended separation.

1 in 3 women experiences physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime.

76% of recorded assaults against females are committed by an offender that is identified as part of the family.

In the four years from 2009 to 2012, 76% of intimate partner violence-related deaths were perpetrated by men, 24% were perpetrated by women.

These are some scary stats for a developed and so-called peaceful and safe country.

Clearly, something is hugely wrong somewhere.

That being said, however, this post is not so much about bashing men for acting like shitheads rather than protectors or the WHY of family violence and abusive relationships, but rather WHAT you need to do should you know right now that, 1) you’re another statistic or 2) another one waiting to happen.

And I want to give you some food for thought which I hope you will seriously consider.

First, before anything else … TRUTH …

What is the actual truth about your situation and relationship right now?

I understand that we are often afraid to admit the worst, but in this case, it’s not an option.

If you expect yourself to be in an abusive relationship, you simply do not have the luxury nor time to be lying to yourself.

As you’ve seen before, your life and survival could be depending on it.

You need to ask yourself a super important question:

Are you in an abusive relationship?

Please use this section only as a reference and not a kind of checklist.

There are plenty of experts who specialise in working with people in abusive relationships who will have much better information on the signs you need to look for.

abusive relationship Abusive Relationship

Firstly, I need to say that relationship abuse and violence can take on many forms, but for simplicity sake, here’s a good working definition:

Abusive relationships involve physical abuse such as punching, hitting, kicking, and slapping, or verbal abuse such as insulting or otherwise emotionally tormenting a partner.

We also know that men who are abusive may push the relationship forward faster than a woman is comfortable with even though they may be incredibly attentive at first.

It is also very likely that their behaviour will be more positive in public than it is in private.

In public, they will praise your efforts, talk about themselves and attend to your needs.

And then, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he’ll revert to a disrespectful and angry man when you reach home.

Although in some instances you’ll be able to tell if you are in an abusive relationship, sometimes the signs are so subtle that neither of you knows that he’s abusing and you’re abused.

I’ve had a divorced woman comment recently that “the hardest part is seeing you are being controlled” and I would argue that’s also the case for subtle abuse.

Any abusive behaviour is a pattern that is used to control the behaviour of a man’s partner. (2)

Chances are this means he’ll be manipulative.

He’ll try to get you to do what he wants when he wants, but also by using physical behaviour, such as hitting or pushing.

He may try to manipulate your behaviour by getting angry with you, being disrespectful or making fun of your ideas and opinions.

Putting you down empowers him and disempowers you.

Also, men who are abusive will often have mood swings.

You won’t know or be able to predict when he will be in a good mood or a bad mood.

Your day typically ends up revolving around whether he’s going to be angry or calm.

You’re nervous about his behaviour and don’t want to do things with friends and relatives for fear that he’ll explode.

It is also very likely that he doesn’t want you to spend time with friends and family without him.

Furthermore, if you are in a relationship with a man who is hypersensitive, it’s very possible that you might be in a relationship with an abusive man.

Abuse men tend to be super sensitive about everything you say and get angry at the drop of a hat.

If something was wrong, then it’s most likely your fault and not his.

Men who are abusive are often also very vicious and cruel.

In some cases, there’ll be nothing hiding the fact.

They will call you names, make derisive remarks about you or your abilities and be very insincerely sorry for what they did.

Now, it’s important to know that it doesn’t take all of these characteristics to be in an abusive relationship.

He may exhibit just one or two.

The defining characteristic is how you feel about how he feels about you and the relationship.

  • Are you afraid?
  • Are you waiting for him to simply explode every day, for no reason at all?
  • Are your friends and family concerned about your relationship?

If any of these are genuinely true for you right now, maybe it’s time to listen to them, as they often see and hear more than you do.

But do more than just listen – start making a plan to exit the situation safely and with the right support.

Why leaving an abusive relationship is so complicated

If you’ve never been in a relationship where you were abused, it can be difficult to understand how difficult or complicated it can be to leave or get out of the relationship.

In fact, it’s sometimes just hard enough for a person to realise that they are (and have been) in an abusive relationship, let alone leave one.

Especially when abuse has been more emotional and psychological than physical in nature.

So, if you have a friend or family member who appears to be trapped in an unhealthy and abusive relationship, this is a time for you to show compassion, understanding and support.

Not judgement and pressure.

When one has people on the outside who are nonjudgmental, a person might be able to get out of the relationship a lot quicker.

But, coming back to the very important question:

Why exactly do people stay in abusive or bad relationships, even when they might know that it’s harmful?

That’s a good question.

According to various research studies, part of the answer comes down to “economics.”

As with many other things in life, people tend to compare what they think would happen if they left their partners against what they think would happen if they stayed, and they tend to go with what they believe is the better (or less bad) of the two predicted outcomes.

One study indicated that the fewer options people have in terms of relationships, e.g. how happy they believe they’d be on their own and their financial situation, the more likely they were to stay in a bad relationship. (3)

Another part of the “economics” in that same study came down to the amount of time and effort that people put into something, i.e. personal investment.

The more time and effort that people put into something, the harder it is for them to give up on it.

Consequently, when somebody finds themselves in a relationship where they have either defended their partner to their friends and family, celebrated numerous anniversaries together, and possibly have kids, leaving that relationship can feel like throwing away a lot of time, energy, and effort, so they’re reluctant to do it.

An additional reason why women in particular stay in abusive relationships, comes down to something we could call the “softening effect.”

One study found that even the worst of the worst in bad relationships tend not to be completely bad. (4)

And people tend to put more emphasis on the better parts of their relationships in relation to the back parts (i.e. softening reality or facts), like constant verbal abuse on the one hand, but annual extravagant overseas holidays on the other.

Because there are some good times (great even), it’s enough to be OK and tolerate the bad.

Furthermore, people are actually pretty good at seeing improvements in all sorts of places, whether there is an actual improvement or not.

We are essentially very good at lying to ourselves when we want to believe something, whether we have the proof or not.

We tend to look at how things are changing over time in a way that LET us see improvements – even in cases where measures showed declines in the relationship.

So to bring it all together, 1) people tend to stay in bad relationships because they either have to, 2) they are not focusing on the right stuff (reality), or 3) they make themselves feel good by thinking (believing wrongly) that things are better today than yesterday – or will be in the future.

There is also the possibility that some women, unfortunately, grew up in homes where their mother was abused and they saw this pattern of behaviour as “normal” or “acceptable.”

If a woman doesn’t know what a healthy relationship looks like she probably won’t see her own relationship as unhealthy.

Some women also have very low self-esteem. For whatever reason.

So when their partner puts them down for any length of time, it can reduce self-esteem even further while making her reliant on him even more.

And, unfortunately, with low self-esteem, she may even interpret his negative attention as love.

She may also even believe that if she can love him enough then he will change.

Predictions like these are something we all do, but also something we’re really bad at.

Another reason that could keep a person prisoner in an abusive relationship is when the abuser is a popular or well-known figure in the community.

She may fear that their friends, family, coworkers, elders and so on, will take his side or that popular opinion will make her future life very difficult.

In some other cases, when married, it might be difficult to face the idea of separation or divorce for cultural or religious reasons.

Her religion may encourage her to remain in the relationship, no matter what abuse she is suffering, in order to “save face” with their cultural community or to maintain a good “relationship with God.”

Also, as already indicated, some women are reliant on their abusive partners for financial stability or emotional support.

Although the support they receive is negative, it might be the only type of support they understand.

With a lack of money or income of their own, they may feel they have nowhere to go and no way to support themselves.

Now … what can we take from this?

What to do?

As I mentioned earlier, abuse in relationships and family violence can be very tricky – especially for the victims caught in it.

So, if you truly want to help someone you love to get out of a difficult and bad situation right now, then this is a time to be supportive of them and listen to them.

Do not judge the situation in which they find themselves because it is a difficult place in which to live with too many practical, psychological and emotional complexities.

They need your understanding and your support.

Judgement will only drive them deeper into an abusive relationship and remove any support that you might have been able to offer.

Let them know that they have options but don’t force those options down their throat.

Make sure you do everything you can to support them as much as you can and they allow you to.

But, what if YOU’re the victim, stumbled upon this post and want to get out?

What can you do?

How can you build the courage to leave an abusive relationship?

Firstly, as I explained earlier, when you’re in an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to see the way out.

However, you don’t have to be trapped in a relationship with an abusive partner.

Consider these following strategies as a possible process to build up the courage to leave that abusive relationship.

You can’t gain the courage to leave until you face the truth and understand why you’re staying.

As you would have seen by now, there are many other women who stay in abusive relationships for any number of reasons, with some of those reasons being completely “logical” on the surface, but a trap when you look deeper.

Perhaps you’re staying out of fear.

Maybe you feel stuck in the relationship because it’s the only thing you have right now.

Maybe you’re worried you won’t make it on your own.

Perhaps you think you’re not good enough to leave and there’s no life beyond this current relationship.

But listen, despite these issues, you also need to understand that even though your relationship is bad, it’s also a familiar place.

And as people, we love (crave) certainty and familiarity.

We tend to feel secure in the familiarity.

So we stay.

We stay far too long in shitty situations because we fear the unknown MORE than the pain which comes with staying in the familiar.

On some other level, you might even stay because you feel that you deserve to be punished.

For whatever reason.

If that’s the case, let me just call BS on that right now!

No one deserves to be in an abusive relationship.

You deserve to be loved, adored, protected, cherished, taken care of, be listened to,  be happy, and truly be safe.

You deserve THAT!

Listen, abusers love making their victims feel like they (the victims) are to blame.

That they are somehow responsible for the situation and “bringing it on themselves.”

Again, that’s all bullcrap and you should NEVER believe that.

In addition to that, perhaps you believe that you can fix the issues.

Maybe you believe you can fix him (or her), but research and experience have taught us that it very rarely happens, if ever.

You may think that if you love your partner enough, then they will stop being abusive, but the chances of that happening are between slim and none.

So, again what is the truth?

Why do YOU stay?

And is it time to wake up and smell the coffee?

Strengthen your self esteem

As already mentioned, low self-esteem is often at the root of many abusive relationships.

So it only makes sense that by increasing your confidence and self-esteem, you will gain the courage to leave the abuser.

You can start by acknowledging that your self-esteem needs work.

Then look for causes for your low self-esteem.

Here’s a list of 10 common causes for low self-esteem challenges:

  • Peers. This is especially true during the school-age years but can apply to adults as well. It’s natural to want to be respected and liked by one’s peers. Bullying, teasing, and other social-related issues can result in a loss of self-esteem.
  • Family. Some parents just aren’t nice people. Unsupportive, critical parents or other family members can harm a child’s self-esteem. This can be then be carried into adulthood. If your parents were less than spectacular, remember that you’re not alone.
  • Previous mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but some people forgive themselves more easily than others. The past is over. Look forward to new experiences.
  • Negative recurring thoughts. Negative thought patterns over years and decades can create a negative self-image. That’s why it’s so important to say positive things to yourself. Avoid underestimating the power of your thoughts (and how you speak to and about yourself).
  • Failure. Whether you failed to ever win family boardgames as a child or land the big client as an adult, any perceived failure can result in a loss of confidence and self-esteem. You must reframe how you view failure.
  • Unreasonable goals. Goals that are too big lead to failure. Ensure that your goals are challenging but within reason for you. Getting too carried away increases the likelihood of a negative outcome and further poor self-esteem. Dream big, be bold, but start with small consistent improvements. And above all, stay safe.
  • Body Image. Society judges people based on appearances. And Social Media is NOT helping. Quite the opposite. You might be doing the same to yourself. Strive to move your body toward a healthy ideal, but accept that everyone is shaped differently and change can take time. Females are more likely to suffer from body image issues, but males can also face challenges.
  • Trauma. Trauma can take many forms: sexual, physical, or emotional. Any of these can result in low self-esteem. If you’re suffering from the results of traumatic experiences, getting professional help can be a wise decision.
  • Poor academic performance. Poor grades can easily become a reason to doubt yourself and your worth. But the reality is that School is perfectly set up to celebrate certain things (and kids) at the expense of others. School is not a reflexion of reality. Don’t allow it to define the rest of your life.
  • Media. As already mentioned, Media puts forth images of success and beauty that are out of reach for the average person. It also doesn’t help that many of those images are manufactured (i.e. FAKE) and inaccurate. Holding yourself to these unreasonable standards can only cause you to feel bad about yourself. So, if you feel you must compare yourself to someone, use a reasonable frame of reference.

Now, ask yourself:

Where do you think your sense of low self-esteem or worth began?

Once you have the answers, you can start working to resolve your feelings about your past.

You can start putting the past in the past and ensure that these negative feelings don’t affect who you are today.

But, how do you actually improve your self-esteem?

To help you get started, click here to download a free PDF (no-optin required) and read through that.

Then, when you feel ready, start implementing some of the main ideas.

Get outside help.

Sometimes, to have the courage to do something, we need the support of others.

So, depending on your situation, it may benefit you to get help from friends, family, or others.

However, sometimes the support from family and friends may not be enough.

You may need to turn to therapy or a doctor for help.

In some cases, outside help is needed to help you leave an abusive relationship.

Your friends, family, coworkers, or others may be able to assist you so you won’t be alone and can develop the courage to leave.

There may also be some community resources, nonprofits, and organisations that can help.

If you feel you need to get help, then reach out to someone as soon as possible.

Figure out your finances.

We already mentioned that some women are scared to leave their partners because they depend on them financially.

It comes down to economics and perceived available resources.

But, if you know that you’re financially secure, the odds of you leaving increase.

So, if you have a job, set money aside that your abuser can’t access. Or even know about.

You can also ask friends or family to contribute to your savings.

But, if you don’t have a job, you have to be more creative.

You may be able to save money from the stipends or grants you receive.

Or doing odd jobs.

You may be able to sell some items.

However, I need to say that even if you’re not certain about your finances, it is still very important that you start making plans for leaving.

There is help available.

Reach out to a local church, community groups, police, social workers, and so on that can either help you or point you in the right direction.

Your safety is the first priority.

You can start working on your future once that’s been taken care of.

Take Away

You don’t have to stay with an abusive partner out of fear.

Relationships can be difficult to end, but it’s not impossible.

Figure out a way to escape and leave them, even if you need someone to help you do it.

There are resources and people who can help you get out of your abusive situation and get started in a healthier life.

You will also most likely find online support groups that could help you in some way or another.

(1) Edited by Lewandowski, Loving, Le, & Gleason. The Science of Relationships: Answers to Your Questions about Dating, Marriage, and Family. Dr L Industries, LLC. Kindle Edition.

(2) For simplicity sake, I’m speaking from fact that men are statistically the primary offenders in family violence, with women and children being the victims in most cases.

(3) Rusbult, C. E., & Martz, J. M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment model analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21 558-571.

(4) Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2003). The dynamic structure of relationship perceptions: Differential importance as a strategy of relationship maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1433-1446.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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