Why we keep going back to abusive relationships. To the person who hurts us.
The cycle of abuse is so pervasive we develop an unhealthy addiction for the person who is hurting us. We’re hooked in by the intensity at which they love-bomb us at the start. Only once they know they have us does their mask slip and we see their abusive side. At first, it’s just brief glimpses that are enough to make us wonder: ‘Was I imagining that’? So, we dismiss it and the warning signs.
We also convince ourselves they have two sides. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr (or Ms) Hyde. We love the good side, we just don’t like the bad. But we don’t see them as being responsible for both.
In fact, we forgive them for the abuse, as it’s not the real them, we tell ourselves. The loving person is. We go on a futile search for that good side. We do anything to get them back again. Rather than blame them for any bad behaviour, instead we change ours. What we do, what we say, to keep them happy in the hope the nice person will stay and the abusive one will go away.
But as the highs start to get fewer and further between and the lows lower and more abusive, we become addicted to chasing that high even more desperately. Like an addict we want to feel that intense high again, to take away the pain. The one we got when we first met them and in the honeymoon periods after abuse.
It was like a drug to me. I craved it when times were bad. It made me feel so good when he told me he loved me again and promised to change. That things would be okay. So, I became addicted to the very person who was hurting me. Addicted to an unavailable man. It’s known as co-dependency.
These are some of the reasons why we keep going back to them time after time before we finally leave an abusive relationship:
We blame ourselves
Narcissistic types and abusive people instinctively target those of us with low self-esteem, who also have the propensity to only see the good in people. Who are therefore easier to manipulate. They have a self-inflated sense of ego and entitlement and feed off others to make themselves feel good. They see us essentially an extension of themselves, there to obey and adore them. They need total control over us. They also need us to take the blame for their abusive behaviour.
When we have low self-esteem it’s easy for us to believe that we are responsible for it. That they’re right, it’s because we said this or did that, that made them get angry and hurt us.
During the early stages of the relationship, when we have been hooked in by their charismatic side and they then start to show us a glimmer of that darker side. This is how they test our boundaries over what we will and won’t accept. How they establish the ground rules of the relationship, which is that we accept responsibility for the relationship and anything that goes wrong in it, particularly their bad behaviour. That we will take the blame.
Once they’ve established that then they start to groom us with insidious manipulative tactics such as gaslighting, mirroring and shifting the goal posts. This strips us of what little self-esteem we have and cements their control over us even further.
But when we leave them, they fear that loss of control and so do everything they can to manipulate us to get us back. They play on our fears that we aren’t good enough, that we’ve failed them and the relationship. The one we have been taking responsibility for. It is hard for us to shake that belief, given it’s been so ingrained in us from the start. And that make us feel guilty for abandoning them, as ‘we’re the only person who can help them change’ or so they convince us to believe.
You are not to blame for feeling this way. It is a form of brainwashing and happens slowly over a period of time.
We’re like a frog in boiling water, that doesn’t notice the heat inching up in tiny increments, until it’s too late.
We are addicted to them
The cycle of abuse, with its highs and lows leads us to develop an unhealthy addiction to them. But it’s not just us craving the high of being basked in their sunshine again after abuse. It’s also more complicated than that.
The cycle of abuse is a battle for control. Not just them wanting control over us. But, although we don’t realise it at the time, we have a dysfunctional need for control over them as well.
Whilst they are abusive towards us they feel in control. When they are remorseful and fearing they’ll lose us as a result of it, we have control of the relationship. They need us. Only we can rescue them. We’re the ones that can save them from their damaged selves.
The see-saw of who is in control swings back and forth. We have a need to be needed and their depending on us, needing us to help them change into the person we believe them to be deep down inside, feels good to us. It makes us feel wanted, loved and special. We keep giving them one more chance.
We’re convinced they’ll change
All they need is for us to show them we love them more, prove to them we are worthy of their love. That we can see their vulnerable, damaged side and it’s okay. We can help bring their true side out.
But this is a false hope. Nothing we do or say can fix them. Only they can heal themselves. But it’s a hope that makes us stay, even after abuse. And go back to them again and again, even after that abuse escalates and we risk our lives.
We fear the future
The fear of the unknown can be crippling. Whether it’s a fear of how we’ll support ourselves, how we’ll raise children alone. Of going into hiding in a shelter. Or just a future of living without them. It’s terrifying. I faced the prospect of life as a young, single mother which scared me. And I loved him. The thought of never seeing him again, never feeling that drug-like high ever again killed me. It’s often not our choice to leave. It’s how we’re treated that makes the relationship impossible to stay in. And that hurts. Badly.
It was fear of what people would think of me that stopped me telling the truth about my violent ex too and for staying for longer than I should have. I covered it up and went back to him after he almost killed me. I was afraid too, of what would happen if I left. So, I lived the lie we were a happy family. I wanted so bad for it to be true. The fear of losing him outweighed the risk of losing my life to him.
We want closure
One of the hardest things for me to realise was I was never going to get that. It took me a long time to realise this was never going to happen. That he couldn’t see any other point of view but his own. Narcissists have a lack of empathy. They have no concept as to how their actions make us feel. They get frustrated when we do just do what they want us to and allow them control . They throw tantrums and bully us to get it back again. They often even, successfully, portray themselves as the victim. You must break this negative cycle. Part of that is to let go of this concept. You won’t get closure. They will never tell you those words you so desperately need to hear. You might be waiting and hoping for a lifetime, before they’ll change.
Do these feelings resonate with you? Are you struggling to leave a relationship you know is no good for you? Do you keep giving them another chance. You’re not alone. These feelings are normal and we all go through this.
Finding the courage and strength to leave an abusive relationship is tough. This is why we go back many, many times before we finally have the will to do so for good.
Not only have they convinced us we are to blame and we’ve convinced ourselves they can change. But we’re desperate for their good side to overcome their bad and they’ll finally admit we were lovable and did put their interests first, all along.
But the most difficult thing to break is our addiction to them. Particularly, as the cycle of abuse has ground us down and our self-esteem along with it. When you have little self-worth it’s hard to find the courage to admit we deserve better.
Withdrawing from an abusive relationship feels the same as breaking an addiction to an opiate. The pull back to them is intense. All I wanted was for the pain to go away. All I needed was for him to tell me he loved me, it would never happen again. Just one more hug and I would give him another chance. It’s easier to do that than face the agonising withdrawal of walking away.
Are you always giving them one more chance? Even when you know the relationship is bad for you? Let me know in the comments below.
If you need professional help, advice or support please see Domestic Violence resources here.