Hand holding handwritten sign "Love shouldn't hurt"

Why Do People Return to Partners Who Abuse Them?

Ethan and Severine were together for five years before Severine left.  When they first met, Ethan could not do enough for Severine.  He love-bombed her. 

But what Severine did not realize was that she was about to become a player in a game she could not even imagine Ethan had planned for her, and for him.

 Once the marriage took place, the abuse started, bit by bit by bit.  Ethan became abusive, first just a little at a time, then almost all the time. 

He was never violent. He certainly never hit her. That would have been most unsatisfying.  Any oaf could do that.  

Ethan’s form of abuse was psychological.  He liked to belittle Severine.  He had a “game” story of love, but the game was what is sometimes called a zero-sum game: Her loss was his win. 

If he could belittle her and see her self-esteem drop; if he could undermine her confidence in every aspect of what she was and did, it made him feel superior. And it gave him a sense of power and control. 

She had been a strong, independent woman when he met her.  He would not have been interested in an easy conquest.  That would have been a boring game. 

The fun was in taking a strong woman and making her totally dependent on him—undermining her little by little by little. 

He needed someone strong and independent but in whom he could sense weakness.  He wanted someone who was ready to be programmed to be what he wanted and needed her to be. 

Severine had been abused as a child.  She was his ideal target.

Of course, Ethan did not think of it this way. Abusers never do.  He thought he was giving her what she had coming to her.  She needed to find her place.  He was merely helping her find it. And that place was as subservient to him.

For Ethan, it was the long game.  The short game would have been boring and unsatisfying.  Bit by bit.  He could help her find her “proper” place in life—that is, what he thought was her proper place. 

 Then she left.  At first, he was enraged. How could she possibly do that?  Who did she think she was?  Had he really failed that completely?  It just wasn’t possible.

Someone must have badmouthed him.  Or someone betrayed him.  Who?  He had some ideas.  But this was the long game.

She thought it was over.  She was wrong. She was so wrong.  Because he was going to get her back.

He was sorry, he told her.  He was truly sorry.  He had no idea how upset she was.  He felt like crying. He was crying.  He always loved her.  He needed her. 

They had had misunderstandings, but everything was fixable.  He actually had thought he was helping her.  What a tragedy to discover he had been such a negative force in her life.  They could fix it. They would fix it.  They would be happy together.  Just give it one more try. 

Ethan needed her back. He would get her back.  He knew that she never would leave him again. 

Severine listened.  And she fought within herself as to what to do.  What should she do?

What are signs of abuse?

In every case, domestic abuse looks somewhat different. But here are some signs to look out for:

Your partner

  • is controlling and checks constantly where you are and what you are doing;
  • is overly jealous and frequently criticizes you for flirting or being unfaithful;
  • yells at you or threatens your safety or that of a loved one;
  • tries to isolate you from friends and family;
  • injures you physically;
  • humiliates you;
  • ignore you;
  • blames you for their behavior.


  • feel afraid of your partner;
  • try to avoid certain red flags (like particular actions or conversation topics) for fear of setting off your partner;
  • feel that you deserve to be treated in an abusive way, or that it's actually your fault;
  • justify the abuse by thinking that they are not always violent and love you;
  • are scared of what will happen when you leave.

If you recognize yourself or your partner in any or some of these statements, read on - we've got some tips and resources for you further below.

Why do victims of abuse return to their partners?

Many, if not, most abused partners return to their abusers, sooner or later.  They return in the same way that people who have served time in prison and are released from prison often end up back in prison very quickly.

They hated it, but they couldn’t really stand to live. It had become their home.  Why do people go back to environments that would seem, on the surface, to be the last place they would want to return to?  Why do abused partners return to their abusers?

There may be many reasons abused partners return to their abusers. I will discuss five here.

1. Resources

A common reason abused partners return to their abusers is that they do not have the resources to make it on their own.  They can’t make it financially or they just do not have enough of a friendship network to keep them going.

Abused partners often end up isolated. Part of the cycle of abuse may have been cutting off the abused partner from any source of aid or succorance.

They feel they have no one to turn to, they don’t have money, they don’t have the wherewithal to make a go of it on their own.

2. Children

Sometimes children are in the picture.  The abused partner returns, or stays in the first place, for the sake of the children.

They just do not see a viable path for the children’s growing up in anything like a normal way unless they are with the abuser.

The abuser may even use the children as pawns in a game to keep the abused partner or get them back.

3. Low self-esteem

The victim feels they are worthless. Maybe they started off that way; maybe they were made to feel that way.

But they feel that they are getting what they deserve and may not even feel themselves being abused. They feel that what they are getting is their proper lot in life.

4. Game or horror story

The victim of abuse has a game story or a horror story, or the game is itself a zero-sum horror.

The victim grew up seeing, or thinking they saw, love enacted as abuse. They may have seen their parents be abusive to each other, and then fall into each other’s arms.

They may have been abused themselves and have been told by the abuser that the abuse was actually an expression of love.  (This is common especially in the case of sexual abuse.)  They may even fantasize about being abused.

In some cases, the game or horror story is not brought into the relationship but rather acquired through the relationship.  The victim is programmed, in a way roughly analogous to programming in a cult.

They are made to feel worthless and like, without the abuser, they are nothing.  They may not realize what is going on while it is happening, and by the time they realize what is going on, it’s too late.  They have been programmed and the only way out will be for them to be deprogrammed.

5. Passion

The victim is aroused by abuse.  Maybe they started off that way, or maybe it developed over time.  But they come to look forward to it as a way to turn themselves on.  They are the “M” in sado-masochistic passion and sex.  Without the abuse, they find it hard to get aroused.

How do you end the cycle of abuse?

How does one get out of the cycle of abuse, usually one that gets worse and worse as time goes on?  There is probably no easy way.  But as long as one is in the abusive environment, it is very difficult to get out of the cycle of abuse. The abuse becomes worse as the abuser needs more and more to feel fulfilled.

Unfortunately, getting out is hard and staying out is harder.  Once one is out, lack of resources may make it hard to stay out.   Or one may feel one owes it to the children to return. Or one’s low self-esteem may lead one to believe one has been selfish in leaving.  Or one may feel one has lost one’s meaning—one’s story in love.  Or, deprived of passion, one may experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those of withdrawal of an addictive substance. None of these challenges is easy to overcome.

So, what’s to be done?  Get the support you need - friends, a therapist, or social services, for example - and prepare to get out of the relationship.

This is not a battle to fight alone. Get the help quickly.  Because without it, you may be back before you even know it.

You are not alone - here are some resources

Although you may feel alone, there are a number of resources available to you; many of them for free.

Take advantage of them - they were created for helping you!

Chat with or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

If you want to learn more about creating a safety or escape plan, protecting your privacy, and which steps to take after you've left, check out this article.

Do not expect that, if you go back, the relationship suddenly will turn a page.  Much more likely, you will go back to the pages you have thought you had turned so many times before.

You are better than that. Get out; stay out.


If you are being abused, you can call or chat with the National Domestic Violence Hotline which is staffed by trained advocates that listen and can help you address the issues you are experiencing. If you don't live in the United States, do an online search for keywords like "domestic violence" and "help" or "hotline."

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2 thoughts on “Why Do People Return to Partners Who Abuse Them?”

  1. Oh, no! I was utterly shocked upon discovering that one of my office mates has been physically abused by her husband for several months now and she was quite hesitant to tell anyone about it. Thanks, by the way, for helping me understand that some victims tend to get back to their violent partner for the sake if their children’s wellbeing. Nonetheless, I feel the urge to call an organization to help her get out of such a horrible situation.

    1. It’s so kind of you to care for your office mate. We find frequently that abused partners stay in or return to the situation in which they get abused. Maybe as a first step you could consider sharing resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline with your office mate? Often, taking a first step in getting help is very difficult for affected individuals, however. I hope your office mate’s situation will improve soon!

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