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Why You Can’t Leave: Understanding Emotional Abuse

Abuse is nuanced. Alyssa Ashenfarb explains why.
Why You Can’t Leave: Understanding Emotional Abuse
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Three weeks ago my client said:

“They crossed a boundary.”

Two weeks ago they said:

“I truly think this is it for us.”

Last week they said:

“I’m listing our apartment online.”

Today my client said, very quickly, shame in their voice and with trembling hands:

“I think they really mean the apology this time. They finally said they would think about going to therapy. I want to stay.”

How many times has this happened to you, your friend, or your family member? The real question is, how many more times will it keep happening?

Abuse can be emotional, physical, sexual, and financial. It can occur in person, over the phone, or on social media. It can happen to young people, couples with or without kids, to kids as well, and to the elderly. Abuse can show itself in a number of ways from acts of violence to relentless stalking and even post-separation scare and manipulation tactics. While some abuse is more obvious than others, all abuse is detrimental to the mental and emotional health of the survivor. However, as with everything with us humans, there’s nuance and gray area. Rather than try to draw perfect lines around what constitutes abuse, it’s more important that we understand abuse as cyclical in nature and, at its core, related to power and control. For the purposes of this article I will focus on emotional abuse, not only because it’s the most common form of abuse, but also because this particularly insidious manifestation is the one that makes survivors question themselves and their reality—so much so they often remain with their partner.

The term “emotional abuse” can sound scary, and extreme examples of it may seem obvious in theory (such as constant name calling or relentless berating). But what happens when it’s less obvious, when you can’t always put your finger on it? And what happens, as in most real-life cases, when the person on the other side of it is your partner and is someone you love and care about? Someone you’ve built a life and planned a future with? This is the piece so often neglected and taken for granted when friends and family say, “just leave.” What do you do when there are so many reasons to leave, and so many reasons to stay?

An abusive relationship begins similarly to any other relationship. There is attraction, excitement and a sense of deep connection. This called the honeymoon phase, and it’s characteristic for the beginning of relationships. After all, people typically do not begin relationships with partners who don’t make them feel good inside. But gradually, the subtle indicators of emotional abuse and manipulation begin. Your partner will begin to knock you down a few pegs when you are feeling too confident (or worse, when you’re already down), and then will make you feel crazy or confused when you have an emotional response to their behavior, no matter how warranted. They might get angry over normal, innocuous things like wanting to get a drink with some friends or coworkers. Or they may just ignore you and shut you out. This is called the tension building phase, and the telltale sign is when you feel like you’re walking on eggshells or can’t do anything right. After this comes the eruption. This can be anything from shouting and name-calling to physical violence. One helpful technique to practice in these situations in The Grey Rock Technique in order to protect your own wellbeing.

Here is the tricky part: after the eruption comes another honeymoon phase. This cycle is the first key to why we stay in abusive relationships. Your partner apologizes, makes you feel special, and promises to change. And you have hope; because this is someone you love and care about, and shows love and care towards you. This is someone you imagine a future with, and someone you want to believe would never lie to you or deliberately hurt you. How can you not forgive? The cycle goes around and around, which is why it takes the average survivor 7 attempts to leave their partner prior to solidifying their exit (Safe Horizon). This is not because you are crazy. This is not because you are weak. This is because you are hurting, confused, hopeful, believe you are in love and, often, don’t know any other type of relationship. You believe the promises because, in the moment, your partner often believes them too.  

This cycle, though often unconscious, intensifies something called a trauma bond, which is the second key to why we stay with abusive partners. A trauma bond is a strong emotional attachment that occurs through intermittent abuse and power imbalances (Dutton & Painter, 1993). As emotional abuse (name calling, yelling, manipulation, gaslighting) increases, the power imbalance increases as well, which decreases self-esteem and feeling of self worth in the survivor, and makes them more likely to remain with their partner.

Intermittent abuse increases the likelihood of remaining with an abusive partner because of the connection and feelings of love that come during the honeymoon/reconciliation period. Oxytocin and adrenaline are released, and that abusive partner now turns into a fantasy partner who promises the idealistic hopes that you were initially looking for. This causes attachment to abusers to feel strong and passionate, and is often interpreted as love.

A final key to why folks stay in abusive relationships is a big one: it’s called gaslighting. This is an extremely effective form of emotional manipulation that makes a survivor question their reality. How can you leave when you don’t trust that your version of reality is the real one?

“I don’t know why you’re getting so upset, I was only joking.”

"It really hurts my feelings when you get so mad at me.”

“You always overact.”

So subtle, right? You start to believe you are the manipulative one. Gaslighting inherently creates a loss of sense of self and trust in one’s own experience. It feels like pressure to be a better partner, because if you’re a better partner, maybe your relationship will be better too. I am here tell you this is not true. You are not the problem, and you do not have control over your partner’s emotionally abusive behaviors. In emotionally abusive relationships, you don’t feel like you have control at all.

Gaslighting, trauma bonds, and abuse cycles make it feel impossible to leave your partner. They can make you want to stay. To know your partner is abusive and to still want to stay is something that makes people feel disoriented and unraveled; it can make people feel as though they do not even know themselves. Remember, this confusion is the abuser’s goal. It is not you.

Hold yourself accountable for your own reality. Write down the times you feel loved and appreciated, and the times you feel confused and manipulated. Notice patterns that arise. Do not respond to your partner’s attempts at manipulation immediately. Take space to breathe and calm down if possible, so you don’t further edge yourself into a deeper questioning of your gut feelings. Pay attention to when you are caring for your “wounded” partner, versus when they are actively being mean and manipulative. Is your partner deliberately trying to hurt you? And if you open up the door to this conversation, does your partner get defensive or question your sanity, or are they open to communication?

Gift yourself with radical honesty. This is part of taking back your control. If your partner is displaying emotionally abusive behaviors, try to hold both this and the enjoyable, happy times you have with them. People are not all bad or all good, which can make radical honesty feel excruciating. Being radically honest with yourself and your loved ones makes it harder for your partner to make you question your reality. And it increases the chance that you will figure out the steps to take that will work best for you.

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About the author

Alyssa Ashenfarb is a MyWellbeing practitioner in NYC who specializes in working with  people on a wide range of issues not limited to Anxiety, Depression, Relationship Issues, Self-Esteem, and Trauma. In her own words: “Therapy can feel like a really daunting and overwhelming task, especially when you don’t know what to expect. To make this feel a little less intimidating, my clients and I work on a game plan together to create a therapeutic environment that works specifically for them.”  To work with Alyssa, click here.

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