What Makes the Victims of Violence Stay?

A Family in Crisis

Distraught Young Woman
Violence Victims Stay for Varying Reasons. © Getty Images

Most people who come in contact with the inappropriate behavior of an alcoholic will simply walk away. They will end the relationship or friendship and take steps to avoid further contact. But for many others, it is not so simple.

Others seem to be drawn to alcoholics and the more the behavior becomes unacceptable or abusive, the harder they seem to hold on to the relationship -- the harder they work to try to "fix" it.

In our story of A Family in Crisis, Glenda tried to hold on to her marriage to David long after his treatment of her became what any "normal" person would consider totally unacceptable -- even after it got to the point that he appeared to be trying to push her away.

She worked even more diligently to try to make the marriage work. She went out of her way to cater to his every need and desire. She ignored his verbal abuse and blamed herself for his violent outbursts. She spent most of her time "walking on eggshells" to avoid another violent incident.

In the process, she simply disappeared. She was no longer Glenda; she was "David's wife." Her goals and ambitions in life became non-existent as she put all of her energy and efforts into trying to hold on to David at all costs. It required all of her attention; there was no time left for her. She stopped living her own life and began living his -- with her "happiness" solely dependent upon what kind of day he was having.

Some Common Traits

What is the difference between those who walk away from an abusive alcoholic at the first sign of trouble and those who cling to them? There may be no black-and-white answers, but here are some characteristics that seem to be common to those who can't just walk away:

Low Self-Esteem - For whatever reason, those in abusive relationships usually have a very low opinion of themselves.

They may think they are unattractive, or too overweight, or not smart enough. Consequently, they hold on to their present relationship, because they believe that no one else would ever want them. They think it's the only relationship they will ever have.

Abandonment Issues - Perhaps they were abandoned by a parent in childhood and the loss was traumatic. They go through life trying to avoid feeling that way again. They hang on because being in an abusive relationship is better than being left alone, because abandonment is their greatest fear.

Need to be Needed - They confuse pity with love. All of their relationships are with people who "need" them or are dependent on them in some way. They are rescuers. They don't leave the relationship because they think the alcoholic could not survive without their help.

Controlling - They have a strong need to be in control. They take on responsibilities that do not belong to them -- paying the bills, repairing the house, mowing the lawn -- because those things just would not get done without them. They may complain about the alcoholic's lack of responsibility in these areas, but many times the truth is they would have it no other way because it satisfies their need to be needed.

No Boundaries - They have trouble setting personal boundaries, standing up for themselves. They have a problem saying "no." They may try to set boundaries, but then feel guilty and allow those lines to be crossed, which usually causes more problems in the relationship than never having set the boundary in the first place.

Addicted to Excitement - Many who are involved in alcoholic relationships find that they are attracted to the excitement, the chaos, the uncertainty, and even the crises. They cannot stand to be bored. They would find "normal" people terribly dull. In times of relative calm, sometimes they will even create a crisis, just to avoid boredom.

For them, life must be a constant soap opera.

Acceptance Seeking - Since many who end up in alcoholic relationships grew up in alcoholic homes themselves, they are comfortable with alcoholics because they know they will not be judged. Having the approval of others is very important to them. Many are attracted to alcoholics in the first place because that is behavior that they are used to and most comfortable being around.

Martyr Complex - There are those who seem to enjoy being in the role of a martyr, a perpetual victim, for some psychological reason. They enjoy the sympathy they receive when they tell their friends the suffering they have to endure as a result of the alcoholic's behavior. These martyr personalities seem to have the most problems if the alcoholic seeks treatment and finds sobriety.

Hiding Out - As long as they have the alcoholic's behavior to focus upon, it takes the spotlight off of their own shortcomings. If they can point the finger at the alcoholic and blame all of the family's problems on his behavior, no one notices the part they are playing, including themselves sometimes. They are "safe" in the relationship because they can hide their own flaws behind the many mistakes of the alcoholic.

Substituting Addictions

Not everyone in an abusive relationship has all of the above characteristics, but most have at least some of them. As for Glenda, her main issue seems to be with low self-esteem. She thinks she is unattractive. She held on to her marriage to David for years because she thought he was the only one who would have her.

But they did eventually get divorced. Even though David tried harder and harder to push her away, she kept clinging to the relationship, until one day she discovered that she had attracted the attention of another alcoholic. Only then did she feel safe to abandon the relationship with David.

She left one alcoholic for another one.

Next: A Progressive Disease

Previously in 'A Family in Crisis'

Part 1: A Family in Crisis
Part 2: An Alcoholic in Denial
Part 3: A Family Disease
Part 4: The Cycle of Violence
Part 5: The Cycle Continues

Has your relationship crossed the line to become an abusive one? Take the Abuse Screening Quiz.