Why You Stay in a Relationship if You're Being Psychologically Abused

If you're being psychologically abused, you probably don’t even realize what’s happening to you. Beyond just realizing it, sometimes factors such as fear, indecision, or feelings like guilt can make you stay in an abusive relationship.
Why You Stay in a Relationship if You're Being Psychologically Abused
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

If you’re being psychologically abused and you’re unhappy, you might be asking yourself “Why don’t I just walk away from the relationship?” The answer to that question, which outsiders tend to ask people with abusive partners, can hide behind a complex web of factors. Fear, shame, indecision, confusion, and even love can make a person stay in a toxic relationship.

Neuroscience often tells us that our brains are designed to favor social connections. That’s why something beyond just commitment is built when you start a relationship with someone. Your brain structures also get used to that connection. They begin to feed off of your daily interactions, your affection for the person, and the intimacy you both share.

That’s why people commonly downplay the significance of controlling or abusive behaviors. The brain opts not to process the reality of the harm. It stubbornly tries to save the connections because it assumes the truth can be tremendously painful. Little by little, perception becomes clouded by a sophisticated self-defense system.

Psychological abuse is a very sophisticated trap. That’s why you shouldn’t underestimate its power by suggesting the victim is blind, naive, or indecisive when they stay in an abusive relationship. The tactics that the controlling person uses are often both subtle and persistent. Thus, it’s not easy to just get up and walk away.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

-William Shakespeare-

Why do you stay in a relationship if you’re being psychologically abused?

If you’re being psychologically abused, it’ll take a long while for you to accept that reality. It’s possible that the people around you have asked you how you can tolerate certain behaviors, actions, or words. Nevertheless, you tend to ignore comments like this. You believe other people can’t see what you see in your partner. It’s possible that you often tell yourself that they’re special and worth sticking it through for.

You’ll repeat this internal dialogue to yourself day by day until, one day, you’ll come to realize that it just doesn’t make sense. At this time, you’ll become aware of the trap in which you’ve fallen. That moment might evoke unexpected feelings. Despite being aware of the abuse, you might not have the strength to leave the relationship because you’ll be suddenly filled with many fears.

In fact, a study that Jacobson N, Gottman JM, and Gortner E carried out at the University of Washington showed that these situations can drag on for two to five years on average. Below, we discuss some of the reasons why it may be difficult to let these types of relationships go.

Psychological “freezing”

Psychological abuse ultimately has the same sort of impact as trauma. This type of abuse constantly damages self-esteem, dignity, and self-image.

The victim ends up suffering the same symptoms as those experienced during a stressful situation. They feel mentally drained, suffer from headaches, and may experience muscle pain and memory loss. All of this can often lead to a state of psychological “freezing”. That is to say, the abused person comes to dissociate themselves from their emotions to not suffer. They want to avoid feeling pain. This, in turn, increases the attacker’s motivation to keep causing harm.

A woman holding a cloud.

Abuse tactics that change a person’s way of thinking

Something that we often forget when we talk about psychological abuse is that the abuser justifies their actions. They always use ‘love’ as a basic tool to stay in power. Every demand they use to control the victim as they wish will be justified by their love for them. But this false and double-edged affection will always make the abused partner stand down.

The person who’s being psychologically abused will use justifications, cognitive dissonance, and false beliefs in order to assume their part in this dynamic. Little by little, those manipulation tactics will change their way of thinking and even their personality. There will be times when they come to believe that they’re to blame for everything that’s happening to them. They’ll end up hating themselves and experiencing emotions such as shame and anxiety.

You have to rebuild yourself to rewrite your story

When you’re being psychologically abused, you have to reinvent yourself. This abuse can leave you deteriorated, wasted away, or highly vulnerable. This is why you may find it so hard to leave the relationship.

In order to do it, you’ll probably need some support. Experts recommend that you rely on trustworthy people and professionals. They’re the ones who’ll be able to help you rewrite your story and help you heal. Psychological abuse might not leave visible marks on you, but it can erase many parts of your old self. It wipes identities away, alters your sense of self-worth, eats away your self-esteem, and eradicates your values.

You can rebuild yourself once again after being psychologically abused. You need to rely on resilience to be able to do it. Your goal should be to become a stronger person who’s ready to live a fuller life. Even though you can’t forget your past, this relationship is only a small part of your story. It’s something that doesn’t have to define your future or your ability to create happier future memories.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • González-Ortega, I., Echeburúa, E., & De Corral, P. (2008). Variables significativas en las relaciones violentas: Una revisión. Psicologia Conductual.
  • Jacobson, NS, Gottman, JM, Gortner, E., Berns, S., y Shortt, JW (1996). Factores psicológicos en el curso longitudinal del maltrato: ¿cuándo se separan las parejas? ¿Cuándo disminuye el abuso? Violencia y víctimas , 11 (4), 371–92. https://doi.org/methoden;qualitative inhaltsanalyse

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.