Myth six: ‘She stayed with him so it can’t have been that bad’

This is a reworked version of the ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ question. When looking at abusive relationships, people on the outside often make problematic judgements, largely stemming from a lack of awareness or understanding of how abusive relationships work. 

In abusive relationships, a lot goes on behind closed doors. Abusers may appear to be charming in public. They typically hold down normal jobs and appear to have ‘normal’ lives. They may seem to be good at parenting and have lots of varied friendships. However, the issue with domestic abuse is that it is a domestic thing – it takes place and is centred around the family home – both as a physical place and an emotional locus. Control and coercion is centred around tying a victim to the home (and therefore to the abusive partner) in a way that is not often visible to outsiders. 

So when outsiders look at a relationship that they know to have been abusive, this can often elicit responses of disbelief and incredulity. People conjure up ‘images’ of abusive relationships, mostly based on stereotypes. These images suggest extreme physical violence and life-threatening harm. When they look at an abusive relationship that doesn’t appear to have encompassed that (at least on the surface), people try to find reasons for the continuance of that relationship. 

‘It can’t have been that bad’ is a fairly common response. It is sometimes reflective of our personal feelings of guilt when we look at relationships that we haven’t realised to be abusive; we try to justify why we didn’t realise by shifting the blame onto the victim. We assume that if the victim didn’t continuously present with obviously injuries (or even if she did but didn’t leave her partner) that the negatives of the abuse were outweighed by the positives elsewhere in the relationship.

But this is a very binary way of thinking about abuse and relationships. Abusive relationships are highly controlling, meaning that even if a victim wants to leave, they often feel they can’t (and they often can’t, without risking their safety). They may have been gaslighted into feeling unable to live without their abuser, or they may not have the economic independence to exit that relationship. It doesn’t mean that the abuse isn’t bad; it’s simply that leaving an abusive relationship is not necessarily the solution that will end the abuse – and victims often know this. 

Additionally, abusers often exploit the love and care that their victims feel for them. This means that victims may feel duty bound to stay in an abusive situation. An abuser may trick a victim into thinking that that’s how a relationship should be – and so a victim will stay, not realising that they ought to be and can be treated better. 

As an outside observer, you never know the full picture – and it’s important to remember that.