10 Things These Women Who Escaped Abusive Relationships Want You to Know

Updated: Mar. 18, 2021

We can all learn from women who suffered abusive relationships. These brave survivors reveal what they wish every woman knew.

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There’s a lot you can’t see from the outside

Jill Dodd, former model, and designer behind the successful global brand ROXY, used to be a “pleasure wife” for one of the richest men in the world. She says, “On the surface it’s shocking, but once you understand the background it all makes sense.” Dodd also survived two abuse-filled marriages but has now been in a healthy marriage of 20 years. Dodd, also the author of Currency of Lovebelieves it’s important to consider how someone’s upbringing, past exposure to abuse, and emotional capabilities might influence her decisions. From the outside, you might think it’s obvious and simple to avoid pursuing a relationship with someone who is abusive. But it’s not clear for everyone.

Says Dodd: “I grew up in an oversexualized world where women are valued for their beauty instead of being valued for who they are on the inside.” There are plenty of eye-opening facts to know about domestic violence, according to experts, including the fact that it doesn’t have to be physical: Abuse comes in emotional and sexual forms as well.

Low self-esteem isn’t the sole or even primary reason someone becomes a victim, say other women who’ve suffered abuse. Other factors include the inability to set boundaries, feeling incapable of saying “no,” and a person’s troubled relationship to authority figures. Dodd says, “If cruelty and bad behavior are familiar to you, you may feel comfortable being stomped over. You just don’t understand any other way, you don’t know how to set healthy boundaries.”

Domestic violence doesn’t always end when the victim makes good choices

“The pressure of fixing abusive relationships is often placed squarely on the victim’s shoulders, with the world still asking why victims don’t make better choices. How can you put up with that? Why do you stay? The truth is, domestic violence doesn’t always end when victims make good choices,” says Lizbeth Meredith, author of Pieces of Me: Rescuing my Kidnapped Daughters.

Meredith, a former domestic violence advocate, and juvenile probation supervisor is a survivor of domestic abuse. In an email, she wrote, “I left my husband after being strangled in front of my two little girls. I embraced poverty. I stayed in a shelter. I didn’t ever go back to him. I got orders of protection. And yet, the intimidation continued. When I got my bachelors degree and a terrific job at the same domestic violence agency I’d fled to, I didn’t kick up a fuss when I didn’t get child support. I colored in the lines, and four long tortuous years after I left my husband, he took our daughters while on a visitation and fled to another country (Greece). I learned that recovery is not about simply leaving, it’s about long-term safety, self-discovery, accepting the support of others, and learning how I got in the mess to begin with, and letting others know what red flags exist in relationships that I might steer clear of.”

Leaving is not as easy as you think it is

When someone hears about the horrors of domestic abuse, it makes sense to suggest an escape thinking it will end the pain. Unfortunately, many women say it’s more complicated than that. Just read this incredible tale of learning from domestic abuse. On average, a woman will leave and come back to an abusive relationship seven times before she is permanently gone, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline as reported by CNN. This statistic alone is a reason to stop assuming women in abusive relationships can and should “just leave.” (Here’s how to leave an abusive relationship.)

“It’s rarely a once and done situation,” says Meredith. “There are so many reasons victims will leave and come back. The leaving takes planning. The leaving takes a support system. It takes determination to maintain the leaving.” Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW, psychotherapist, and community advocate says, “Abusers often threaten their targets with financial, personal, and/or public ruin. They threaten to take and alienate the kids. They threaten whatever they believe will keep the target frozen in place and it often works. Don’t miss these abusive relationship quotes from survivors and experts that will help you leave and heal.

Rationalization and justification plays a role

Abusive relationships are often steeped in deception from many influences—society, the partner and even the self. Babcock says, “Targets of abuse often rationalize their experience by convincing themselves that their partners don’t realize the harm they’re doing. I have worked with numerous abusers and every one has admitted to me that they are fully aware that they are hurting their partners; they do it purposefully because it gives them the control in the relationship that they want.” Dodd backs up this eye-opening information. She says, “You tend to justify bad behavior if you’re used to it.” Keep in mind, that many perpetrators are themselves psychologically vulnerable and traumatized and may be in conscious denial about hurting their partners. Regardless, that is a relationship deal-breaker, here are nine more signs that your partner may not be the right one.

Excruciating guilt and shame is involved

People unfamiliar with abusive relationships may underestimate the emotional complexity that healing can encompass. Dodd says, “Even if the acts that were done to them weren’t their fault, victims live with a residue of shame.” Dodd, who reports therapy and writing her book as cathartic experiences, said, “I’m healed to a good degree but I’m not completely healed.” This is where good friends can play an important role in your relationships.

Recovery can be a long and painful road

Isolation and loss of control are just two signs of an emotionally abusive partner. Many signs are silent and the journey to discovering them is hard. Survivor and domestic violence advocate Melissa Sachs says, “It took me almost five years to get out of my own head, my own pain, to finally see, to actually believe what I was seeing, to accept what I knew to be true, and even more time after that to leave for good. Here’s some clarity on recognizing gaslighting and what to do about it.

Babcock told Reader’s Digest, “Targets of abuse don’t necessarily start with low self-esteem, but they go through an incremental brainwashing process in the relationship in which they become accustomed to accepting more and more damaging behavior from the partner. Living in these conditions over time has emotional and medical repercussions that take years to sort out once the target is out of the relationship. The process of personal rebuilding is a long one, complicated by the fact that most targets don’t leave until they absolutely have to, meaning they are as emotionally exhausted as they could possibly be at a time when they have to take on the massive project of rebuilding their lives, quite possibly while fearing for their continued safety.”

Domestic violence happens to women of all income levels

One common myth of domestic violence is that it primarily occurs in low-income families. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The hotline hears from every socioeconomic class, every race, every education level, every geographic region. One of the confusing parts is the abuse can take many forms—make sure you’re aware of the signs of emotional abuse, as well.

Financial stability makes a difference

While domestic violence affects all socioeconomic classes, access to resources plays a big role in getting out. Dodd says, “If you have your own money you can always get out.” While this is helpful to keep in mind and strive for, achieving financial stability doesn’t’ always come easy—it can depend on education, job status, and employability, and it can take years to achieve. Victims become more vulnerable if they are linked to their abuser financially.

This is hard to imagine: Here is an uplifting story of surviving years of abuse.

The Family Financial Education team at the University of Washington has done extensive research highlight the challenges survivors of domestic abuse face. In one brief, they noted that economic abuse is in it of itself a form of abuse that often goes unacknowledged. Meredith says, “When I left and took my girls I embraced poverty—I enrolled in the food stamps, stayed in the shelter. I thought that would be the end of the abuse.” In her case, it wasn’t. This fact alone deserves cultural recognition. To more resources on economic empowerment for survivors of abuse, go here.

Other women can relate

“You are not alone” is a cliché that gets tossed around. The reality is that sometimes we do have to go through things by ourselves but relief can be found in the knowledge that other survivors are out there. We might encounter other women who relate through reading books by survivors, participating in discussions in support groups or coming across helpful information social media. Melissa Sachs recently posted a quote on her Instagram account that says, “If I hadn’t been validated by other survivors, I may have stayed.” Sachs connected with other survivors on social media, finding solace in reading stories she could relate to. She says, “It helped me stop feeling so devastated.”

Searching for answers is a start

Jill Dodd cried for years. She says, “I cried so much I could not cry anymore. I wallowed in self-pity. Why God? Why did this happen? It wasn’t until I stopped crying and started searching for answers to slowly heal.” Of course, this is easier said than done but therapy, support groups and seeking out like-minded survivors who may understand can help. More resources can be found at Help Guide. And make sure you know the signs of a toxic relationship.

Want to help a friend or family member who may be experiencing abuse? Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.