While I was researching for the book I came across a statistic that it takes a victim an average of seven times to leave an abusive relationship.
For those of us outside the relationship, we may think the survivor should feel good to move on. In many cases supporters may want to celebrate the end of the relationship and may be confused if the survivor seems sad or goes back to the abuser.
In any break-up the end of a relationship is hard. In unhealthy or abusive relationships just as there are many complex reasons a person stays there are many reasons why they return.
Emotional Connection – although there were unhealthy or abusive traits in the relationship, it wasn’t all bad. They genuinely cared for the other person and enjoyed doing things and spending time together. Now they miss them and may dwell on the good times, while minimizing, making excuses or continuing to think they can fix the unhealthy aspects.
The abuser threatens – in my case my high school ex threatened to tell the new person I was dating bad things about me. Later he threatened to harm himself if I wouldn’t see him. The abuser may threaten to harm the person that left, themselves or even a family member. The break-up and the time after are the most dangerous time for the victim.
Lonely –. The couple probably spent a lot of time together and now they feel a void. They miss getting text messages, phone calls and the things they used to do together. If the victim’s friends are dating or in a serious relationship, they can feel the hurt of not being with someone.
The abuser promises to change – they’ve probably made this promise many times throughout the relationship, but this time they promise it’s true. They don’t want to lose the other person. Maybe they offer to get help.
Lack of support – during the course of the relationship the abuser probably isolated the victim from friends and family. Or maybe the only friends they hung out with are associated with the ex and now they won’t talk to them. If the survivor doesn’t have friends to spend time and do things with, they may return to the abuser.
Triggers – things that remind them of their ex can be challenging. Maybe it’s going down a hallway or to a class they used to walk to together. If they had plans to do something and now, they’re not together, so as the date approaches or something reminds them of the event, they may feel sad and miss the other person. An anniversary of the relationship or something they did together annually can also be a difficult reminder.
Misunderstanding the phases of grief – It’s hard to get over a relationship, even one that was unhealthy or abusive. The victim is likely to go through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. During the stages before acceptance, they can mistake their feelings for missing the other person and believe that means they still care about the other person. Grief is hard. It may feel easier to get back together with the other person than go through the process of grieving and healing.
Financial Assistance – the abuser may have provided financial support or other assistance (lived together, car, etc.) and the victim is struggling on their own.
How Can You Help?
Offer support – ask them how they’re doing, invite them to do things, or try a new activity together.
Engage them - Go out for coffee, lunch, dinner or a walk. Anything where they can connect and talk with you. DON’T just watch TV or a movie together (the victim’s mind is likely to wander).
Be Positive - DON’T say derogatory things about the abuser or the survivor. They likely feel shame over the relationship and talking down about the ex, the relationship, or the survivor for being in it, only makes them feel bad about themselves. Instead, as you spend time together, give them a sincere compliment or say something positive to lift them up.
Help Create a Safety Plan – If the survivor doesn’t have one already. Help them think of ways to avoid their ex or keep themselves safe if their ex approaches them.
Empathize – regardless of the circumstances, breakups are hard. As appropriate, express empathy for the sadness or loneliness they’re feeling.
Encourage – remind them that while healing and moving on may be hard, it will get better. Recommend they talk with a counselor or peer support group.