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Three reasons why women stay with a controlling partner

– Posted in: Belief in a Just World Intimate partner abuse

Speakoutloud.net three Clare Murphy PhDDo you wonder why she stays? Are you a woman who gets down on yourself because you are staying with him?

If a woman believes she has married a charming, caring man, but then he goes on to control, manipulate and abuse her, this can be extremely confusing. There are many many reasons why women continue to live with a psychologically controlling partner. However, when women go down this path they experience cognitive dissonance. In other words staying with an abusive partner causes her to have feelings of discomfort and disharmony because her thoughts and beliefs about his abusive behaviours don’t match her action of sticking with him.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory developed by social psychologist, Leon Festinger, in the 1950s. The theory explains how people respond when their attitudes and beliefs do not match their behaviours. We humans are driven to have harmony between our attitudes and our behaviours and to avoid dissonance, that is, to avoid contradiction. Cognitive dissonance theory explains why women who stay with abusive male partners adapt their beliefs and behaviours. They do this so there is no contradiction between staying with him and their thoughts, attitudes and beliefs.

So, the theory of cognitive dissonance explains that people find ways to reconcile the discrepancy between their thoughts and their actions. Cognitive dissonance theory explains the ways we all go about achieving such reconciliation. In this instance, women do the following:

  1. Adopt beliefs and attitudes that are in harmony with the situation.
  2. Change perceptions about his abusive behaviours.
  3. Change her behaviours to match her beliefs and attitudes.

Here are some examples of ways the women I interviewed for my Masters research attempted to eliminate the discord they felt by continuing to live with their controlling partners.

1. Women changed their beliefs and attitudes so these were in harmony. They did this by altering or trivialising the importance or value of their belief that their partner was the wonderful man they used to know e.g.

No marriage is perfect

Adriana said, “There are always trade offs. I wouldn’t have stayed if there weren’t the good bits”, Pauline said, “No marriage is smooth all the way”, and Susan said, “I always gave him the benefit of the doubt”.

Disbelief he would abuse her intentionally

Victoria said, “I was never sure if he was doing it intentionally because I think that would be a really horrible thing to have to admit that he was doing that intentionally. So we excused him a lot in my family saying he’d had a really rough upbringing and he didn’t really know any better”. This is like believing in the myth that the world is always just. Likewise, Teresa said, “I trusted him not to hurt me and he kept hurting me. But because I loved him and trusted him not to, I couldn’t believe that he was doing it, so I must be misinterpreting it. Teresa said, “I didn’t know I was abused, I would have said no, no, no he really loves me”.

Belief there was still potential for the relationship to work

Karen’s partner worked as a caregiver. She said, “There really was potential. I could see the love and support and patience that he offered his clients. He’d bring them around home and I saw the love and the patience he had”.

Waiting for the old him to come back

Heather said, “I always thought back to the person I first met, I thought where’s that person gone, he’s got to be there somewhere, he can’t just disappear altogether. I just wanted him to come back. I thought he might look and say, ‘Gosh this is a lovely little boy, I love his mother and how can I go about this to get it to work out for a family situation?’ which is what he claimed he wanted the most.”

Pauline thought, “That it would get better. It would actually go back, right back, rewind to the time …. I was waiting for my old husband to come back, that whatever was bugging him or was going wrong, that would go away and we would go back to how it used to be”.

2. The women changed their perceptions about his behaviours. They achieved this by: emphasising beliefs that supported their decision to stay; by finding justifications for his behaviours; by focusing on his positive qualities and ignoring his abusive ones; and, by blaming themselves; e.g.

Finding justifications for his behaviours

Raewyn thought perhaps he behaved as he did because he had “troubles at work, a bit of conflict at work. And therefore he’d bring it out on me…. Or that he’s sick I think actually something physiologically and mentally wrong with him”. Teresa said, “At the time I thought he behaved the way he did because he loved me so much and maybe that that’s what people did when they loved each other that much. Then later in the relationship I thought he behaved the way he did because he was an alcoholic. Now I think he behaved the way he did partly because he was an alcoholic but I think the reason he was an alcoholic also is some of the reason he behaves the way he did, and I think he’s sick, almost psychopathic really, in terms of not having a conscience, of being charming and manipulative, being able to turn on the tears and appear remorseful, and he’s not”.

Holding onto the positives

Susan said, “I put up with it for so long coz he’d be really nice for a week after he’d done that and it’s like ‘far out this is cool’. He’d do things for me. He’d cook the tea, he’d help out and then he’d go out and do that sort of thing again….. Every time he upset me, he’d then be nice to me. And I always thought something good always comes when something bad has happened”.

Believing it’s her problem and she’s to blame

Elizabeth said, “I just thought that was the way it was. There must be something wrong with me. Other women didn’t seem to be having the problems I was having. He kept telling me it was my problem and I just believed him”.

Heather said, “I found it quite hard especially when he blamed me for the relationship not working. I’d say the relationship’s only not working because of the way you are treating me and I don’t want to be with you. He’d say, ‘That’s your fault, if you were living here it wouldn’t be like that, if you were living with me I’d be the same person I was when we first went out, you’re making me be like this.’ I’d start to believe him and thought maybe I should move there and things would be different if I was living with him, maybe I’m being too hard on him.”

3. The women adopted behaviours to match their beliefs and attitudes that the marriage had to work at all costs, e.g.

Belief she has to make the relationship work

Teresa thought, “That I would be able to make a success of it. That I would be able to change him into being a normal person (laugh) and that we would be able to have this stable, happy relationship…. I perceived it as a failure on my part to have a good relationship with a good person, so I didn’t really want to talk about it to friends or family because I felt that they would see me as a failure and that I’d buggered it up. And I guess also that they would want me to do something that I wasn’t ready to do, like you have to leave. Whereas my feeling was that if you’re in a relationship, then you have to do everything you can to make it work and you can’t just get up and walk out because you’ve made a commitment”.

Belief it’s the woman’s job to make the relationship work

Victoria said, “I didn’t want to lose face. I wanted to be married, because without my marriage, who was I? I was nothing again and I was worse than nothing because I was a failed wife and that was worse than being a spinster, to have been a failed wife. It was just dreadful to admit to my family that my husband was treating me like he was because by the end of it I truly believed that I was worthless, there was just no point and to leave the marriage would have been to confirm that I was of no worth, I wasn’t even worth keeping as an abused wife. God I’m pleased I’m older, got over that!”

Marriage is a commitment that must be worked at in order to overcome any problems

Elizabeth said, “I think I stayed because I thought it was wrong to leave”. Likewise, because Elsie had “a very religious upbringing. I had the belief that marriage is forever and if you make the commitment you have to stick it out”. Teresa also, “saw it as a long term commitment, not as a convenience thing…. I certainly believe that the couple unit was the most important unit and that all steps should be taken to preserve it and protect it and nurture it”. And Victoria, “believed we were going to be together forever, that’s what marriage for me was. I never believed divorce was the right answer. I thought it was an easy way out and that if you worked hard enough at it, if both of you decided to marry in the first place, then there must be something that you had together, so what you should be doing is try to find out what had changed, what had you lost that you needed to work on getting back together. Divorce was a big sign of failure. I didn’t want to confirm the suspicions that my family held, so I was determined to make it work”.

Belief he needs her help

Teresa said that, “for a long time I thought it was my fault and then once I discovered the drinking pattern, I thought that was my fault as well and that I was responsible for it because that was the way he would fling it back at me, and that because I was in a relationship with him it was my duty to help him. It would be wrong to walk away and leave him, that he needed help and that I should be able to help him”.

Children need a family that stays together

Pauline said, “The whole religion expectation, I felt really guilty for my children. I thought, ‘what am I going to do to them?’ I was the big bad person because I was going to initiate a separation I was going to initiate a split of this family. I felt guilty because of what I was going to do to my children, never mind the fact what their father was doing to us all, all those years. But all of a sudden that wasn’t a part of it, it was I’m doing this I’m the one to be guilty”.

Similarly, Teresa wanted to ensure her stepson had stability. She said, “that it was really important to create a nice family home for him”.

Belief that children need a father

Susan said she stayed, “Because I’ve got this thing that children have the right to be with their father”.

Belief that being married has higher status than being single

Susan said, “You’re taught back then marriages stay together and you try and hold it together. I can remember thinking I didn’t want to be a solo mother”.

Believing she has to make it look like she tried hard

No matter what abuse the women experienced, many such as Elsie believed that, “After a while I’d always hoped that I would leave one day. I started thinking if I put up with it for a year or two maybe I can leave, it won’t look so bad, I would have tried hard”.

Women draw from social messages about how to be a woman

The attitudes women adopt, in order to reconcile staying in relationship with their dysfunctional partner, do not come out of thin air, women draw from dominant social messages about how to behave – as a woman – in an intimate relationship. Unfortunately, these dominant social messages do not take into account how to recognise and protect themselves from mind-games, manipulative brainwashing, and crazymaking tactics of psychological power and control.

Therefore, women do what comes naturally – that is, do what it takes to find ways to explain the contradiction between committing to a relationship then staying in it after discovering their partner was not the man they expected him to be.

When women make these adaptions to their thoughts and behaviours they silence or bury beliefs they once held dear. However, most women continue to hold onto an inner spirit and conviction, so that no matter how many months or years later, if or when they reach the limit of their tolerance, they will be able to excavate remnants of themselves again – despite this often being a long painstaking process.

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  • Kathy 14 April 2016, 1:35 pm

    What an eye opener your article has been and to see the number of comments posted regarding it. For 27 years I have been with my husband and he started out the sweetest person. 10 years after meeting we married and my husband was never the same after that. I have felt for years that I am at the inadequate one .. there must be something wrong with me. Only after a couple instances did a friend point out how she had no idea how I do it .. put up with that kind of constant control.

    I had never really noticed it, I always felt like I was walking in egg shells, never knowing when I would be scolded for something next.

    As my kids were growing up my husband would say things like “what would you say cause your mom doesn’t seem to know the answer”. Over the course of the last 16 years I have lost most of the hearing in one ear. And in the last 16 years my husband has repeatedly told the boys that their mother has convenient hearing. Now in their teenage years I hear this a lot from them. I feel at times as though my husband and boys are ganging up on me.. because of his controlling and abusive methods.

  • Sarah 10 September 2015, 4:26 am

    Thank you for your research. It’s literally like the penny dropped and you are writing my exact thoughts. I divorced my husband for a man who I thought wanted to be with me. Within weeks I was left alone, unsafe while he showered his attention on another woman. He promised to stop when I broke down and within hours was back at it.

    He was spiteful and unkind to his daughter in front of my children and behind closed doors. He never picked me up when we went out, I always travelled to him. He made plans without me and without telling me where he was. He planned holidays with me and then changed them at the last minute and went off somewhere else without me. No concern for my welfare and safety ever. Every time I did something he didn’t like, I would be ignored and then would be punished soon afterwards when he would deliberately do something to make me feel even more vulnerable. Then I would sift back through my memory as to what preceded this…and realise I’d upset him, although he never directly displayed being upset at the particular time.

    He punched walls when he didn’t get his own way. Then he had me strung up against a bookshelf with his hands around my neck. On antidepressants, diazepam, anti anxieties, sleeping tablets. Crying every single day. Wondering why I wasn’t coping and going mad. And to the outside world and friends the perfect package. Couldn’t stand to be around him in the company of friends because I knew his mask. But your site is a ‘wow’ and I read it often…just to help keep things in perspective. Thank you so much xxxx

  • Clare Murphy PhD 28 June 2015, 10:41 pm

    Jennifer, your theory is entirely possible. There’s a lot of research about the role inflammation plays in many physical diseases. In my view the link goes like this: Abuse leads to stress which leads to inflammation in the body which leads to many many physical illnesses. This is a common reason why medical doctors are not able to come up with a diagnosis for people who have experienced abuse.

  • Jennifer 28 June 2015, 9:12 pm

    Hello Irene, I notice you said you had Addison’s disease. I also have it and was just trying to research a possible link between Addison’s and domestic abuse as I suffered 5 years at the hands of my ex husband. I often wonder if my Addison’s was caused by living in a constant state of fear where my ‘fight or flight’ system was activated almost daily. After all, severe stress is well known for weakening the immune system and causing illness!

  • Clare Murphy PhD 31 January 2015, 9:10 am

    So true. . . And the great thing is that for many people there is growth and flourishing after trauma.

  • tameaka 31 January 2015, 7:56 am

    It’s hard when you are in a controlling relationship, you fight every day for existence until you cry out, get out, and see from the outside world what it was like. Then you have to make a life for yourself, find yourself and believe in yourself. That is the hardest part.

  • Fabi 30 January 2015, 4:20 am

    How about feeling that no other man would want you and knowing that not wanting to live alone and be in poverty.

  • rajam 5 December 2014, 1:12 am

    They are heartless and cruel, almost mad. So it’s difficult for a normal person to imagine such an extreme of bad behaviour and hard-core selfishness.

  • Daniel 22 November 2014, 5:30 am

    I’ve had many of the same issues with a female partner, while there was only one instance of physical abuse there were an infinite amount of psychological, either by blaming me for her problems, blaming me for things I had no control over, being excessively jealous, playing with my guilt. A wide array of tools I let her use on me.

    It’s somewhat unfortunate this is seen as a womans-only issue, when I’ve suffered through the same situation, by a younger, smaller woman. I went through almost a year of depression because of the guilt of the supposed pain I caused her.

  • Rachel2 26 September 2014, 1:00 am

    Well said Tina. A really good explanation of these sorts of relationships. I think your comment will be very helpful to those who read it. Incidentally, well done for getting you and your daughter away.

  • Tina 4 September 2014, 4:21 am

    I fell for an abusive jealous man. At the beginning I believed in all the lies he claimed happened to him in past relationships. It was always the fault of the other woman. He was extremely charming and swept me off my feet with love poems, constantly calling me, telling me he loved me within weeks of meeting. Saying I was “the one” and has been looking for me for years. I’m so embarrassed to say I fell for all his cheesy tactics that he does to women to lure them into his abusive love. Shortly after, within six months, it was complete hell. He wanted to get married, wanted me to live in his house. He started isolating me from family and friends. He was always mad at my daughter, and me, if we didn’t do as he said. Everything was crazy. I couldn’t wear any clothes but boys T-shirts. Yoga pants, out of the question. Couldn’t sit at the side of my mom’s pool in a bathing suit as my child swam. I was forbidden to do anything without him, I had to do everything in his life, be by his side constantly. He tried to hurt me a couple times, physically, when I wasn’t giving him the consideration for his sick mind he thought he deserved. Wow what a mess of a man. I left and glad I did, saved me and my daughter from hell. It’s scary to date a guy like that but it’s hard to discern at the beginning what your dealing with since they are extremely talented in covering up who they are. Beware of the master manipulators.

  • Irene 4 April 2013, 12:21 am

    I found this really eye opening, and makes all my very mixed up emotions, my depression, my PTSD … I now have so much anger!!

    The anger is at him, also myself, for being so weak, broken, letting myself get into the relationship, all for ‘the wrong reasons’. Ie: widowed, had two children, lucky … a man wants to marry me, with baggage!!!! As my late parents said, he’s a Dr. Made them happy, proud … [he] would be extra understanding!!!

    Oh please! Why do people not realise … oh so much.

    Made me feel so ashamed about my used body. Had a boob job done, awful, never felt good about it. Cringe. But he likes them; his … I FORGOT.

    I don’t have confidence. Gardening, [he] makes me feel so stupid, critiques me, makes me, very cleverly, look stupid in front of children. Oh so much, I so wanted out. Like [he] saved me, to make me feel more guilty. [He] made the children so angry with me for being selfish. Telling me I’ll ruin them. Doesn’t help when move, have people over. Oh so polite friendly to them. Loves making me look stressed. I do, now, find everything so hard and now have Addison’s [disease]. [He’s] always medically telling me what’s wrong with me, diagnosing me, I can’t have an opinion. Telling me the children aren’t liking me at the moment, never tells me when spoken to them, always forgets, can’t remember.

    Even if day, of call, was in work mode, out of work mode, can’t talk, working hard, you don’t appreciate it, you’re selfish. ‘I need exercise’ takes off, disappears, gym, whatever. Too tired when gets home to communicate, do anything to help. But, in front of people, so charming. Like chalk and cheese.

    I’ve been trying to speak out. Been going off pills, feeling more like I should, but I come off looking bad. [When] I try to explain, he just makes me look like an over-emotional … [He] medically diagnoses me. I’m doomed. I have greys on thyroxine. I got emotional, was really just sharing my anger. [He] took me. with my daughter, [to the hospital ?] [He] said I over-dosed. I was hyper manic. But no blood tests…so …but Dr must be right. [The] more I tried to state my side, the worse I looked. I was too emotional, to my own detriment.