Qn: "What causes some people to stay put in cruel and hopeless marriages even when they go through a lot of pain, is this brain-washing?"
Yours is a rather heavy question full of emotion and it is possible that you ask the question because you have lived in one such “cruel and hopeless marriage”. We can only wonder what you or the person on whose behalf you ask the question did to resolve the problem.
There are a number of possible explanations for the fact that people stay in such marriages. Some reasons would seem superficial and almost petty but others are deep and call for understanding. Each case, however, is to be viewed on its own merit and one must avoid the temptation to judge or even to generalise. Remember therefore that each marriage is unique and the dynamics that brought the couple together in the first instance might be relevant in considering why a happy union turned to be such a nightmare.
A few years ago, we came across a local study by an NGO that looked at the problem you raise today. It was a report that involved a large number of women who had gone to the organisation to seek help in the challenges they were going through in their marriages. Many wanted legal advice on how to get out of “cruel and hopeless marriages,”
According to the report, some of the women stayed for what were practical reasons. For some it was because of the financial implications of living and they stayed because of the fear that leaving would lead them and their children on the path of starvation. Others stayed because their parents had told them that marriage was for life and that good girls stayed on no matter what the problem was. Still others feared the shame separation would bring to them and their families. Others held that God hated divorce and therefore their religion did not allow them the escape they felt they needed and deserved.
A significant number stayed because of what they called hope that he would change in the course of time and all they needed to do was to be patient because all marriages have problems. More love to him was all that was required when they argued. As you can see, there are many reasons for staying in a difficult situation.
We saw a woman a few years ago who was in hospital after she had suffered serious injury to her head after her husband of seven years had pushed her down a flight of stairs. We were called in by the surgeon who realised that she had multiple scars from previous trauma. To the surprise of the medical team, she wanted to go home on the second day, because in her view, her husband had told her he loved her and was feeling lonely at home alone! Many nurses expressed shock that a woman could be won over so easily by a bouquet of flowers and some chocolates. In therapy a few months later, after yet another violent injury, the woman explained that she stayed on in this hopeless situation because of the sex that followed their disagreements. Her explanation was that mutual forgiveness gave them as a couple a great sense of closeness. Put another way, the mating dance for them was the violent behaviour. If this does not make sense, it is because it does not, to most people. For this couple it did! Eventually we learnt that she had sustained severe injuries to her back and when she was put on a wheel chair, he married another woman who he also beat often.
In yet another case, a woman in her 50s came to us for the evaluation and treatment of what was clearly a depressive illness. In her view, she had endured a difficult and hopeless marriage for 30 years and now that her children were grown up, she was ready to start life all over again. She had a good job that involved a good deal of travel and she had noticed that she was getting less interested in her work, was not sleeping too well and found herself needing a glass or two of wine to sleep. She confessed to her best maid that she had met a man in one of her trips, and in her words, came very close to adultery. This is what scared her to come to therapy. As she got better, it became clear that her marriage was never that bad but that the recent depressive illness had changed the totality of her perception. A few months later she was again happily married.
The foregoing is intended to show you how complex marriage can be and for that reason no simple answer is available to your question.