Stop telling her to leave!

Why doesn’t she just leave?

If only it were that simple! People who suggest this to survivors of domestic abuse don’t understand the dynamics of abusive relationships. It’s a sad fact that survivors of abuse are commonly ‘frozen out’ by family and friends who have ‘washed their hands’ of the situation, they have become frustrated and intolerant because she is not walking out. It’s believed that the survivor has real options but wants to stay, and that in choosing to stay, she’s deserving of the abuse that comes with that decision. She is commonly labeled a bad mother for choosing the relationship over her children. She runs the risk of having her children removed from her care due to her refusal to just walk out.

Social isolation is a common feature of domestic abuse. Perpetrators of abuse will commonly isolate their victims from social networks to gain more control over them. These women are often further isolated by friends and family who believe they are making a free choice to stay. Survivors therefore suffer a doubling up of isolation. Social isolation increases vulnerability by cutting the survivor off from potential sources of physical and emotional support. Social isolation also increases the likelihood of poor mental health as lack of social contacts has a depressive effect on most people. Women who are isolated in this way may lack the energy, motivation and even belief that leaving is possible.

Ill informed family and friends will often say –
“She keeps going back so she deserves what she gets”.
“She’s putting him before the children”.
“She must enjoy getting hit, she could walk out if she wanted to”.
“She’s made her bed, she can lie in it”.
“I’m washing my hands of her, she’s made her choice”.

Fear also inhibits action. It’s known that the most dangerous time for as survivor of abuse is the point at which she decides to leave. Many perpetrators are highly controlling, jealous and possessive and this behavior is intensified when they fear losing control. A safe exit from a violent relationship needs to be carefully managed. Many victims do not leave abusive relationships because they fear they will be subjected to far worse abuse than they are already enduring. Research corroborates the justification for that fear. In “Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence,” (2016) Peterson notes that research shows that the risk of intimate partner violence is increased within the context of a separation, and that femicide may be triggered by an actual or even anticipated separation. He also notes that the risk of violence during a separation is not a long-term possibility, it is immediate. It seems that the perpetrator’s loss of control over their partner is a trigger. So however appalling the situation, leaving is often just too dangerous to consider.

Domestic abuse has the habit of breaking down women’s confidence, assertiveness and self-esteem. It increases the likelihood of poor mental health. Survivors will sometimes self-medicate with alcohol and recreational drugs. Survivors are commonly battered both physically and mentally and reduced to a state where compliance with their abuser is the only viable option. The leave advocates and the hostile relatives don’t understand these dynamics. Being emotionally and physically broken down inhibits positive action. It’s often hard enough for survivors to just get through the day let alone plan ahead and generate an escape strategy.

It’s generally more difficult to leave when there are children in the relationship. Many women will tolerate abuse rather than be separated from their children. Women will often fear mistreatment of their children in the hands of the abuser, particularly when they’re not there to supervise. Abusers often use Family Court as a forum for their continued abuse. They will demand access, not because they want to see their children, but because they want to continue to abuse and control. There is a common misconception that children will be better off living with both parents despite the abuse and survivors will often stay for this reason.

Financial issues are also a factor that prevent women from leaving. Abusive men will often take control of finances so that women have no funds to support a move. Abused women are often forced to leave their jobs by controlling partners. Other times, a decline in mental health due to abuse forces them to leave their jobs so they become more financially dependent upon their abusers. For other women, concerns about having to downsize will factor into their decision making when considering leaving.

For many women, particularly older survivors, family and social role expectations may create pressure for the victim to remain in an abusive relationship and attempt to repair the relational damage caused by the abuse. Survivors who seek to maintain their relationships are motivated to accept apologies from the abuser and promises to change. There is often a social stigma associated with leaving a relationship. This stigma is felt particularly by older survivors and those from certain ethnic backgrounds. When family and social networks gang up against the survivor and pressurise her to stay, leaving can become an impossibly difficult task.

As strange as it sounds, pressuring a survivor to leave could actually make it less likely that she’ll ever get out of the situation. If a victim of domestic abuse has finally summoned up the courage to open up, pressuring her to leave might frighten her back even further into secrecy. Not only that, but you are becoming yet another person trying to control her, and that can cause further damage to her confidence. Refraining from judgement is one of the most important things you can do for someone in an abusive relationship.

Given the many reasons survivors do not leave their abusers, it is important to raise awareness of community resources and support organisations, in the hope that more survivors will know where to go for help. When it comes to domestic violence, enhanced community awareness and responsiveness will have a positive impact on survivors.

At Broxtowe Women’s Project, we won’t judge you for not leaving. We believe in empowering you and that means working to your agenda and with your goals in sight. If you choose to stay, we can work with you to make your situation safer. We will listen to your concerns, provide you with practical and emotional support and respond to your specific needs. Whether you leave or stay, having someone who listens, understands, supports and is there for you will make your situation more bearable.