Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The psychology behind staying in an abusive relationship
by Dr Tshepiso Matentjie (PhD.) & Semukele Lynnette Murape

Why people stay in abusive relationships has proven to be a hot topic of conversation, and I would like to unpack it with you. Caryl Rusbult & John Martz (1995) found that satisfaction level, quality of alternatives and investment size influences the individual’s commitment level; which then determines the decision to stay or leave – seen in the figure below:

The Investment Model of Commitment Process & Stay/Leave Behaviour by Rusbult & Martz (1995)

Satisfaction Level:

  • How happy I am in my relationship refers to the level of satisfaction I feel.
  • Here, I would take a closer look at what kind of needs my partner is taking care of. My significant other caters to my belongingness and love needs; which can only be fulfilled by intimate relationships or friends.
  • However, suppose he stopped giving me love and affection a year ago and now I am just holding on to the times that he did. That is a false sense of satisfaction because it is extremely important to look at where you are now and not where you were a few months or years ago.
  • The same applies to you if you find yourself trying to justify or explain to people why you are still in your relationship. In this case, you are committed to a relationship that is completely unsatisfying. You are holding on to the 'good' parts of your partner and the relationship by saying things like "at least he doesn't hit me", or “she may break my things when we fight, but I know she needs me because I'm all she's got”.

  • How to Leave:

  • Take note of what needs your partner is not fulfilling, and also what needs you currently fulfil – and are able to fulfil – yourself. This will show you whether you would be more satisfied on your own or not.
  • Speak to a professional, to help you deal with your trauma. If you cannot afford their services, then you could even find various support groups of people that are going through the exact same thing that you are, and are willing to help you in any way that they can.

Quality of Alternatives:

  • The more you rely on your partner for things such as safety and security, food and water, shelter, feelings of accomplishment, and money, ultimately determines how many options you have, should you decide to leave the relationship.
  • Given that I fulfil most of my own needs, have other potential partners outside the relationship and have my own place to stay, would make it easier for me to leave; as my quality of alternatives are high.
  • However, someone with little to no alternatives outside of their relationships would find it much harder to leave. This is why it is vital to recognise how much you rely on your partner, because the more of your needs they cater to essentially traps you further in the relationship.
  • You might "have nowhere else to go", or have low levels of education and thus little to no personal income; this would cause you to rely on your abusive partner in order to survive.

  • How to Leave:

  • Break your silence! You cannot get the help you need if no one knows you need it. This does not necessarily mean going to the police, but confiding in someone that you can trust; they might be able to give you alternative options that you never thought you had.
  • In the case of being dependent on your abusive partner, begin by envisioning what your life would be like when you leave them. From that, you can figure out what steps you need to take in order to be 'free' from them. Whether it is secretly trying to find a job or furthering your education; you would at least be able to leave with a plan on becoming independent.

Investment Size:

  • What I put into the relationship and what I get out of it is my investment size.
  • What I invest can be either be directly put into the relationship – like spending time together, buying each other gifts and sending 'good morning texts' – or be results of me being in the relationship – such as children, mutual friends, shared marital possessions, and even having a higher social status.
  • So, if you are married to your abusive partner – instead of just dating or living with them – have been with them for a long time and have children with them, you are most likely to stay.

  • How to Leave:

  • Ensure that you and your partner are contributing equal amounts in the relationship. You both need to get back what you put in.
  • In the case of not getting back what you put in, it is suggested that you invest in other friendships or hobbies or projects. You will son find your level of satisfaction increasing in your new investment and decreasing in your toxic relationship; therefore making it easier to leave.

Furthermore, it is important to make a distinction between internal and external factors that dictate our choices to stay in or leave an abusive relationship. How much the variables discussed above determines whether you choose to leave or stay depends on your specific situation. These are internal factors; such as low self-esteem, income and levels of education. In relation to external factors, a lot of people tend to harshly judge those who stay; without even being aware that they themselves contribute to that individual staying in the relationship. Putting this idea into context, a mother might chastise her daughter for staying with her cheating husband, while being oblivious to the fact that she takes every opportunity to brag about the fact that she has been with her father for decades and about how much of a 'good wife' she is. Or, a man may stay with his physically abusive girlfriend because society at large has dictated that only women are victims of abuse. This mentality held by the general public – including those around him – prohibits him from leaving or even just acknowledging that he is a victim.

It is possible to only have one variable that determines the amount in which you commit to your relationship. For example, suppose quality of alternatives is the factor for you, because you may solely rely on your partner for a sense of belonging and family, or financial stability. If you are able to find other potential partners or living arrangements, then leaving would be easier for you. However, it is also possible to have all three variables feeding into the level of commitment you have to your abusive partner. In addition to the quality of alternatives example, let's suppose you have children together and although you are unhappy, everyone around you looks to you two as being the 'perfect couple'. In this case, leaving is guaranteed to be much more difficult.