Normalcy bias is a natural, but uninformed response to the unknown, unrecognized risks in a situation. For 15 million women a year, it’s an incapacitating response to abuse in relationship.

Normalcy bias can be described as inaccurate, inadequate thinking that makes things worse. It surfaces at the worst possible moment as a freeze or panic response—think deer in headlights or bull in a china shop—and it can lead to disaster.

The psychological run-up to normalcy bias is this: since something has never happened before, it never will. In the context of a pathological relationship that has not been identified as such, normalcy bias could be expressed like this:

“Oh, he would never hurt me.”
“I leave my kids with him all the time.”
“His last wife just didn’t understand him.”
“He’s not after my money.”

Normalcy bias comes from not recognizing what you’re dealing with. Lack of a working knowledge of the warning signs of abuse is the main reason millions of women unwittingly enter into dangerous relationships and normalcy bias is a contributing factor to their getting stuck in them.

Abusive relationships are counterfeit and counter-intuitive experiences. They’re counterfeit in that they start out like romance but turn into assault. They’re counter-intuitive in that what works in a healthy relationship does not bear fruit in an unhealthy one.

Normalcy bias can work two ways, as a cause and as a result.

Normalcy Bias as Causative Factor

As a cause, normalcy bias means you are not seeing the red flags and not grasping the gravity of a situation, so it works in you like denial. This is one reason bad things happen to good people: misfortune most often befalls the uninformed.

When you’re faced with a situation you’ve never experienced, a typical posture is to downplay caveats and go along in expectation of a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary result. In the world of abusive relationships, this kind of thinking can propel you into greater danger and ever more dire circumstances at great speed.

Denial and naiveté will not save you from the ravages of an abusive individual. In fact, this frame of mind actually makes you more vulnerable because it sets you up to be less able to deal with extreme circumstances. When worst-case scenarios unfold, you become prone to over- or under-react in order to escape pain and return to something you can understand. Many times, that’s as useful as wishful thinking.

For example, after just two months of marriage, a wife realizes that all three of her pets have been harmed in the same time frame. The cat appeared with a broken leg, the dog vomited violently after getting into something poisonous and the parrot is dropping feathers. No one but she and her new husband have been around her pets. She tells herself it’s coincidental. She knows he knows how much they mean to her. In the extra full days of being a newlywed, it doesn’t register with her that her cat has become timid, her dog has started acting defensively and both have had accidents indoors despite being previously perfectly housetrained. Six months later, the cat has disappeared, the dog has been euthanized after being hit by a car when she wasn’t home and the parrot has died in her cage of unexplained causes.

Normalcy Bias as Result Factor

As a result, normalcy bias sets in when you are beginning to break down under the strain of unrelenting stress. This is the kind of stress that kills. It depletes the body, the mind and the spirit. This is when your thinking becomes impaired, your emotions begin to shut down and your life force ebbs. Post-traumatic stress disorder strikes veterans of war and veterans of relationship violence.

Normalcy bias accelerates when you’re weak and getting weaker and often exacerbates the crumbling of your faculties. As a result, you make poorer and poorer decisions. And as you do, the consequences become more and more grave. Its depleting effects can lead to unnecessary suffering and death.

For example, during a day-long hike in the back country, a wife becomes aware that her husband is getting farther and farther ahead of her. He is better shape and he is familiar with the territory, which she is not. She doesn’t want to hold him back, so she climbs and hikes as fast as she can. Within a few more minutes, he is completely out of sight and she is, for all practical purposes alone. As anxiety wraps its cold fingers around her, she scolds herself for letting it happen. She imagines a mountain lion behind every boulder and a grizzly bear in each stand of trees. Her husband has the flashlight, ponchos, bear spray and water bottle. She comes to a fork in the trail and does not know which way to go. She screams and waits for a response that doesn’t come. Unable to contain her panic, she begins to run and eventually trips over a tree root. She falls hard, splitting her lip, breaking her wrist and spraining her ankle. Shivering in the coming cold of a mountain night, she crawls to a fir tree and gets up under its skirt. It is the end of tourist season and it could be weeks before anyone comes this way. And it is.

Normalcy bias is an important but little known factor of the extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion of being trapped in a marriage or relationship with a pathologically abusive person.

Now you know.

Author's Bio: 

Anna Moss teaches women how to read people and develop discernment about relationships. Her tools for abuse prevention have been embraced by clinicians, educators, executives and survivors nationwide.