Why do domestic abuse victims stay? Tip: It’s nothing to do with demographics.

How shame trapped me in an abusive relationship.

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I had the belief I could achieve anything….and I would. That’s the type of person I was. I had ultimate confidence that the universe was good and that everything would be alright, no matter what life threw at me.

I went to university, got a master’s in engineering. I was surrounded every day by high achieving, ambitious, confident people who dreamt of goals and achieved them with ease. I was happy, confident, independent, and had the world as my oyster and enjoyed living life to the fullest.

I still question myself even today almost a decade after leaving the abusive relationship, how I let myself fall into it and why I stayed for almost 10 years crushing so much promise and ambition.

The impact an abusive relationship has on you is profound and will make you question yourself, your character and every situation you went through. You will ask yourself why? Why did I let that happen? Why did I not leave earlier? Why did I not ask for help? Why did I keep on going as if nothing had happened? Why did I stay? Why didn’t I leave? Why didn’t I ask for help?

For many abuse victims, financial security is a huge reason why they cannot leave as the abuser has restricted their access to funds,  or coerced them to stop working or studying. Maybe children are involved and the victim worries how to look after them without the financial support of the abuser. But for me, there were no children and I earned significantly more than my abusive partner so this wasn’t my reason.

No. The answer to the questions for me was…SHAME.

Shame is a powerful emotion and crippling for women who’ve experienced an abusive relationship. You feel like others will judge you because you didn’t leave right away. Feelings of shame can make you feel unlovable, unworthy or defective in some way. Shame becomes deeply rooted and is so hard to break free from. I thought that people would think less of me for having put up with it for almost ten years so I never told anyone during or after the relationship.

It was only ten years after leaving the relationship that something made me connect the words victim and abuse to my situation and it made me cry. I didn’t want to use those words because I always thought it sounded too strong to describe it. It sounded like it should be for other people who suffered more and were in worse situations.

So you see shame has its fingers in many pies. Shame stops you from asking for help during the relationship and it stops you from asking for help after you’ve left.

How can shame have such a hold on people for so long?

Researcher Dr. Brene Brown said for shame to survive three elements are needed; Silence, Secrecy, and Judgement. The victim has the power to crush silence and secrecy just by speaking out. So why is it so hard for them to speak? Because of the third element; judgement. 

The victim has no control over how anyone will judge her if she was to speak out. Often the abuser has been seen as a great guy to the outside world of friends and family so it can be that people initially respond with shock and say; ‘him? No! He doesn’t seem like a person who would do that, are you sure?’

In this simple but common response lies the judgement which makes it hard for victims to speak out. They have to defend and justify their experiences instead of being automatically believed and given the validation, respect, and empathy they deserve.

The ‘#metoo’ phenomenon is a clear example of this. Some of these women had kept quiet for years about what happened to them. Why? Maybe because of the fear of how they would be judged and the impact it might have on their personal and professional lives.

So society has taken a step with the ‘#metoo’ movement but progress still needs to happen before it will be possible to speak out without fear of judgement.

Moving forward

I have realised that for me to be able to fully live my life and feel free, it’s time to share my story. I found a very supportive group of women who I felt able to speak openly to and the impact of saying the words victim and abuse for the first time out loud and to other people has been astounding. It was an instant release of the past that I thought I had dealt with but was still carrying around with me. Since I have said the words out loud and released the energy of them the universe has opened up with opportunities and connections that I believe would never have come my way otherwise.

What happens to you in a relationship of domestic abuse is NOT your fault. What you chose to do after you’ve left it is however your responsibility. I urge you to not take as long as I did before finding someone to speak to. Shame is an emotion, it is not a state of being so it is something that can be worked on and something you can stop feeling.

Be brave, give it a go, what have you got to lose?

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