You may have heard or wondered, “Why do they stay?” when a person is involved in a violent relationship. This question puts the onus of the abuse on the victim* rather than the abusive partner. The question that we should be asking is, “Why do they abuse?”
To understand this better, it is helpful to look at the multitude of barriers that a person in a violent intimate partner relationship may face when thinking about leaving or trying to leave. There are many complex factors that play a role in the decision to stay or to leave a violent partner relationship.
As with most major life choices, leaving an abusive relationship is a complicated and often nonlinear process that may take days, weeks, or years to make. Survivors* are experts in their own lives, and throughout their relationship, they actively make safety plans, self-determine their choices, and navigate ways to reduce harm and violence in their lives.
Domestic violence is a complex issue that exists on multiple societal levels. In this post, we cover just a few of the many barriers that survivors may face in leaving an abusive relationship. This post does not discuss the sociocultural root causes of domestic violence which are also barriers, such as oppression, racism, sexism, and other violent systems that perpetuate harm and power. There are links to more comprehensive articles at the end of this post.
We recommend that you start by watching this short video: Private Violence Presents: Why We Stayed to hear from survivors themselves some of the challenges that they face when leaving violent partners.
On average, a person in an abusive relationship will attempt to leave seven times before finally leaving for good. Leaving a violent relationship can be a most strenuous, difficult, and often particularly dangerous time. According to a 2013 report by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, more than 70% of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has gotten out – meaning that women are more likely to be killed in the weeks after leaving their abusive partner than at any other time during the relationship. In addition, friends and family may be killed or harmed by the abuser in the process of leaving. It is extremely dangerous to leave an abuser.
The criminal justice system frequently does not provide for the safety of a victim. Survivors know that even if they get a Protection Order, many abusers will disregard the order, or be enraged by it, creating an even more dangerous situation and fear of retaliation. Families are forced to leave their homes and belongings to remain safe.
Lack of safety is often a barrier that many survivors face if they have been isolated. Too often survivors are isolated from their support system(s) and do not have family, friends, or community members to help or to provide a sense of safety and support when leaving abusive relationships.
Many abusers will strip survivors of all economic power. Survivors are frequently forced to quit their jobs and not allowed free access to any money. This means that when leaving, survivors will frequently not have the means to pay rent, find stable housing, or pay for basic living expenses.
Shelters are often full and many have shared facilities, making it hard to maintain family routines. (Solid Ground’s Broadview program** provides families with studio apartments.) Lack of housing and shelter resources, in conjunction with frequently being isolated from family and friends, can leave survivors with nowhere to go, no support systems, and no access to external resources.
Abusers may threaten to keep children from survivors if they leave, or survivors may be reluctant to withhold children from their other parent. Oftentimes abusive partners will hold important documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, and immigration paperwork, making it very difficult for survivors to establish themselves and their children without the abuser.
Many survivors receive pressure from religious figures and community that leaving relationships, especially where children are involved, is wrong. Survivors may feel ashamed of the situation and not want to let friends and family know what is happening.
For people in LGBTQ relationships who are not open about their sexuality, another consideration may be threats of outing survivors to friends and family if they leave abusers. This can be especially difficult for teens who may have parents who would force them to leave the house if their sexuality was discovered.
COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order has brought an additional barrier to leaving abusive relationships. Many survivors are forced to be with their abusers 24 hours a day and cannot find a time to call for shelter or leave without the abuser knowing. Abusers may use social distancing as a controlling technique as well.
Safety planning while living with an abusive partner
(from The National Domestic Violence Hotline)
- Identify your partner’s use and level of force so you can assess the risk of physical danger to you and your children before it occurs.
- Identify safe areas of the house where there are no weapons and there are ways to escape. If arguments occur, try to move to those areas.
- Don’t run to where the children are, as your partner may hurt them as well.
- If violence is unavoidable, make yourself a small target. Dive into a corner and curl up into a ball with your face protected and arms around each side of your head, fingers entwined.
- If possible, have a phone accessible at all times and know what numbers to call for help. Know where the nearest public phone is located. Know the phone number to your local shelter. If your life is in danger, call the police.
- Let trusted friends and neighbors know of your situation and develop a plan and visual signal for when you need help.
- Teach your children how to get help. Instruct them not to get involved in the violence between you and your partner. Plan a code word to signal to them that they should get help or leave the house.
- Tell your children that violence is never right, even when someone they love is being violent. Tell them that neither you, nor they, are at fault or are the cause of the violence, and that when anyone is being violent, it is important to stay safe.
- Practice how to get out safely. Practice with your children.
- Plan for what you will do if your children tell your partner of your plan or if your partner otherwise finds out about your plan.
- Keep weapons like guns and knives locked away and as inaccessible as possible.
- Make a habit of backing the car into the driveway and keeping it fueled. Keep the driver’s door unlocked and others locked for a quick escape.
- Try not to wear scarves or long jewelry that could be used to strangle you.
- Create several plausible reasons for leaving the house at different times of the day or night.
This post describes just a few of the barriers to leaving an abusive relationship. Another great resource to learn about barriers to leaving and domestic violence in general is the book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder. For more information see:
- Why Do Victims Stay? National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
- Why Doesn’t She Just Leave Him? Reasons Why Victims Of Domestic Violence Don’t “Just Leave” by Jessica Hillis, Medium, 8/8/19
- “Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” Barriers to Getting out of Abusive Relationships by Jennifer Focht, MA, National Center for Health Research
- Why Didn’t She Leave? M1 Psychology | LOGANHOLME PSYCHOLOGIST & COUNSELLING CENTRE
Stay tuned for our next article on learning to teach boundaries and consent.
*“Victim” and “survivor” are used interchangeably in this post. While terminology varies, “survivor” is often self-identified and describes individuals or groups who have had violent acts perpetrated against them – whereas “victim” is often used in the criminal justice system, and some survivors reject the negative connotations associated with victimization terminology.
Domestic Violence Help in Seattle/King County
Call 206.299.2500 for Solid Ground’s confidential Domestic Violence shelter services and/or 2.1.1 toll-free at 1.800.621.4636, M-F, 8am-6pm for info about all King County resources.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1.800.799.7233 or TTY 1.800.787.3224
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