Should I return or stay out? While it sounds like a simple question with an easy answer, those of us who have been in violent relationships know it to be extremely complicated. In my blog (Why Victims Stay or Return to Their Abusers) I address many of the reasons why victims stay or return. In this post, I want to focus on another component that draws us into that vacillation dance—the honeymoon period.
Part of the reason leaving is such a difficult decision is based on the Cycle of Abuse (See tab above). Abusive relationships are filled with emotional highs and lows. As the tension stage builds toward the battering incident, the victim tries desperately to appease her* habitually disgruntled partner. Knowing that she will not be successful, she slides into numbness to avoid the fear of what is to come—and it does. Her partner explodes and brutally terrorizes her. Afterward, the couple move into the honeymoon period where the abuser apologizes and promises to change. During the honeymoon period, there is relief from the victim’s pain. She experiences a high that he wants and needs her so much. It’s like falling in love all over again. She feels alive and believes battering will never happen again.
Survivors know that it is not over and it is not a circle—it’s a spiral. It will happen again and again, with the incidents coming more often and the severity of the abuse escalating.
Most survivors were driven from the relationship by an incident of violence. We were finished. However, our partners moved on to do the dance of the honeymoon period where they attempted to woo us back. They became Mr. Wonderfuls—those guys we first met. They told us they were sorry as they pulled out all the old tricks that hooked us and held us in the relationship. We received letters professing their love, promises that they would do whatever was necessary to get us back. They joined AA or church. They even used our children to intercede on their behalf. It didn’t matter to them what they had to do or say. They weren't going to follow through with their promises anymore than they followed through with them the last time.
Meanwhile, we slid into numbness. That critical voice in our heads attacked us saying we could never survive on our own. We couldn’t support our children. He would find a way to take our children away from us. All his threats spun through our minds. Our lives felt like an endless nightmare. We longed for relief. That heady feeling from the honeymoon period tempted us to return. Maybe this time things would be different.
If victims stop themselves amid the negitive chatter and go to that quiet place in their gut, they would hear the truth—if they return things will not change. The abuse will continue. The victims self-esteem will be decimated. Feeling victorious, abusers will believe they now have the right to hold the reins of control tighter, demanding more and limiting their partners’ freedoms. In addition, victims must understand that the abuse will escalate and spill over onto their children. The end result may be death for the victims and, in may cases, their children, also.
When an ex understands that his victim is not returning, he will do whatever it takes to make her life hell. He will:
- Tell lies to others so the victim looks like the bad partner.
- Create chaos around her to keep her off-balance and not be able to think clearly, hoping to wear her down so she gives up and returns.
- Come up with a sob story to lure her back or get a toe in the door. (He wants to stay in the house with her. It’s just until he is back on his feet then he’ll leave or do whatever she wants.)
- Hide their money.
- Criticize everything she does to make her afraid she cannot make it without him.
- Embarrass her at her workplace—Antagonize her employers, hoping she gets fired.
- Stalk her relentlessly, to wear her down so she will return to him.
- Drag her to court for minor and made up claims to drain her energy and finances.
- Use the children to hurt her.
- Murder her and/or her children. (women who leave are 70% more likely to be murdered—often within the first 6 months)
To survive, victims have to face the fact that they cannot change their partners. They have to admit that the heady honeymoon period would never last. Then they must learn how to shore themselves up against their exes stunts.
What worked for me was to imagine myself standing outside the drama my ex created. I watched for his expected antics and ticked them off my mental list as an item. Thinking of it that way, I didn’t engage or succumb to the emotions. I breathed deeply and didn’t react to his attempts to rile me. It took some practice—unfortunately I had plenty of opportunity to practice.
It helped to develop a set statement to tell myself when the vacillating dance music began playing in my head.
“I’ve been here before…too many times. He is doing and saying the same things he always has. He’s made no effort to change. I cannot change him, save him, or do the work for him. If he valued our relationship and wanted to change, he would go into treatment and follow the program. He has not, so he will not change.”
When I accepted the fact that the only one I could change was me, I started focusing on my future and discovered the highs of achieving my goals.
To those struggling with this decision: If you think you cannot do it, consider all the hard work you have put into this relationship. If you turn your focus on yourself, you will see results because you are a willing participant.
It’s a struggle to take back control of our lives after all the years spent being told we were inept and that no one cared about us or will help us. These lies need to be yanked out by the roots. We are not stupid and there is help through local shelters or at the National Domestic Violence Hot Line at 800.799.7233. If you aren’t working with a therapist trained in domestic abuse treatment, find one or a support group. There are also lots of survivors on Facebook, willing to give you emotional support and share what they have learned in public or private groups.
It’s not easy to make the decision to stay out. Don’t beat yourself up if this is the second, forth, or tenth time you’ve left. Just let this time be the last time.
* I use the pronoun “he” as the abuser and “she” as the victim because that was my experience and for ease of clarity in my writing. We know that men can also be victims.