Why you stay in an abusive relationship with family

abusive relationship
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I received a message from a reader that described her mother’s abusive behavior. Despite having reached her 30s this woman continued to live with her mother and endure the abusive relationship.

Why is it so hard for us to have the courage to separate from abusers? What is so scary about being alone that we’d rather endure pain on a daily basis?

I’m not talking about situations where you fear for your life after fleeing an abusive spouse. That very real threat is an understandable deterrent to leaving.

But what about those of us who stayed year after year, decade after decade, with families who never supported us?

Why do we believe it’s more scary to be alone than with these people who harm our mental health and confidence?

For one, society has conditioned us to believe that family are loving and have our best interests in mind. As children, we had to believe that because the alternative was too painful.

We blamed ourselves for our family’s cruelty. That felt safer than blaming them. They were our caregivers after all.

Gaslighting prevents leaving the abusive relationship

Gaslighting keeps us beholden to an abusive relationship in our family. The focus gets turned on our human reaction to bad behavior instead of the behavior itself.

As a result, we’re groomed to believe we’re the bad guy. And keep trying to get our abusers to understand us and to win their love. Our magical thinking tells us we may someday get through to them.

There’s also a strange sense of security and familiarity that comes with being part of a family. Even when they put you down, you feel you are part of a unit.

Leaving an abusive relationship like this can create a new kind of pain. The pain of the unknown and unfamiliar: a feeling of being untethered and unmoored.

Social pressure

abusive relationship

The social stigma attached to leaving an abusive familial relationship is intense. Many of us who’ve had the courage to do so have endured judgment and a lack of understanding.

Our fear of what people will think keeps us quiet about our experience. This impedes intimacy with others and stops us from receiving the support we need.


Every holiday and even ordinary weekends serve as reminders of what you no longer have. At Christmas and other important events, it’s assumed everyone is spending time with their family.

Shame around the fact that you aren’t celebrating with your family ensures you suffer in silence. Ironically, the only way to connect with others is to reveal your loneliness, but that feels too risky.

Guilt stops us leaving the abusive relationship

Society reinforces the belief that children owe their parents. Perhaps it stems from the biblical command to honor your mother and father.

Many adult children of dysfunctional families support parents who were never there for them. Putting a roof over a child’s head, feeding and clothing them is a parent’s responsibility. Not something that deserves payback later in life.

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