Why we don’t leave
By Erin Botten
Trigger Warning: This article discusses rape, sexual assault and sexual coercion.
A comment sentiment posed to those in abusive relationships is, “But why didn’t you leave?”
The response always varies, acknowledging it’s not easy to do so. People are taught how to spot the signs of abusive relationships, and yet victims are still induced into a state of fear or submission, trapping their exit. What’s troubled me over recent years is the lack of education about unhealthy relationships, or even the normalisation of them, especially amongst teenagers.
As the years went by, I began to notice a troubling trend: I didn’t have a single friend in a healthy long-term relationship. Not one. And the worst bit? We were blind to it. No one was trying to get us to leave.
The Unpublished Testimonies
Travis was Abby’s first boyfriend. Both of them had similar backgrounds and interests, and they loved each other’s company. I’d always ask about Travis when Abby and I met up, searching for the latest gossip. Had they said “I love you”? Had they slept together? Swapping my own love life gossip in return. But, these were during the small intervals when Abby wasn’t on her phone.
Whenever Abby was texting, you could guarantee it was to Travis. They really were joined at the hip it seemed, but in reality, it was more of a one-sided obsession.
“I always found myself texting him the whole night away,” Abby remembers. See, this wasn’t the usual ‘I miss you’ flirtations, but rather Travis keeping tabs. “He would tell me not to do something or he’d make me feel bad for telling him no.”
Travis had a history of controlling behaviour; his previous relationship had been verbally abusive. At the time, it was easy for Abby to ignore this. Travis had managed to pin the blame on the ‘crazy ex’, who conveniently started to attack Abby on social media. If anything, her boyfriend was the victim.
Subconsciously, Abby was able to ignore every red flag. Travis’ demands included not wearing a bikini, not going clubbing (because that’s only for ‘single’ people), not going out more than one night in a row, and oddly, “he wouldn’t let me wear a nighty in my own home.” Maybe, like Kanye with Kim, Travis just found this too sexy and took offence. In hindsight, it’s almost laughable.
That was until one night, after a double date, Travis raped her.
Whilst she slept off the fun night, Abby was woken by Travis and his dick. “He was clearly in the mood,” Abby says, explaining how he left her alone for a little until he didn’t. “If I have sex with you, will you leave me alone?!”
To some, that may seem like an odd response, but to me, it resonated all too well. Growing up, you learn fast that men like sex. If men like sex, they’ll like you, or they’ll stop pestering you. Either way for women, sex is a tool, not always a pleasure.
It turns out Travis wasn’t done though, as a few hours later it began again.
“I could have stopped him. I could have gotten up and shouted at him or pushed him away and he would have stopped. But like before, it wouldn’t be long until he started again. So I just lay there. Part of me was thinking ‘Surely he wouldn’t do this.’ ‘Is he actually going to do this?’ And he did.”
Travis raped my best friend, and when she told me, my heart broke. Over and over again, the image of it replayed in my head. My friend, my Abby, being raped by this pig. She didn’t want to go to the police, and she didn’t want to tell her parents. Why? Out of fear. It wasn’t worth it.
For Abby, the worst part wasn’t the rape itself, but the betrayal. He ruined their love and the relationship Abby adored, he ruined everything. But after a while, she went back.
The problem with Travis was that he was a subtle manipulator. Every time Abby confronted him about his behaviour, he made himself the victim by saying what a rubbish boyfriend he was. Every time Abby dumped him, he knew he’d get her back. Abby was lonely, and Travis could feed into that.
It was only when Abby escaped to university did she understand the situation she was in. Travis would bombard her with texts and accusations, inserting himself into her friendships and class group chats. “He told me I had changed and that my family didn’t like me. Nobody liked me, but he loved me.”
I remember Abby calling me on the phone, unsure what to do. For an outsider, the answer was clear, but this time it was serious. I knew it’d end horrifically if it continued. I knew abuse took form over time, and I knew it could end in murder with two women being murdered a week by ex/partners. Thankfully, after eleven months, however, it finally came to an end – Abby was free.
Ellie and Thomas were the childhood sweethearts that our friendship group loved. They would always be in each other’s arms and laughing together. On the bus ride home, Ellie and I would talk about his friends (again, more gossip) and discuss their relationship. By sixth form, the routine remained the same, only with the gossip growing darker. Slowly, things began to come out, with Ellie revealing what Thomas was like behind closed doors.
“He didn’t like me talking to my friends. He didn’t like it when I told my friends things, even after we broke up.”
Like Travis, Thomas liked to have control of his girlfriend, treating her more like a trophy wife than a teenager. The only difference was that Ellie was aware of it and equally as aware of how trapped she was.
“He would try and persuade me into doing things,” Ellie told me, “Every lack of no counted as a yes.” Anyone that knows Ellie knows this was extremely manipulative on Thomas’ part. When Ellie doesn’t want to do something, she struggles to say no, instead pulling a face and huffing. The “no” is obvious, but Thomas used it as a loophole, normalising his assaults.
“He would grab me inappropriately. More in front of his friends,” she added, “where I couldn’t say no.”
To make things worse, Thomas used two things against Ellie: Her closeted sexuality and his episodes of suicidal depression. “I bet you’re gonna leave me,” was a phrase Ellie heard a lot. “I didn’t want to cause anything [by leaving]. I very often felt responsible for his mental health.”
At age fifteen and with GSCEs looming, this was a lot to deal with alone. But, she could’ve just left right? He’s not her responsibility.
“I was also kinda worried I would lose friends.” It turns out this was a valid fear as we found years later. When Thomas’ actions came to light, people quickly took sides. People that Ellie had considered good friends discredited her, ranting about how false accusations make it harder for victims to come forward – the irony.
Luckily, this was a blessing in disguise. That week Ellie and I texted nonstop, laughing at the few that had now left to join the Thomas tribe. But in that week, after years of sly pestering texts, Ellie stood up to Thomas and man she did not hold back. After essentially telling him to “fuck off,” she blocked him. She hasn’t seen the need to date a man since.
My first taste of romance was addictive. Sam and I met at summer camp, shut off from the world. He was my first love, and I was smitten. Love is blind, and I was proof of that.
Like Abby, I ignored every red flag. The hours spent waiting for him, the dumbing down, and unfortunately the multiple assaults.
I’m often insecure in relationships, questioning my worth and likeability. It’s something even now I actively strive to maintain. Because of this habit, my relationship with sex quickly became toxic. For me, sex meant a successful relationship – it was a determiner, and later reinforced. At times, I felt like a prostitute, sarcastically thinking, ‘well at least they get paid.‘ But Sam loved me, so it was okay.
I never knew what the definition of assault was. It was never taught, and the lines were blurred. Some things were obvious, but in the context of a relationship, that’s where I subconsciously shielded myself. Once I’d looked it up, my buried fears had been confirmed, everything came flooding back.
My second kiss was met with heavy lips and a groping hand. I hadn’t indicated that I wanted to go there, and he was aware of my lack of experience compared to his. After the initial shock, I naively thought it was normal. It was what I saw on tv growing up, forgetting the bit about consent.
Later it happened again. Whilst sitting opposite each other in the park, he reaches over and grabs both my breasts, laughing. That pissed me off, not because it sexual assault (remember I didn’t know what that meant yet), but because it was embarrassing and rude. And as if the third time was a charm, it happened again, each time becoming increasingly blatant.
I think at this time something must’ve clicked, but again my devotion to him shielded me from reality. For a while he’d been asking if he could do it, I’d always said no. I found it weird, odd-even, still being new to intimacy. Then, in my own room, he did it anyway.
I lay there, just thinking, trying to psyche myself into liking it (that was my sex life, convincing myself it feels good). All the while I know this wasn’t right. “Be careful because some women won’t accept that, it could get you into trouble.” I was protecting him, not me. It still hadn’t hit me what this was; I was still so innocent.
When I’d finally pieced it together, it finally sank in … and it hurt so so much. I wanted to tell everyone, as a release almost, because I didn’t know what to do. Like a big sign above my head saying: “I’ve been assaulted, what do I do? Make it better!”
I broke down and told my parents, but their dated conceptions of dating only left me with anger. “It’s what teenage boys do,” I was told, “He was probably nervous and trying to make the first move.” I don’t like that analogy. He’s still grabbing my breasts and groping me.
You’d think my newfound awareness would’ve protected me in some way, or at least made me stand my ground. But as I sank into lonely depressive periods during my Covid gap year, I met another guy.
He was gorgeous! Older, smarter, and funny. He represented everything I wanted out of that year. He was my only form of social life, with my friends living miles away.
We met in the park after I finished work. We got drunk. I opened up about why I struggled to think of my old relationship with Sam positively. I told him that Sam had “honked” my breast in the park. Lying on this hill, Leo repeatedly asked, “Can I do it?! Can I honk it!” I replied with no each time, but unfortunately, I was drunkenly smiling; being polite. Maybe I shouldn’t have smiled, but I was drunk and smitten. He does it anyway.
At home, I cried, extremely emotional and wounded. Over text I confronted him and he apologised. I told my mum, and used her ideology to make it ok to myself: It was a mistake. He’d ruined what we had but I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want it to be ruined.
So we still ‘dated’/met up for two more months. During that time I was coerced into acts I expressed my disgust for. I was again convincing my lonely self that if I was to be liked, this is what I must do. Again, I was used. Glimpses of affection were my reward.
So, why didn’t we leave?
According to Dr Zoe Shaw and Dr Madeleine A. Fugere, there’s a multitude of reasons why women don’t leave relationships, regardless of whether they’re long-term or short-term.
Abby is the perfect example of this. In her relationship with Travis, she hated the idea of being single, thinking she’d be alone for a long time. By being with Travis, she gained doses of attention and affection that others (like friends or family) couldn’t provide in the same way.
Ellie’s fear of friendship group friction and my own social isolation made being in a relationship the best option at the time. It was the lesser of two evils in a sense.
The alternative to not being in that relationship isn’t perceived as a worthy option, leaving us in a bad situation for longer.
This is when a partner experiences a shift in focus, standards and priorities. For me, whoever I’d be dating became my main priority and it consumed me. It’s another word for ‘blind-sighted’. You’re so in love or invested that you resist seeing their flaws. You lose clarity, with denial and protective thinking preserving your relationship.
Investment was a huge factor in my relationship, as well as Abby’s. It’s the time we spent texting and travelling to see them, and the emotional investment we put in. The hopes of seeing an outcome to this (or a return of investment) are what allowed us to settle for the small moments of affection or love where we didn’t have to sacrifice ourselves. All that effort would go to waste if we just walked away.
Ultimately, relationships are built on emotion, not logic. When a friend is in need, uttering “I told you so,” simply pushes them further towards their partner.
By talking badly about their partner, you’re talking badly about them. They’ve chosen to be with that person and you’re insulting their choice and integrity. When a relationship fails, only then does someone see their previous partner clearly. Reality hits home and you feel like you’ve wasted your time. You made a poor investment.
If anything, I wish signs of an unhealthy relationship were taught in school. I wish the definition of assault was made clearer, and I wish people knew there was a better alternative than a draining toxic relationship.
Had these elements been made clear, teenagers and young adults would’ve been better equipped to say no and condemn repugnant masculine behaviour. Women are not objects. They are not there to fulfil your impulsive desires. The sooner that’s drilled into boys’ minds the better. Really, the greatest pain from being assaulted is knowing the person you love didn’t even respect you.
If you feel trapped or worried about your relationship, or want to support someone, reach out.