Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Is It So Hard To Leave?

When you work with women who have been, are in or are close to someone in an abusive relationship, the question of why it is so hard to leave inevitably comes up.  I thought I would share with you a little bit of technical information that might help answer that question.  The question is not an easy one to answer and to fully understand some of the considerations that go into these decisions you need to understand the concepts of conditioning, addiction and our basic need for love.

Let's start with the relatively easy one....our basic need for love.  In many places throughout scripture we learn that as human beings, we are created for relationship and for love.  Back as far as the story of Adam and Eve we find God saying that it is not good for man to be alone, that he should have a companion.  In more recent times a study was done by a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School that basically showed human beings being happier and healthier if they have love in their life as well as approval from others.   In short, love is crucial to the existence of human beings. It is as necessary to a good quality of life as the air we breathe.

We also know that the withdrawal of love is torturous to the human being.  You can see that very well when you look at children who are disciplined by a parent who ignores them as a form of punishment.  According to Kelly Coutee,

"In early childhood, a parent can provide negative mirroring by being contemptuous of the child or by withdrawing love as punishment. During this developmental phase, fear that the parent will leave if the child is not good enough (abandonment fear) can later cause shame to be experienced in perceived abandonment. "

When we withdraw love from a child they will do almost anything to restore it, which is why uninformed parents find it an effective punishment.

As adults, we are affected the same way, especially if we have grown up with a lack of love and/or acceptance in our lives.  That lack eventually forms a deep seated belief system that effects the way we look at things, people and life until that belief is changed.  If our self esteem is challenged, if we believe that we aren't good enough, if we believe that only this person will love us or we have been made to feel responsible for the good feeling and well being of another person, we will cling to that which we know rather than embrace that which we don't know.  There is a colleague of mine who practices Emotionally Focused Couples therapy and his comment is "women don't leave abusive relationships because the negative attachment that they have is better than the perceived isolation they believe they will have if they leave."  That makes a lot of sense.

The next part of this equation is the idea of conditioning.  Operant conditioning is a type of conditioning where the use of consequences has the effect of modifying behavior.  Abusive relationships use operant conditioning by the abuser to keep the victim controlled.  Resistance is soon worn down as the victim is conditioned to respond to tone of voice, facial looks, physical positions or other things that the abuser might use to control behavior.  In the beginning, those indicators would be followed by action, but after the conditioning has been accomplished, only the threat is necessary.

The last piece of the puzzle comes under the heading of addiction.....gambling addiction to be specific.  Addiction to gambling is not an addiction that is predicated on a substance such as drugs or alcohol.  In substance addiction there is a physiological dependence that the body develops in relation to the substance which then creates symptoms of physical withdrawal when the substance is removed.  Gambling has no such physiological quality.  So why is it one of the most difficult addictions to break?  Because it employs Intermittent Reinforcement.  B.F. Skinner discovered a very interesting concept with intermittent reinforcement in that  behavior that is reinforced intermittently is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously.

Intermittent reinforcement is best described by the example of a slot machine.  Slot machines pay off at intermittent times and in variable amounts.  If you have ever had the experience of interacting with one of these machines, can you remember feeling that you got?  Just pull the handle and 13 coins fall into the tray.  You are excited!  The next three or four pulls of the handle don't result in anything, however the next one results in 5 coins.  You aren't as excited, but you begin to anticipate that within the next few pulls of the handle, you could get a return that is as exciting or better than the first one.  Wow!  The anticipation is exhilarating and you continue to play.  With each pull of the handle your hope increases that the big payoff is just a few pulls of the handle away!  Many individuals can sit at a slot machine for hours and hours with the anticipation of "the big payoff"!

Now with that in mind, remembering how important love is to us and understanding that an abuse victim lives in a very controlled environment, what would happen if the "payoff" was love?  How addicting would it be if that "payoff" came at intermittent times...perhaps one day the abuser does something nice and then it happens again in three days.  Then it happens again in a week.  There's an incident a few days later but then s/he does something nice the next day, then again in ten days and then again in four days.  Imagine too that there are variable amounts of  love/kindness/happiness that range from just a ceasing from abuse to going out to dinner or a bouquet of flowers.  The victim's anticipation for the next "payoff" rises and falls, but s/he is still looking for the next time......s/he lives for the next time.  For all intents and purposes, staying in an abusive relationship is a form of gambling addiction.  The victim is gambling for the big payoff that seldom if ever comes.

Dog trainers understand this kind of reinforcement very well as it is a planned training schedule that works effectively to increase positive behavior in the animals.  Trainers make sure that although there are treats that are given for good behavior or positive reaction, but these treats are given at specific intervals, not each time and not at equal intervals.

Conditioning is a part of how we learn as human beings, but it can either have positive or negative results depending on the scenario.   Intermittent reinforcement  when combined with the giving and withdrawal of love is traumatizing and destructive when combined with an interpersonal relationship.  It results in a skewed connectedness that is on one hand painful, yet on the other hand provides a false hope for change.  In this state, individuals find it very difficult to leave a relationship.  They believe there is hope, yet that hope is built on an addictive pattern of behavior that will only continue to cycle until someone breaks the pattern.  It is not until hope is gone that an individuals feel free of guilt or responsibility to the relationship and often makes the decision to break free.  Add other conditions such as Stockholm Syndrome and/or PTSD and the confusion escalates and the decisions become more difficult and more complicated to make.

Hopefully this has helped to answer the question of why it is so hard to leave a relationship that is abusive.  Hope is a powerful thing, as it should be.  Proverbs 13:12 says "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life."  Successful interpersonal relationships are life giving and that is the hope that every couple has when they enter in to one.  It is often difficult to discern when that hope turns from true hope into false hope.


Anonymous said...

The main obstacle to my leaving was my Christian beliefs. Now that I am know God is supporting me in leaving, and some pastors do too, the leaving process is not a problem. I can't believe that I stayed for 25 years just because I didn't think the Bible allowed for separation, and I was told that by Christian leaders.

Gr8mochas said...

That is what so many Christian men and women have been told and it just grieves my heart. We don't have the scriptural foundation to leave for just any reason, but abuse and neglect are certainly viable reasons.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that when you are in an abusive relationship and confide in people, they question why you don't leave and attribute all sorts of internal issues (like co-dependency)to you. Yet when you do leave, and people find out, they wonder why you don't work on your marriage. Although conventional wisdom would dictate that you should drop friends that don't understand the abuse, you can't really do that or you might have no friends as I have not found ANY that understand, apart from those suffering abuse and they cannot support because they are deeply depressed or broken themselves.

Gr8mochas said...

Dear Anonymous,
In your question, you are describing two separate groups of people. The ones you confide in are people who have a closer relationship with you and who care about you. They are trying to find reasons to explain the behavior and convince you to leave because they care and are struggling in their ability to watch someone they care about in pain and being mistreated. Once the information is out in the open, the people who aren't as close to you see what has happened and they are the ones you didn't choose to confide in. This group doesn't know the situation as well as the ones you confide in and they aren't close to you for a multitude of reasons. They haven't made the journey with you, as those closer to you may have and they don't realize that either you have worked on the marriage or that the relationship is irretrievably broken.

When someone leaves a relationship there is going to be opinions from every side, but when you leave, you leave because the decision is yours based on legitimate reasons, real experience and there is no one else who has walked in your shoes or seen what you have seen. They may have opinions, but they are not based on fact, they are based on personal belief. This happens because people are people and the situation is so complex that there is no simple answer to it. Women leave for personal reasons and no one can understand those reasons unless they have walked in their shoes.

Anonymous said...

When I first read the comments, I thought, "it isn't hard to leave when you are abused and traumatized", but as the abuser gets nice, it really gets difficult even if I am aware that is all part of the cycle. I just don't understand why the pull is so strong, even if you do all you can to understand all the factors at play. You just feel compelled to be together even if it makes you sick in the stomach. And it looks like he will never let me go, and I feel so sorry for him.

Gr8mochas said...

It's at that point that you can't trust your feelings. It isn't about feelings, it is about emotional and physical safety and if you can put the emphasis on that, it can be helpful. Your support network is a tool to rely on during those times...they have the perspective that you may not have and you need to trust them. There is nothing easy about this, that is true; but reclaiming your life makes it all worth it.