A woman who stays with an abusive man doesn’t have much self-esteem, even though she may outwardly project a high level of self-regard.
High self-esteem is “chip-proof,” as in, resistant to being “chipped away” by an abusive man who enjoys berating and ridiculing his woman.
For purposes of this article, domestic abuse means women staying with the abusive man, as opposed to women promptly leaving after the first violent incident.
Many formerly abused women assert they grew up in stable, loving homes, and report they always had high self-esteem.
One of my personal-training clients was once married to an abusive man. “Maggie” was married to her second husband when she was my client. This vibrant woman projected high self-esteem.
Maggie was a part-time college student with aspirations of becoming a lawyer; raising two kids (one from the first, abusive husband) and one from the second husband.
Maggie, who got 30 people to attend her 30th birthday party, often talked about how wimpy her computer-programmer second husband was.
How could this seemingly bear of a woman ever stay married for several years to an abusive man?
This woman’s experiences with an abusive man toughened her up somewhat.
But let’s look past the extroverted, boisterous exterior: This ambitious woman was abused as a child. An abusive childhood leaves its mark.
I asked Mary Jo Fay, RN, MSN, author of “When Your Perfect Partner Goes Perfectly Wrong,” why many women in previous abusive relationships, or currently with violent men, report they’ve always had high self-esteem.
“They are denying their past,” says Fay. “Many of the women I have consulted with initially tell me that exact scenario, but when I ask deeper questions, it’s amazing what they slowly ‘remember.’
For example, these women will say that their folks loved each other very much, have been married for 50 years now, and they had a great childhood.
Then, when I ask certain specifics, things come out like how Dad really drank too much, was always at the bar, Mom was always upset and quietly crying, how everyone ‘walked on eggshells’ around Dad when he finally came home from the bar drunk, etc.”
It’s easier for women to “remember” the perfect family they’d always dreamed for, versus the one they actually had.
This psychology 101 also applies to women who’d never stay with abusive men; to abusive men themselves; and to abused men (women to men; and men to men).
Fay continues, “The brain can oftentimes do a pretty good job of changing the memories or even hiding the memories for years.
I was sexually abused when I was 13 by a person in a position of trust, and my brain couldn’t let me come to terms with that emotional mess until I was well into my 40’s! So you see … I thought I had the perfect childhood too.”
Level of self-esteem is paramount in how women and men function in society.
But strangely, self-esteem is blown off as a variable in women’s propensity to stay with men who mistreat them.
It’s not always the parents who erode women’s self-esteem during childhood. An emotionally toxic or physically abusive grandparent, older sibling, step-parent or teacher can wreak havoc on a growing mind.
Fay explains, “Self-esteem gets muddied with many other issues … Let’s look at runway models … envied by women across the globe … and yet, there are those who struggle with self-esteem … but no one knows.”
It may be hard to believe that glamorous, jet-setting women with perfect skin and hair who makes $10,000 a day could have low self-esteem.
“The same holds true for corporate execs, or anyone else for that matter,” says Fay. “Just as the abuser is probably weak on the inside, a tough woman can be hiding an insecure inside as well … some women just compensate for it better than other women.”
Fay continues: “I was the epitome of those women that no one would ever guess has self-esteem issues … I had a successful career, volunteered countless hours for my daughter’s equestrian organization, made a lot of money … but always felt unattractive.
But, the sexual abuse that occurred to me at 13 did something almost like flipping a switch inside me … it had me keeping this big, dark secret for over 30 years and the feeling that if anyone ever found out, they would blame me and discard me as damaged goods.”
Bottom line: On the surface, women who stay or stayed with abusive men (or men abused by women or men) may appear to have high self-esteem; and women or men may insist their parents had a great marriage.
But a little digging will surely unearth events that will make it easier to believe “how” a particular woman could ever stay with an abusive man.
Women or men may have high self-esteem in terms of possessing drive and ambition with career and hobbies, but the same women and men may also suffer from very low self-esteem when it comes to interpersonal relationships, especially when the significant other is a bully.
Mary Jo Fay is a speaker, author and consultant who specializes in relationships.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.