Why do people stay in abusive relationships? This question has never been more pertinent, because politically speaking, a lot of people in the UK are choosing to do just that. Let me start by saying that if you decide it is a person’s fault for staying with their abuser and that they must be stupid to stay – you’ll help keep them there.
Loss of self esteem is key to keeping people in abusive relationships. You stay because you think there’s nothing better out there for you. You may even be persuaded that you are so awful that no one else but your abuser could put up with you. Consider what’s happened in the last ten years or so to blame the poor for poverty and to crush the self esteem of anyone who is struggling, and to suggest that nothing better exists.
If someone is persuaded that they don’t deserve nice things, and that their suffering is their own fault, they stay. Telling a person it’s their fault they will go hungry as they’re sanctioned to meet targets is a similar process to telling a person it is their fault you hit them. If you’re subject to blame for long enough, the odds are you will internalise it. If you think you are too clever, too self aware, too well informed to succumb, let me tell you that you are wrong in this, and that minds are fragile and break in certain circumstances. Everyone has points at which they would break and things they cannot resist. Pray you never get to find out where yours is, but don’t imagine you are ‘above’ all that.
You do not save people from abusive relationships by trying to tell them how awful their abuser is. This can cause victims to dig in, defending the one person they are convinced could even tolerate them. You don’t get people out of abusive relationships by shaming them, making them feel responsible, or making them feel stupid because this reinforces everything their abuser has been doing. We do this around politics a lot. It’s not helping.
The only way to help someone break out of an abusive relationship is to re-build their shattered confidence and self esteem. If they can feel better about themselves, they can better see what’s being done to them. The person who finds they are loved, valued, supported and cared for by someone who is not their abuser, can consider the ‘love’ their abuser shows in a new light. It takes time and patience to put back together someone who has been taken apart, but it is the only thing that works.
When people vote in a way we consider self-harming, we have to stop responding like this is because they are stupid. It is exactly the same as telling a battered wife that she is stupid to stay – women in such circumstances already know they are stupid and worthless and that life would be even more terrible if their abuser wasn’t there to sort things out for them. This is exactly the same, just on a much bigger scale. Only when we stop victim blaming can we help people believe they are worth more and should be able to have nice things, and that the way to have nice things is to get away from the person who keeps telling them they cannot have nice things.
It is of course much easier to be cross with people for staying, and to blame them and feel like you have the moral high ground for not being in that mess yourself. I’ve been there. I’ve been broken, robbed of my confidence and convinced I was so worthless that I should be grateful to the person who constantly mistreated me. I felt stupid, and useless and could not imagine I deserved any better. Being treated kindly and being valued got me out of there, eventually. Lifting each other up gets amazing things done. Blaming and shaming keeps people thinking they deserve no better.