This is an issue that has come up several times for me in the last month. Some of my friends have been in this situation in the past, including some people that I care about very much. Some of the my other friends have brought it up in discussion both seriously and casually.
A guy I once worked with posted to Facebook: "Some women boggle me. Listen, if your tired of being battered, used and abused... Stop dating thug types with no morals. And you wonder why nobody cares when you come crying that you been wronged. -just sayin [sic]'"
Both as a psych major and as someone who worked in the behavioral health field I've studied abuse. Its ugly. Its deplorable. Its very rarely simple. These women who date thug types often do so because the thug reminds them of their fathers. Most of those women either have dysfunctional relationships with their fathers or their fathers are not in their lives anymore. They seek these men out as surrogates for the father they want to have a relationship with. Fathers are especially important in the lives of young girls because they look to their father's behaviors to imprint upon them how they should expect men to behave in the future. If their father was an abusive drunkard, they will expect that this is normal behavior. Even learning later in life that this is not normal, it will be difficult to override that impression.
Even in cases where that's not true and the women aren't unintentionally seeking out surrogates for their dysfunctional father relationships, abusers have extremely high social intelligence. They are excellent at manipulating both people and the situation. They often begin slowly making you rely on them piece by piece until they take over completely. The money is almost always controlled by them. The bills and cars are only in their name, and they make it a point to be well-liked by the community. After they gain control, the physical abuse begins. People stay because they're trapped; they have no car, no money, they feel like they have no way out. And often the abuser threatens to kill them if they talk to anyone. Sometimes the abuser threatens to hurt or kill other family members if they try to leave.
Being in an abusive relationship is literally living in a personal hell that you have to hide from the world. It is generally accepted that there are 6 main types of abuse. The most common that everyone associates with is physical abuse. What most people don't realize is that this type of abuse also includes indirect physical abuse, which doesn't include hitting or physical contact. It includes things like standing over you, getting "in your face," blocking a doorway, grabbing you if you try to leave, kicking, punching, biting, slapping, choking, threatening to harm you, using weapons, throwing things, breaking things, punching walls or doors, driving recklessly, burning, cutting, pulling hair, stabbing, strangling, tying or confining you, preventing you from seeking medical care, and often escalates to murder. This type of abuse often starts slowly and gets progressively worse.
Emotional abuse is also another broad category that most people have some basic knowledge of. However, most people don't realize the extent of this abuse. Emotional abuse includes insults, put downs, intimidation, embarrassing you in public, talking down to you, not listening to or respecting your feelings, making threats, telling you you’re not “GLBTQ,” “man,” or “strong” enough, being jealous, possessive, controlling; excessive or threatening texts, wanting access to your messages, email, FaceBook/MySpace, spying, checking up on you, accusations of cheating, making you feel like you need to justify yourself, giving you no privacy, shaming you for your sexual orientation. Now, to be clear, many of the behaviors listed here are also normal human emotional responses; jealousy, for example. The distinction between a normal response and abuse is the context and frequency. If you went to a party with your partner and then ignored them all night and danced or flirted with other people, it would be a normal response to be somewhat jealous. However if your partner gets overly jealous whenever anyone so much as looks at you or says hi to you, then you have a problem.
A third broad category of abuse is Verbal Abuse. This includes behaviors like yelling, shouting, swearing, continuously arguing, interrupting, talking over you, put downs, using loud and threatening language and tone to cause fear, name calling, intimidating you, mocking you, abusive language. Again, yelling and shouting can be normal behaviors within a reasonable context (not necessarily a healthy behavior, or one conducive to building a healthy relationship, but within the realm of normal). You may also note that Verbal Abuse and Emotional Abuse overlap somewhat.
A fourth category is Economic Abuse. This is one that most people won't identify with by name, but it is one of the most important reasons that people who are abused stay in a relationship. This type of abuse includes withholding money, opening up a joint account but denying you access, forcing you to leave your job, forcing you to get fired, shaming you for how you spend your money, not allowing you to work or get an education, putting all the bills/credit cards in your name (or their name), or preventing you from using a car. This could be further expanded and summarized to say that it includes any denial or restriction of common property or assets.
A fifth category, and one that overlaps some of the others is Mental Abuse. This include behaviors such as playing mind games with you, twisting everything around so nothing is their fault and all of their behavior was caused by something you did or didn’t do, accusing you of doing things that they are doing, lying, manipulating you for control or sex, threatening to “out” you to parents, friends, classmates, distorting reality so you think you are losing your mind. They may also resort to hiding things that you've left somewhere so that you can't find it and then spend hours looking for it only to return it to the original location when you're about to give up making you doubt your sanity.
The last major category is Sexual Abuse. This includes behaviors such as rape, unwanted sexual touching, vulgar comments, pressure for sex, forcing you to have unprotected sex, forcing you to get pregnant or to have an abortion, sexting, forcing you to have sex with other people or to watch your partner have sex with someone else, forcing you to use or participate in pornography, and much worse.
If you want to know more about how to help people who are in an abusive relationship the CDC offers a free web training on it.
If you think that people living with abuse are exaggerating, they aren't. One brave woman took a photo of herself every day for a year while she was living with abuse. I will warn you, the video is not easy to watch if you have any compassion for others and if you've ever been abused, it may trigger some bad memories. With that disclaimer out of the way, you can watch it here. The sign at the end of the video says "Help me. I don't know if I'll make it until tomorrow". ...let that sink in for a minute.
You can either love someone, or you can fear them, but it can never be both. You might be tricked into thinking that you love them because they provide for you, but that's not love, that's them continuing to exert control by making you dependent on them. You might tell yourself that you love them because they give you things without asking. Again, that's not love, that's them controlling what you have and whom you communicate with. Eventually your mind becomes so blurred that you really think that you do actually love them, but it's not love, it's Stockholm Syndrome. If you live in fear of being beat or hit you cannot be in love with that person.
If you are in this situation, there is always a way out, there is always help. If you know someone in this situation, take them seriously and don't just discredit their discussion as simple complaining. Often they are in a life-threatening situation and they just don't realize it.