My maternal grandmother is the most beautiful woman I know, inside and out. A woman of faith, always joyful, overflowing with hope—she believes the best about everyone. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, no one is hopeless in her eyes. Everyone deserves forgiveness, and she has a lot to go around.
Her personality partly explains why she spent 24 years in a verbally and physically abusive marriage. She just can’t believe the worst about anybody, not even my grandfather—an alcoholic, who started pushing and hitting her when they were newlyweds, and who became increasingly verbally and physically abusive over time.
Today, she insists she was not a “battered wife,” and that he was only “mean” when he drank. She believed that if she prayed for him hard enough, he’d eventually change. As so many of us do, she looked to her own parents’ marriage as an example. Her father was also an alcoholic, although he was not violent. Thanks to the prayers of his faithful wife, and a candid warning about his health from a doctor, he stopped drinking. If God could change her father, my grandmother reasoned, why not her husband? Sadly, that never happened, at least not while they were married. When she finally found the courage to leave, she was in her early 40s.
I thought about my grandmother the other day when I was talking to a friend who has been in and out of a physically abusive relationship for a decade. She has several children with this man, and she confided in me that part of the reason she goes back is that she doesn’t want her kids to grow up without a dad like she did.
I’ve never personally experienced domestic violence, although I’ve witnessed it secondhand through extended family and friends. So while I can totally relate to my friend’s desire to give her kids the father she never had, it’s hard for me to understand why an intelligent woman would stay with an abusive man.
Intimate partner violence is actually quite common—the National Domestic Violence Hotline says one in four women have experienced severe physical violence from a boyfriend, husband, or former partner. It is more common among unmarried couples, such as cohabiting couples, who are three times more likely to report violent arguments than married couples. (For tips on what constitutes abusive behavior go here).
Research shows that women stay in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons, including these four that my grandmother and friend both shared:
1. Settling for Less. One reason my friend struggles to break free from an abusive relationship is that she never saw a healthy relationship between her own mom and dad, who split when she was young. As a child, she watched a series of men come and out of her mother’s life. Like other women from broken homes, she struggles with the negative effects of growing up without her father, including father-hunger that can lead to low self-esteem and unhealthy attachments to men. No wonder she is willing to settle for a man who, for all his many faults, keeps coming back, and wants to help support their kids.
2. Shame. It can be devastating when someone we love physically harms us. My grandmother was only married a few months before the verbal and physical abuse began. Shocked and humiliated, she wanted to run home to her parents, but she was too ashamed, a common experience for victims of intimate partner violence. She was embarrassed that she’d made such a huge mistake, and didn’t want her family to think her husband was a “bad” man. My grandfather’s response added to her shame. When he was sober, he didn’t remember what happened, causing her to question herself, or, worse, he tried to blame her (“You know better than to argue with me when I’m drinking!”).
3. Fear. Something else that can imprison a woman in an abusive relationship is fear—that no one will believe you, of being alone, of breaking up the family, and that your abuser will harm or even kill you. My grandmother faced all of these, especially having to raise three kids alone with no job history (he’d often say, “you won’t make it on your own”), and, that if she left, he would take the kids. My friend’s biggest fear is what ending her relationship with their dad will mean for her kids.
4. Believing he will change. Women are forgiving creatures. We want to believe the best about our men, and that our love will change them. My grandmother prayed for years that my grandfather would stop drinking, but it didn’t happen until she left. My friend has gone back to her partner numerous times, after he begged for forgiveness and promised to change—only to be bitterly disappointed.
Both women believe in the power of forgiveness and the possibility of change, but my grandmother realized before it was too late that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. She forgave my grandfather a long time ago, and even spent time with him at nursing home before he died, holding his hands, singing songs, and reminiscing about old times. But in order to leave him years ago and protect herself from going back, she never forgot what he did.
My prayer is that my friend won’t wait 20 years—or even another minute—to end a dangerous relationship that has held her captive far too long. I hope she will realize that when someone is abusing you, the safest route to forgiveness and change is to immediately remove yourself from that situation. I pray that she will come to understand that true love doesn’t hurt us, and that she doesn’t have to settle for less than she deserves. Yes, people can change, but changing abusive behavior, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved, requires professional help and never happens overnight. Often, the best thing we can do to help someone really change is to help ourselves first, by saying enough is enough, seeking help from trusted friends or family, and leaving before it is too late.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.