I have often gotten asked why did I stay if my ex-husband was so terrible. The question always sends a pang of anguish through my heart, mostly because I wish I hadn’t. But looking back, the answer to that question is very complicated. Abused women stay for a number of very difficult reasons, ones that are not immediately obvious. It took a good deal of prayer and spiritual and emotional growth to get to the point where I could see clearly enough to leave.
Part of the reason I write about this topic is that I get a steady stream of emails from women struggling with this very dilemma. To leave can seem impossible, dangerous even. But to stay feels like a yoke made of lead. I finally made the decision to leave when I realized that to stay would cost me my life. That sounds dramatic, but to live wishing you are dead is not living. Death felt preferable to living with him.
So here are the reasons why I stayed. I find that most women who contact me stay for the same reasons. My experiences are not unique, unfortunately.
Reason to stay #1:
He begged me to stay. Narcissists can be so convincing. My ex would cry and beg. He even went to counseling for a brief time. I fled a total of four times. And for three of those, he came after me, wooing me with the entire force of his very charismatic personality. He was intellectually brilliant and spent hours trying to argue his way back into a relationship. The first couple of times he charmed his way into my good graces with promises to change. Little did I know that he would only be reformed for a couple months until his behaviors started slipping into the old ways.
Turns out that narcissists often ‘woo’ their victims into staying. If they were horrible all the time, no woman would even be attracted. But they know what to say and how to make their victim feel as if they are the center of their world. The over-romancing and fancy phrases are really just to get their hooks deeper into their victims. Just enough good times will often keep a woman in a cycle of waiting for more.
Reason to stay #2:
I felt shamed. The church doesn’t offer much support to women who want to leave their husbands. Unless physical abuse is present, most pastors that I have turned to counseled me to stay. One offered me the excuse that he knew some women whose husbands were incredibly wretched but that it was their duty to stay. The message I received over and over was that the institution of marriage was more important than my life, sanity, or the emotional well-being of my children.
Townsend and Cloud, the authors of Boundaries and Changes that Heal, gave me the courage to leave with their understanding of emotional abuse. I often find myself counseling women to leave their churches and find one that will truly support them. IF a narcissist has the chance, he will often charm the pastor or the other members of the church into thinking he is the perfect husband and father.
Reason to stay #3:
I was alone. The narcissist isolates his victim. Many women I know find themselves very alone in their quest to leave. I discovered after I had left that my ex would threaten my friends and our neighbors into leaving me alone. I remember one phone call where an acquaintance recounted all of the horrible things my ex had said about me. She said that she stayed away because it was clearly an unhealthy situation.
My ex took isolation to the point of moving us to a cabin in the Kentucky wilderness, ten miles away from a town of 2000 and forty from the nearest town of 15,000. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. I still managed to make friends here and there, but none of them stayed for long.
Reason to stay #4:
I was terrified. Narcissists make terrible threats. He had me convinced that he had things on me that would put me in jail. I knew I had done nothing wrong, but he had fourteen years to develop a terror in me of what he could do. I finally felt that even being wrongly imprisoned for something would be preferable to the severe degradation that he put me through.
All my ex really cared about was having total control over me and our daughters. He would stop at nothing to achieve it. I even found him trying to use brainwashing techniques on occasion. Gaslighting was a regular occurrence. I can say without a doubt that the reason I made it out as intact as I did is because of my relationship with God.
Reason to stay #5:
I wasn’t sure I could support myself and my daughters. Turns out I could. But I never had access to our money, even the money I earned. After I left, I discovered that he had never paid bills that were in my name. I had to clear my credit which he had tried to ruin without my knowledge.
However, my parents and God’s provision stood us in good stead. I always had a decent job and eventually, I remarried a man who was very generous to me and my daughters. All in all, despite the fact that food stamps came to our aid on occasion, my girls have had everything they needed.
I often get emails from women in very similar situations to mine. I don’t quite know what to tell them except to develop a real sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. I would not have had the courage or the help if I had not been so attuned to what He was saying to me.
I do know, however, that God is close to the widow and the orphan. A narcissist is dead inside and so I counted myself a widow. The Lord led me out to freedom and a life that has had its ups and downs, but that is a real life. I will never forget the words my counselor spoke to me years later. She told me that if I never did anything as courageous again as leaving a narcissistic abuser, it was enough. I escaped from a destroyer and saved my children in the process.
So please. Don’t ask me why I stayed so long. Ask me how on earth did I escape.
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