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  • Writer's pictureJulia Gillis

How Did I Get Into an Abusive Relationship? Why Did I Tolerate a Bad Relationship for So Long?

If you type into the Google search bar: "why do women stay in abusive relationships?" the top answer that shows up in Danger and Fear.

The follow-up questions that are listed are:

  • why do people stay with those who abuse them?

  • why is it so hard to leave a toxic relationship?

  • why do we stay in toxic relationships?

The explanations revolve around low self esteem & the fear/danger of leaving being far greater than staying. Many women who are raised with abuse, low nurture or grow up with developmental trauma have been 'primed' for future relationships with similar dynamics. Even if we see patterns & repeat signs & know their toxic outcome, its familiar, therefore comfortable. It feels 'safer' than the alternative (being without our current partner.)

Also - although physically violent domestic abuse is horrific & far underreported, the far more prevalent spousal abuse tactics are of a psychological & emotional nature & sometimes covert: emotional blackmailing, withholding affection or intimacy, intimidation, dismissiveness, jealousy, verbal aggression, money & resource control, isolation from community, humiliation, manipulation - you get the idea.

So when we think about it being 'dangerous' to leave an abusive relationship, we often think of the physical violence that can occur to the woman trying to leave. Sometimes the fear of having no where to go, no access to money, even just the thought of parenting on their own & going through the mess of a divorce is too much. The thought of 'being alone' or taking care of themselves without a someone to help isn't something they think they are capable of. There is a codependence designed in.

This is honestly only a piece of the puzzle. I know many women, including myself, who have been 'lead down a path of roses to a garden of thorns.' We were not groomed for abuse or maltreatment. We started dating someone that we thought was great. It was a soul mate, a great catch. Trust was built, romance happened - but then things started to shift, if only just slightly; nothing to set off alarms. In the beginning.

We didn't go in with low self esteem. We never even got to a place where we feared for our lives. But some how we wake out of a dream state. We are now the frog in the pot of boiling water. There are things going on in the relationship & we're being treated in ways that...well, have been occurring for a while & are very wrong.

But why didn't we see it earlier?

When we first start dating someone, we are often blind to their flaws or faults. We will let out a dreamy sigh while looking past some small habits that we justify or feel we can 'live with.' Over time, maybe 3 or 4 other behaviors will emerge that we're not so happy about, but again, we brush them off, wanting to keep the peace or feeling that what we have built with that person is more important than a few pesky or irritating traits. This is normal right? Every relationship has this. Right?

Sure. No one is perfect & all relationships and individuals have qualities that our nearest & dearest can find a little frustrating. But what about having a moment in your relationship where you realize you're miserable? Or your interactions are becoming volatile more often than not? What if you run a tally & realize that the dreams you had 2 or 3 years earlier are now farther away? When reflecting on your life you suddenly see that the vibrant, social, fun life you had before is...kind of gone? Parts of your autonomy or independence have been handed over to the point where you barely have any left? You've gained weight, lowered your standards, lost touch with friends & started accepting treatment you would have never tolerated at the beginning of the relationship.

How the F*ck did this happen?

Well - let me tell you.

What I'm about to share with you is a group of information I came across in one of the recent books I read titled, How Minds Change by David McRaney. His book covers a huge range of information & theories but there are 3 select discoveries from his book that really sparked a connection of dots for me.

I may not be able to offer the ultimate solution by the end of this blog, but I hope to offer further insight & possibly some extra tools. The tools are for both friends/family of women who are suffering abusive relationships that they are currently refusing to acknowledge or leave and, hopefully, greater insight for women in past or present abusive relationships who need some extra help to walk away (or run,) plus forgiveness for oneself in the healing journey. Maybe even help people be more vigilant, to uphold a higher standard of relationship & not get caught in this fun house of horrors.

First is a study done by a political scientist named David Redlawsk & his colleagues. They found that our brains have a tipping point for choosing what it does with new information that contends with our current understanding of the world (or anything.) That current understanding is called our 'priors': our current beliefs, opinions & values. When we receive new info that contends with our 'prior' understanding, our brain does 1 of 2 things:

  1. we Assimilate the new or novel information (conservation mode)

  2. we Accommodate the new or novel information (active learning)

When we 'assimilate' contending information we take our current belief or understanding of something (or someone) & we find a way to integrate it into our current (prior) belief system. We don't change what we already think, we justify the new information so our belief doesn't lose credibility.

Ex. He yelled at me (but it was only that one time - he's still a good person & doesn't have anger problems.)

When we 'accommodate' contending information we take our current belief or understanding & it changes based on the new information. We adapt our view due to the new, different information.

Ex. He yelled at me (that doesn't show having control of one's emotions - it's possible he has anger problems.)

The most interesting part of the study is that humans have a tipping point. It showed that if you hold a believe (he's a great guy) & you are shown or see only 10-20% new information, not only will you assimilate & justify the information - you may even strengthen your attitude or position. Building an argument against the contending information can cause you to double down on your current belief (he did those sh*tty things because he REALLY loves me.)

The tipping point, to provoke accommodation & an active learning state to update your belief systems requires an average of 30% or more contending information. It takes a certain level of counter information or evidence to provoke a switch from conservation into an active learning state where we become vigilant, adaptive & uncomfortable with our current belief or opinion.

So it might not set off alarm bells when you and your partner decide together that you should stop working & stay home with the kids. Or that your cellphone plans should get joined, for him to pay & be under just his name. Or when it's suggested that you no longer need your own credit card, since your not making your own money. Then he's the one who decides when & where ( or 'if') you go on vacations. Now there's no reason for you to be accessing any money on your own. Now you need to show him receipts before he'll transfer you any money for groceries or the kids activities.

Wait, what? Hold the phone...

Where is your uncomfortable tipping point? What if this happens slowly over the course of a year? But what if he suggests 2 or 3 of these things a little too close together? If these new parameters happen at a rate of 20% new may justify them on your own. But if they show up as a 60% avalanche, there might be just too much contending information for you to ignore. You realize that this is not the relationship you signed up for in the beginning.

The next piece of information comes from a observation offered in the book from an ex-member of the Westboro Church (religious cult in the US.)

When we learn a piece of information is incorrect, it opens the door to considering that the source of the information can be incorrect. But if you mix that with the above might take a number of pieces of incorrect information FROM a singular source before we consider that possible. How many times can you be 'taught' something that doesn't work before you look at your teacher as...not a good teacher?

Maybe your partner has all of the reasons & excuses for his behavior. Maybe he says you're making a big deal out of nothing? Maybe you should trust him more & he knows better about certain things? Maybe you're the one creating the problem, he says?

Behaviors become normalized that shouldn't. You become isolated to one source of 'what a relationship should be like.'

One of the reasons insecure men hate when groups of women getting together is because we share; ideas, information, experiences, lessons, tips - everything. And when some women have learned to not tolerate bad behavior in a relationship & we hear that another women is tolerating it - it's story time ladies. It's like the local Facebook groups that have been created "Are we dating the same guy?"

Collaborating & sharing with other women about how their relationships function & operate is the only way to have a collective, regulatory body on best practices. Becoming isolated from friends, family & other women doesn't allow us the opportunities to identify potentially (covert) toxic or abusive behaviors going on in a relationship. How do we know something is 'wrong' unless we can see an alternative possibility?

The last point is for those of you who are able to use critical thinking & self coaching AND especially for loved ones & friends who are watching someone in an abusive circumstance or bad relationship that needs to end.

In the realm of persuasion there are 2 strategies of approach: topic rebuttal & technique rebuttal. The first approach focuses on facts & evidence. The strategy is to simply offer the largest amount of provable information & claims that cannot be contested. But technique rebuttal is different and a lot more effective.

Technique rebuttal challenges a person to walk backwards through their processing that has led them to a certain belief, conclusion or opinion. It is a method of questioning someone (not interrogating) that opens a discussion to talk through why they believe what they believe.

This strategy REQUIRES the person working through their belief to not feel judged, shamed or threatened in any way. They need to be in an open, safe & curious mindset. The discussion needs to inspire the feeling that "it's ok if my current belief is wrong."

If (you or) a friend is experiencing behavior from a partner that sounds abusive, controlling, manipulative or looks like warning signs & red flags that often leads to that garden of thorns, you are far better off having a calm, developmental discussion with them that allows them to explore their deeper feelings about the treatment their are receiving or the behavior they are experiencing.

If you bombard them with facts about why their partner is terrible, they will possibly shut down, go into threat mode & cut you out. People don't like being TOLD their belief or opinion is wrong. People have a hard time being told that the partner they picked is a bad person. I know it sounds bad, but it's more effective to help them realize it themselves.

Helpful questions:

Does anything about that make you feel uncomfortable or worried?

What do you think would happen if that escalated?

What advice would you have for me if my partner was doing that?

Does that make you feel safe?

If he started doing that, or suggested that, when you first got together, how would you have felt about that then?

If that gets worse or repetitive, what do you think you might do?

Have you had previous relationships where that's been ok with you?

Before you got together, did you ever imagine being ok with that behavior/dynamic?

If you're daughter's boyfriend treated her that way, what would you think?

Again, these need to be presented with curiosity, not shame or accusatory approaches.

These were actually some of the questions I considered myself when I looked at my life & relationship after my daughter was born. Things were happening in my life that looked a little bizarre or 'off.' But it took a number of things to start looking drastically different all at once before I realized something wasn't ok. Even after leaving, I remained in an extremely conflict avoidant position as we co-parented our daughter cooperatively apart. Only when I began revisiting my standards did I realize how much I had bent & folded my boundaries & expectations for my life (and my daughters.) Showing up in alignment & becoming more congruent with those expectations woke behaviors in my ex that had been laying dormant due to my fawning to avoid backlash.

My hope is for more of the female population to be demanding a higher standard of relationships through how they show up, the boundaries they hold & not tolerating toxic behavior. It requires self love, self awareness & a healthy tribe of other women for support.

The first concept of the 10-20% of contending information that we often assimilate to stay comfortable in a current belief is the same thing that causes us to keep toxic family members, collect 5-10 extra pounds every year, sabotage our nutrition plans, tolerate toxic work places and wake up one day in a life we never imagined we would tolerate.

Your best tactic for avoiding this is knowing your boundaries in all areas of your life, keeping written lists of those boundaries & leaning further into non-negotiables. You can learn more about this in my #12 Pillar of Resilience: Boundaries which you can find on my Etsy page here.


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If you would like to start building your Core Resiliency Skills contact Coach Julia today. You will learn how to Thrive beyond your damage, become a Transitional Character, break abuse cycles in your family cycle & build the core resiliency skills most often missed when being raised in a low nurture environment.

Julia is a Holistic Health Consultant, holding a Double Diploma in Community Support & Addictions Work, is a Certified Transformation Specialist, Personal Trainer & Nutrition Coach & a Lvl 2 Reiki Practitioner. She specializes in Trauma Informed Practice & Resiliency Coaching and Holistic Pregnancy & Postpartum Health Coaching. 

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