In most cases, abuse is complicated rather than simple. You may be confused and disturbed as to why the abuse victim didn’t simply leave as soon as the abuse started. While the victim does NOT like being abused, their actions may seem to be highly inconsistent with not wanting abuse. Unfortunately, it is quite common for abuse victims to stay in the abusive situation (or want to return to the abuse) because they want validation from their abuser. This article will look at what you can do to help them get out of their predicament.
Why it’s hard for abuse victims to leave
Our brains are constantly drawing connections between our actions and their consequences. Unfortunately, our brain often screws up and draws illogical connections. For example, most people have problems with procrastination (especially in school). The procrastinator’s brain draws an erroneous connection between procrastination and the immediate relief of “avoiding” an unpleasant task. Our brains tell us that procrastination is a “good” idea, even though we can logically figure out that procrastination makes the problem worse and the task even more unpleasant.
In an abusive situation, the brain draws a faulty connection between the victim and the abuse that is happening. Abuse victims often believe that they somehow ’caused’ the abuse or that they ‘deserve’ to be abused because they somehow aren’t good enough. They will continue to feel like they aren’t good enough until the abuser validates their self-worth (which almost certainly will not happen). This is why abuse victims stay in abusive relationships far longer than they should, often for several years. Their brain is telling them that they need some form of validation:
- They want to change their abuser.
- They want their abuser to magically change and go back to the person they pretended to be at the beginning of the relationship.
- They want their abuser to admit that they wronged them.
- Or, they want the world to see that their abuser wronged them.
Some abuse victims refer to the mental blocks that prevent them from leaving as ‘trauma bonding’, brainwashing, an addiction, or as the Stockholm syndrome.
Validate the victim
The one form of validation that you can give the victim is to let them know that they were wronged and did not deserve what happened to them. To do that, you have to make them feel safe enough to tell you their full story. This is especially important if the victim is taking steps to hide their abuse or to protect their abuser. You can start a conversation by talking about unhealthy behaviors that you have witnessed the abuser doing; explain that the victim has been wronged and sympathize with them. Some tips:
- Listen. The person you care about should be doing far more talking than you. Let them finish explaining themselves.
- If you state your opinion (e.g. they should leave), don’t ram it down their throat. You can present your opinion and ask them what they think about it. Let them disagree with it. They ultimately have to make up their own mind so let them come to their own conclusions. You are not going to change their mind by bullying them, so don’t do it.
- Do not shame them for staying or attack their decision to do so.
Abuse is typically about control. You want to make the victim know that the abuser’s manipulations were wrong. What usually happens is this:
- The abuser pretends to be normal to lure others into their web of control. If the abuse is from a romantic partner, the relationship typically starts off looking normal. Abusers don’t advertise their toxicity (e.g. their dating profile doesn’t state: enjoys long walks on the beach while picking apart their date’s flaws). Many abusers are charming in the beginning and/or bombard the target with plenty of gifts and attention.
- The manipulations used to control the victim slowly creep in and are subtle at first. The red flags are initially hard to notice.
- The abuse ramps up. To verify control, the abuser hurts the victim or asks them to do things that they normally wouldn’t do (e.g. give up passwords to social media accounts, stop seeing men/women, etc.).
- Emotional abuse (rather than any physical/sexual abuse) often accounts for the brunt of the damage. The emotional and psychological manipulations are typically constant and unrelenting. Many abuse victims continue to have serious problems after the abuse stops, even if their abuser has passed away.
- The abuser uses any number of tools to control the victim:
- Financial: they encourage the victim to quit their job and become financially dependent.
- Social isolation: they discourage the victim from having relationships with their friends and family. They may move to a remote area and deny access to transportation.
- Fear: they use or threaten violence.
- Guilt: the abuser plays the victim card, brings up their bad childhood, threatens to commit suicide, or gets the victim to believe that they are responsible for their abuser’s sorry state.
- Obligation: the abuser provides gifts to the victim so that they feel obligated to reciprocate (by giving the abuser control).
- Self-worth: The abuser chips away at their victim’s confidence and sense of self-worth.
- Whenever the abuser feels that their abusive tactics aren’t the right tool to use at the moment, they switch back to being charming and generous. They show love to their victim to throw them off balance.
Every day, the victim is dealing with manipulations and an erosion of their self-worth. They commonly feel deeply ashamed for allowing themselves to fall into their current situation. Ideally, you want them to feel safe enough to tell you about what they’ve been experiencing. The abuse has been going on for a long time and they may have deep feelings of shame, worthlessness, fear, guilt, obligation, confusion, etc.
Tell them that:
- They were wronged.
- They didn’t deserve what happened to them.
- It’s not their fault. They did not cause the abuse.
- They are not worthless.
- Abuse is common and their reaction to it is quite normal. Most abuse victims act like the pop star Rihanna as they go back to a toxic relationship (or stay far longer than they should). Rihanna’s decision to go back to the man who beat her was a mistake as he has since violated his parole, attracted restraining orders from two other women, and continues to blame the victim for his actions.
Encourage them to work on the part of themselves that seeks validation from their abuser as it will be the main barrier to recovery.
If they still seek validation from their abuser
Getting the victim to change will be hard, so lower your expectations. Try to get them to see their abuser for who they really are.
- Look at the trail of destruction. It is highly likely that the abuser has left a trail of destruction behind. Their toxic nature inevitably destroys their friendships and causes them to hurt their romantic partners to leave them. Toxic people will often make up stories about what their former friends and partners have left, so do not believe their stories until you hear the other side. Getting the abuse victim to research the trail of destruction may help them understand that their abuser will not change.
- Ask the victim if they really know their abuser. Their abuser needs to hurt/control others to feel safe. It is highly unlikely that they have told their victim that they have toxic compulsions, where those compulsions came from, and how they feel about having those compulsions. They know that they are a monster and they are likely deeply ashamed of who they are. They are not going to tell their victim any of this because vulnerability would make them feel powerless and not in control, which are the very things that they are afraid of.
- The victim can change their abuser… into a more toxic version of themselves. If the victim stays and feeds their abuser’s toxic desires, then the abuser will continue to take and take. The abuse will get even worse. The historical trend should be obvious: the victim has tried harder and harder to win the abuser’s validation while the abuser has become increasingly abusive over time. By allowing the abuser to manipulate them and to get what the abuser wants, the victim is enabling and feeding their abuser’s toxic needs. The victim is changing their abuser but in the wrong direction.
- One of the abuser’s manipulation tactics is false hope. They dangle the possibility of change in front of the victim to get them to dance.
If that still doesn’t help, you can suggest that they do self-therapy to deal with the mental hangups that hold them back.
Or, they can see a professional therapist with experience in dealing with abuse victims. Note that the field of psychiatry has various land mines to watch out for. Psychiatric drugs can do more harm than good; many of them are highly addictive and dangerous if suddenly discontinued. Many psychiatrists got into the field because they were abused themselves and have not healed their traumas; some of them actively abused their own children1 while practicing as a psychiatrist.
Point them towards resources
- How to do self-therapy to deal with the mental hangups that hold victims back. (This link was previously mentioned.)
- Tips on how to safely leave
- If you search Google for city name + domestic violence shelter, you can find nearby shelters. Shelters may have case workers who can assist the victim in forming a safety plan so that they can safely leave. They may also be able to help the victim find a victim advocate to help them file a restraining order.
- If the victim wants therapy, Psychology Today has a directory of practitioners.
Abuse victims have a breaking point
The majority of abuse victims eventually hit a point where the abuse has gotten so out of hand that they will leave. For some people it’s physical violence. For others, it happens when they fear for their lives. (Unfortunately, some abuse victims do get killed by their abuser after leaving.) When they do leave:
- Give them positive reinforcement for taking care of themselves. You don’t want to punish them for acting in their own best interests.
- Make sure that they are safe. Leaving can be a dangerous time because the abuser has deep fears of being powerless and not in control. The abuser may become incredibly unstable and resort to extreme violence.
- Be aware that most abuse victims will have a desire to return. They may do so several times before they finally leave.
- Even after they leave for good, they may have mental health issues that affect their life. The abuse may lead to a damaged self-esteem and phobias of abuse-like situations (e.g. intimacy).
The reality is that many abuse victims do things the really hard way. Their preferred solution is to try to change their abuser, which is a terrible plan as the abuse usually escalates over time.
Do not make things harder for the abuse victim
Do not try to shame, coerce, or bully the victim into doing what you want them to do. Adding unnecessary pressure can push them away and make them feel even more socially isolated and alone.
If you find their situation too heartbreaking to watch, that’s ok. You can tell them that it’s too heartbreaking and that you don’t want to stick around to watch it play out. That’s your right. But try not to put more problems on their plate.
Document any illegal activity
Many but not all forms of abuse are illegal:
- If the victim is a minor, emotional abuse from their parents is likely illegal under child abuse laws. It is child abandonment if the parents kick the minor out of the household.
- In the UK, Ireland, and France, emotional abuse falls under laws regarding coercive control. In other countries, coercive control itself may not be illegal but emotional abuse may be used as grounds for a restraining/protective order.
- Document any illegal activity unrelated to the abuse.
- Document signs that the abuser has mental health issues such as substance abuse, suicide threats, signs of a personality disorder (e.g. delusions), etc. If they are likely to harm themselves or others, you can call the police to have a wellness check done on them.
If you have personally witnessed the victim being physically or sexually assaulted, write down what you remember should the victim later decide to press charges. Your testimony as a witness can be critical to their case.
If you witness an assault and there is physical evidence of it, you can talk to the police about it. However, such cases may not always be prosecuted if the abuse victim does not want to be a witness (or if the victim will lie to protect their abuser). If the abuse victim is still seeking validation from their abuser and hasn’t hit their breaking point yet, they will typically be uncooperative with the police. Abuse victims often act against their best interests. Going to the police may damage your relationship with them.
A few people are afraid of succeeding too hard in life
A small minority of abuse victims will have unusually high difficulty in leaving abuse (relative to other abuse victims) because they don’t want to succeed too hard in life. Their problems started before their current abusive relationship. Some (but not all) emotionally abusive parents will intentionally try to sabotage their child’s success for various reasons: they don’t like the child stealing attention from them, they want their child to be dependent on them and easier to control, and/or they hurt the child to feel like they are in control. Punishing a child for succeeding can lead the child to develop a fear of success. This fear often lasts a lifetime and interferes with the victim’s ability to lead a normal life. Victims of childhood abuse may intentionally sabotage their personal life so that they don’t succeed too hard.
Past abuse can lead somebody to distrust healthy relationship behaviours, generosity (because their abusive parent would attach strings to their insincere generosity), communicating their needs, emotional intimacy, and allowing others to know who they really are. Some abuse victims learn to lie and make up stories about who they are. Their childhood abuse has set them up for failure later on in life. Victims of child abuse are more likely to end up in abusive relationships in their life, sometimes going from abusive relationship to abusive relationship. The abuse that they received as children can make it more difficult to stay away from abusive relationships as they may have an extremely damaged sense of self-worth and/or a broken “normal meter”. They do not realize that abusive behaviours in a relationship aren’t normal.
Abuse can be frustrating to watch
Abuse victims have mental hurdles that prevent them from taking care of themselves. It can understandably be heartbreaking to watch them make a series of poor decisions. Their problems can be incredibly difficult to solve so you may want to lower your expectations. Remember to take care of yourself too.
If you want to help, remember to focus on the problem that the victim wants to work on. Even if they don’t want to leave (or want to go back), they want the abuse to end. You can gently point them towards the resources to help them do that. Encourage them to change themselves as a way of getting the abuse in their head to stop.
Links and resources
How to Help a Victim of Narcissistic Abuse Part 1: What To Do – This is an excellent Youtube video on how to talk to the abuse victim.
(CNN article) When a friend won’t walk away from abuse
Peer support groups – some people find these groups to be helpful as they can read stories from others who have gone through their situation.
- Abuse by romantic partner: r/narcissisticAbuse r/domesticViolence r/abuse r/AbuseInterrupted r/abusiveRelationships
- Abuse by parents: r/RaisedByNarcissists
- Abuse in the workplace: r/ManagedByNarcissists
- Sexual abuse: r/AdultSurvivors r/Rape
My Girlfriend Tortured, Stabbed and Starved Me | This Morning – An abuse victim talks about his experience after being physically assaulted. He can’t explain why he didn’t leave.
Why domestic violence victims don’t leave | Leslie Morgan Steiner – *Personally, I think that the speaker is in denial about what happened to her. She suggests that she sees herself as a “very strong woman” and that fear prevented her from leaving (transcript here). The reality is the opposite: most abuse victims had their self-worth destroyed by their abuser and finally leave because of fear.
“I’m sorry” – CPTSD and feelings of Guilt/Shame – This Youtuber talks about how her mom used guilt as a weapon to control her psychologically/emotionally.
Peer support groups, TedX talks, and Youtube are good places to look for abuse stories. “Narcissistic abuse” is a good phrase to search for.
An abusive father bullies his son and makes his daughter film it. The son ends up slamming his dad.
Mother Abuses And Yells At Child In Walmart! – A mother hurts her child and then rages when bystanders call her out on it.
- See Martin Miller’s interview about his mother, where he describes how his mother unethically obtained tapes of her son’s therapy sessions so that she would have ammo to use against him. Alice Miller is the author of a popular book on child abuse called The Drama of the Gifted Child.