Why women stay in abusive relationships

Posted on Thursday, August 27, 2015

Glenda* was a 16-year-old single mother when she met Adam*. He was charismatic, intensely interested in her and swept her off her feet. Little did she know that this relationship would strip her of her self-worth and leave her physically and emotionally broken. This is Glenda’s story and the story of thousands of other women like her who struggle to break free of abusive relationships.


Glenda had been a straight-A student before she fell pregnant at 16. The father of her child left her, leaving her alone and vulnerable. Then she met Adam and fell in love, believing that they could build a future together. She was determined to make a success of the relationship. 


But then Adam started to behave in ways that worried Glenda. He was possessive and started to criticise her friends and family. To keep the peace, Glenda distanced herself from the people she loved the most. Then, one day, he hit her. 


This was the start of a 36-year cycle of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Glenda was isolated from her friends and family and had nowhere to turn. Adam told her that the abuse was her fault, that no other woman had ever provoked such a reaction from him and that she ‘had no soul’. Although she knew what he was doing was wrong, she couldn’t leave him. She really felt that it was her fault that she provoked such anger and that she ‘must be a terrible person’.


Why it is hard to leave
Isolation, victim-blaming and humiliation are classic characteristics of an abusive relationship. They can result in a condition known as battered woman syndrome, when a woman’s self-esteem has taken such a knock that she does not believe she will be able to cope on her own outside of the relationship. She finds it impossible to leave, or if she does leave, always comes back - largely due to the manipulation, charm and promises of the partner.


“It was very difficult to leave because I had started to believe that I was the ugliest, stupidest, least interesting person around – and one with no soul,” says Glenda. 


Over 36 years of abuse and torment Glenda left Adam 10 times. She went back each time until the last, when something snapped. Glenda finally managed to gather her strength, pack her bags and catch the next flight home (they were living together in the UK at that time). 

With the help of a therapist, her daughter, her family and a now-growing group of friends she has taken steps to take back her self-worth. This time she has said goodbye to Adam forever. 



Staying safe
Glenda was fortunate that she was able to leave Adam in another country. For many women in abusive relationships their fear of leaving is compounded by a very real physical threat. For this reason, women escaping an abusive relationship should take steps to prevent their partners from seeking them out. 


A Protection Order can be obtained from a Magistrate’s Court to prevent an abuser from contacting his victim. There are also provisions in the Domestic Violence Act that cover electronic communication so that he can be barred from contacting her in this way as well.


Any woman struggling to leave or with the legal processes of obtaining a Protection Order can contact People Opposing Women Abuse for advice and support. 

Rebuilding your life
Glenda says that seeing a psychologist was crucial to her recovery. It gave her perspective on what had happened to her and has helped her take the necessary steps to rebuild her life. She now uses a variety of techniques to reclaim her self-worth and to help her to move on. These include:

  • Accepting that the abusive partner is gone forever. Glenda held a “mock funeral” in which she threw away all the gifts that Adam had given her to achieve closure
  • Focusing on yourself – and your children if you have them. Every night before she goes to sleep, Glenda visualises the person that she wants to be and the steps she needs to take towards being that person
  • Starting to date again – when you’re ready. Glenda says that before starting to date again she took time to rebuild her sense of self-worth and her self-esteem. She warns that if you haven’t dealt with your self-esteem issues, you can easily fall into the same abusive cycle with another man

Moving on
Glenda is now in a relationship with a good, kind man, and she can see a future together with him. She lives for her daughter and her granddaughter, but most importantly for herself. “In fact, the road we’ve all taken seems to have been a blessing in some ways, as horrifying as it is to think that people have to go through such a traumatic and difficult time to reach a good place,” she says. 


If you or anyone you know are victims of domestic abuse you can contact People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) on 011 642 4345 or visit www.powa.co.za

*not their real names

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