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Simon Dippenaar
Admitted Attorney of the High Court of South Africa.
B.Bus.Sci (UCT), LLB (UCT), PDLP (UCT)
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Abusive relationships – why do some stay in them?

Abusive Relationships
We all know someone in a toxic relationship, or someone who has been in one.
Maybe you have a colleague who regularly comes to work with bloodshot eyes, and smudged mascara. You are fairly certain that she’s being abused by her husband from the way he treated her in front of everyone at Christmas party last year, and from what you’ve noticed through the office window when he drops her off at work.

Maybe you have a brother who is perpetually insulted, degraded, and emotionally crushed by his wife. She may even be physically abusive towards him. (Yes, it’s a fact that men can also be victims of physical abuse.) But, no matter what, he just refuses to report these incidents to the police and, even though you’ve begged him to leave his wife, he never does anything about escaping the abuse.

Maybe you are the one in a toxic relationship, and suffering abuse.

The million-dollar question is why do people remain in toxic relationships, especially where there is severe abuse?

 

“Stockholm Syndrome”

Naturally, there are many varied reasons why some people stay in toxic relationships. It may range from economic dependence, to religious reasons, family interests, cultural expectations, fear of the unknown, and a host of other reasons. However, one consideration is the “Stockholm Syndrome”. Psychologists coined this term back in 1973 after an incident when two gunmen tried to rob a bank in Stockholm, and held four hostages for five days. These hostages were badly abused, and feared for their lives. The police managed to free them, and arrested the bank robbers.

Everyone would have expected these hostages to have welcomed their kidnappers’ arrest, and would have called for them to be severely punished, especially after what they had endured. But, surprisingly, this was not the case at all. On the contrary, these hostages defended the actions of the kidnappers, and even argued for leniency. In fact, one of the hostages became engaged to one of the robbers, and another hostage started a fund to help the robbers pay for legal assistance.

Psychologists had documented other instances of this strange response of an abused person forming an emotionally bond with the abuser, and it is not confined to kidnapping.

Instances where emotional bonding can develop may include abused women and children, incest victims, cult members, and even those who find themselves in relationships where they are controlled and intimidated.

 

Signs

There are a number of warning signs for the Stockholm Syndrome that indicate that a victim has an emotional bond with the abuser, and these include justifying the abuser’s actions, and even helping the abuser. The victim may also not seek to escape the abuser, and may reject the efforts of friends and family to assist them in escaping the abusive environment. The list goes on, but the essence is that the victim apparently chooses to remain in this toxic environment.

Why would anyone bond with an abuser?

The core reason could be distilled to survival.

Where victims fear that their physical or psychological survival is threatened, or where they are isolated from friends and family, or exposed only to the views of the abuser, then the Stockholm Syndrome could be triggered. A victim may have the impression that they are unable to escape the abuse, and consequently try to survive within that toxic environment. Sometimes, even a kind gesture from the abuser can induce a victim to develop an emotional bond.

Whatever the case, the problem many face is how to escape the abuse.

 

So what should you do?

If a family member or friend is in an abusive relationship, you may feel outraged and protective but at the same time unable to help. Often the abused person has been isolated from family by the abuser or told to choose between the relationship and family. Because of the dependence that has formed the abused will not do anything to jeopardise the relationship, even if it means foregoing family contact.

The best approach is a gentle one. Avoid pressurising your loved one. This may only reinforce the negative messages they are already hearing from the abuser. Whatever you do, avoid directly confronting towards the abuser; this could make things worse for your loved one. Try to maintain predictable, scheduled contacts, such as a weekly phone call. Keep contact brief, and take advantage of traditional occasions for contact, such as birthdays. The abuser will see this type of contact as ‘normal’ and will be less threatened by it. Be patient: it is important for the abused to know they are loved and that support is there. Eventually they will use it.

 

How we can help

We specialise in family law at SD Law & Associates, and have helped many who are trapped in abusive relationships. Appropriate legal help may be required to assist a victim, as well as any children involved, and this could call for a restraining order.

We also work closely with psychologists and social workers who can offer emotional support. We are able to negotiate, or to litigate, and sometimes helping a client obtain a reasonable financial settlement, may be all that it takes to break an abuser’s hold.

We can advise you on how best to support a family member, and how to protect them. Contact us on 087 550 2740 or 076 116 0623.

Or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za. Your query will be handled with discretion and compassion.

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