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Why does abuse happen?

You have a right to be safe. Abusive family relationships are complicated. Let’s look at why abuse happens, and how it can impact on your brain.

Teen boy with head in hands with shadows behind him, including two hand marks on his shoulder and waist

Abuse is all about power and control

People who abuse (we’ll call them ‘abusers’) want power and control over others. They deliberately make it hard for the target of their abuse to get help. Here are some ways they do this:

Physical:

  • Physically harming you
  • Tracking your movements via technology
  • Limiting or denying your access to money or transport
  • Cutting you off from people who care or could help

Psychological:

  • Making you feel worthless
  • Threatening or coercing you
  • Blaming and/or shaming you for the abuse
  • Gaslighting you (making you doubt your own memories and experience)

All kinds of abuse affect you psychologically.

This is true regardless of whether an abuser uses mostly physical tactics or psychological ones.

Abuse changes your brain

When we are in danger, we experience a ‘stress response’ that is designed to help us stay safe.

You may have heard of your ‘fight/flight/freeze response’ that helps you deal with stress or danger. But there are more than just these three responses.

In unsafe or abusive environments, some people use the ‘appeasement’ response, too. This response evolved to help you try to survive the threat of abuse by trying to calm down someone who is trying to harm you.

These responses are genuine. This means that you might feel deep love or care for someone who is also abusive.

And you don’t get to consciously choose what response you use – your response is automatic. 

"People leaving abusive relationships are most at risk of violence just before they leave, while they are leaving and immediately after they leave."

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Why do people feel so ‘stuck’ in abusive relationships?

Two things that might make people feel stuck are:

Let's look at what this means...

The cycle of violence

Violence and other forms of severe abuse are a repeated pattern of behaviour.

Abuse is a cycle which includes a time of ‘making up’ where the abuser may apologise and seem sorry, and then a time where it seems like they are changing for the better. 

Being in ‘appeasement’ survival response makes it easier to forgive and give multiple chances. You want to bond, nurture and please that person. 

Unfortunately, the violence cycle continues and over time, which means things will get bad again.
 

Cycle of violence

If you are experiencing abuse, please check out our guide to staying safe

When being unsafe is normal and familiar

Your brain can actually get used to being in an unsafe environment.

Violence or emotional abuse can become more and more intense over time. But sometimes we don’t see or feel that it’s getting worse. This can be because our brain has developed a tolerance, which means that you can get used to feeling unsafe.

This can make it harder to get help! Our brain sees anything new and different as a possible threat. People and environments that are familiar and predictable can start to feel ‘normal’, even when they are dangerous. 

Leaving an abusive home or partner, e.g. to live somewhere different, is unfamiliar. This means it can feel unsafe and make you anxious. Going back home (even if home is unsafe) is familiar, so you might feel calmer when you go back home. 

This is called ‘negative reinforcement’ and can help explain why people might leave an unsafe environment, and then come back again.

Check out this episode of HRU?

Listen to our podcast tackling the issue of toxic relationships with Marty Smiley and Concetta Caristo.

Victim-blaming and feelings of shame

Abuse is NEVER the fault of the victim of abuse.

People might say things like, “(The abuser) seemed like such a nice person,” or, “(The abuser) just snapped because their relationship broke down!” Or even, “If you were being abused, why didn’t you just leave”?

These opinions are victim-blaming and play a role in allowing abuse to continue. 

These kinds of opinions make abusers feel justified and like they are the ‘real’ victims. They also make it harder for genuine victims to get help, as they might blame themselves or feel ashamed. They might feel hopeless, like no one will believe or help them. They may also be scared of making the situation worse.

Why do we blame ourselves?

Our brain doesn’t like not being in control. If it can find a way to make abuse your own fault, it feels like it can prevent it and stay safe. You might think, “If only I didn’t say that, I wouldn’t have been hurt. In future, I will be more careful with what I say so I don’t make them mad…”

For people who haven’t experienced abuse, victim-blaming can help them feel safer. They might think, “This bad thing won’t happen to me because I do x, y & z. Therefore, I am safe from abuse.”

But the only thing that causes abuse is an abuser.

Don’t keep it a secret

Abusers choose who they abuse, when and where they abuse. They are able to stop abusing when it benefits them. 

When it comes to violence, they can also choose to harm in ways that aren’t easily visible and don’t always leave marks. 

Abuse thrives on secrecy. Asking for support and not knowing what comes next can be frightening. But abuse rarely resolves without intervention, as abusers want it to be kept secret so they can keep abusing.

If you are experiencing violence or abuse at home, please tell an adult you trust about what’s going on. Tell more than one adult and keep talking to them even after the abuse has stopped.

If you’re confused or unsafe, we're here to help

No matter how alone or worried you feel, Kids Helpline will always listen and support you.

It can be scary telling somebody that you are being abused. Our counsellors are not here to judge you – we listen and we care. Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.
 

This content was last reviewed 22/04/2020

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