On Abusive Relationships: How They Start & Why We Stay

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Many of the people that I work with, or have worked with in the past, have suffered from some form of abuse or another—whether emotional, physical, spiritual, financial or sexual abuse. The reality is that abuse doesn’t discriminate, and people from all walks of life, cultures, socioeconomic status, race, and so on, can suffer from abuse.


How does abuse start?

Before we talk about how to leave an abusive relationship, it’s important to talk about how abuse starts. Abuse usually happens gradually. Most abusers are not going to show you their ugly sides up front.

This is why I remind my clients who are starting new relationships to remember that everyone puts their best foot forward in the beginning. I say this because I know how the brain reacts to new love, and how it can color our vision (more on this later). I say this because I want them to proceed wisely, building a connection slowly and thoughtfully—to watch if their new love’s actions matches their words.

Keep in mind that people who abuse others are often calculated, working slowly to disconnect you from yourself and from the people around you. They do this so that they can mold you into an object who's sole purpose is to meet their every need.

Sadly, over time, victims become used to the abuse—quite literally, this trauma becomes their new “normal” (what is referred to as “homeostasis”). So, choosing to disrupt this normal, even if it is abusive, is a radical shift to the brain, and there is this natural resistance takes place.

Simply put: your brain, in its attempts to protect you, doesn’t want you to change. With this in mind, it’s not surprising then that it takes most victims of abuse an average of 7-12x times of trying to leave before they actually do.

The cycle of abuse.

The cycle of abuse is way of conceptualizing the progression of abuse. While the cycle of abuse can be quite nuanced and complex, it generally follows a simple four-stage cycle:

Tension Building

  • In the tension building stage, stress starts to build. Your abuser might feel threatened, or maybe they don’t feel like they’re getting the attention they deserve. A breakdown in communication begins, and you start to feel like you need to walk on eggshells so as not to upset your abuser. You often find yourself taking on a nurturing or agreeable role, becoming hyperaware of your partner’s moods. You try desperately not to rock the boat.

Acting Out

  • This stage is where the abuse occurs—whether that’s emotional, physical, spiritual, financial and/or sexual abuse. This abuse leaves you feeling worthless, less than, scared and devastated.

Honeymoon or Reconciliation

  • Otherwise known as the, “I’ll never do that again,” stage. This part of the cycle is where your abuser apologizes for the abuse. They may beg forgiveness or feign remorse. Most often, they blame the victim for provoking the abuse, and/or deny that the abuse even happened. Alternatively, they may minimize the abuse, claiming that the abuse wasn't as bad as victim made it out to be. You start to wonder if you’re actually crazy like your abuser may have told you countless times before. This questioning leaves you feeling even more disconnected.


  • During this stage, the abuse slows down or stops altogether. Your abuser acts like the abuse never happened. If they did apologize and make promises to change during the Honeymoon stage, these promises go unmet. The abuser might shower you with gifts. You believe or want to believe the abuse is over, or that the abuser will change like they said they would. You become hopeful, perhaps minimizing the abuse yourself, that is, until the cycle starts again.

“Why do people stay in abusive relationships?”

Many people wonder why people suffering from abuse stay in their abusive relationships. They think things like, “If it’s so bad then why doesn’t that person just leave?” While there is no simple answer, there are often common themes:


  • That their abuser will hurt them or their children if they leave (or try to).

  • Of what other’s may think about them. Will they be viewed as weak? Stupid? Foolish?

  • That no one will love them again because they are “too damaged,” or “not good enough.” That they’re “not strong enough.”

It’s not about being “strong enough.”

Don’t get me wrong, deciding to leave an abuser is most definitely an empowered choice. However, choosing to leave an abuser is not about whether or not someone is strong enough. There are plenty of "strong people” who still end up suffering from abuse.

This kind of talk and thinking—the “It’s their choice to stay” mentality—shifts the blame onto the victim instead of the abuser, which is invalidating, traumatic and abusive in and of itself. Unfortunately, such ideas can be a major barrier to people leaving abusive relationships, because it minimizes the trauma and invites unnecessary shame and guilt—familiar emotions for people who have suffered abuse.

Hope (Love)

  • That the abuse will go away.

  • That the person will/can change.

  • That they can rescue their abuser.

“Love isn’t enough.”

People try to convince themselves (and sometimes others) that their abuser will change. Many times, the victim believes that this change is dependent on how well they love their abuser. They start thinking things like, “If I can just love him/her enough/more, I know they’ll be different.” They may minimize the abuse, telling themselves that, “It’s not that bad,” or “It only happens a few times a year.” What is more, the victim may point to some progress their abuser has made, or to their abuser’s positive qualities. For instance, perhaps their abuser is a good provider or successful or dependable. Because of this, they may ignore the budding “red flags” (especially in the beginning) and hope that things will be different with enough time and with enough love.

In a real sense, they put themselves in a “rescuer” role, believing that they can “fix” their abuser. While this comes from a good place—a place of steadfast love and a true desire to help—it is extremely imbalanced and misguided. If you were to compare this to an addiction to drugs or alcohol, for example, a person who is struggling with addiction will not just magically stop given the right prescription of love. Instead, that person has to want to change, and no amount of hope or love will suffice—true change is not forced.

So… while love is great, it’s not enough. If people truly want to change, they have to take responsibility for their own actions—that’s the only path forward.

Your brain on breakups.

When you first start a relationship your brain releases all sorts of lovely chemicals that help you and your partner form a connection. For example, oxytocin—sometimes referred to as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone—produces feelings of security, contentment, and relaxation. This hormone is released during sex, as well as during pregnancy and nursing, and is crucial in helping people create a bond.

Another chemical that is released during the early stages of romantic love is dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as the “pleasure” chemical, because it stimulates the reward center of your brain. Things like sex, eating chocolate, doing drugs, or drinking alcohol all elicit this response.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that the early stages of love are truly an exciting time! You feel great, things seem damn near perfect, and you start to find yourself totally and helplessly in love (what is commonly referred to as the “honeymoon” stage).

Remember how I said that your brain resists change? Well, the downside of this is that when you breakup with your partner this same reward center is stimulated—in other words, you may experience cravings for your ex similar to a person going through drug or alcohol withdrawals! This can make the whole process of leaving even more complicated, causing you to question whether or not you made the right decision. It is important here that you remember and reflect on your “why”. That is, why you left and why you’re not going back.

If you are currently suffering abuse or have suffered from abuse or trauma in the past and need support, we can help. Make an appointment with us today to get started.

If you're interested in learning and hearing more, you can check out my interview on the “Something Was Wrong” podcast, where I talked about safety and coping strategies for leaving traumatic and abusive relationships (you can listen to the episode by clicking on the pic below).

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