It’s a question often asked by people who’ve never experienced domestic violence: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Sometimes, we ask this question because we truly don’t understand what might be keeping someone in a terrible relationship. Other times, this question is used as a way to blame women for the abuse they receive.
The answer is individual to each woman, and the reasons can be pretty complicated. The truth is, leaving can be difficult even when you know it’s the right thing to do — the average domestic violence victim may try to leave multiple times before actually being able to make a clean break. Here are just 10 of the many reasons why women stay with partners who hurt them.
(A quick note: yes, women can abuse men, and abuse also occurs in same-sex relationships. That being said, studies show that 95% of domestic abuse is committed by men against their female partners, so that’s what I’ll be addressing in this article. However, these reasons could apply to any relationship.)
1. Women may lack social support. One of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship is an abuser gradually isolating the victim from her support network, including friends and family. Since it happens over time, often victims of domestic violence don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late. They may be scared of reaching out to their former support network, or they may feel there’s no one they can trust.
2. They may have limited financial resources. If the victim shares a joint bank account with her abuser, it’s hard to break free. Some abusers may even take a victim’s paycheck from them or create a very strict budget to try to ensure the victim is unable to leave without ending up on the streets. When combined with the lack of a strong support network, this can make it almost impossible to get out.
3. They may have limited work experience. If the victim has been a stay-at-home mother or hasn’t been allowed to keep a steady job by her partner, this can make the idea of breaking free even more daunting. It can be difficult to find a job that pays enough to allow her to escape — especially if children are in the equation.
4. Questions of child custody and support may also be a factor. It’s easy to be frustrated or even angry with women who don’t remove their children from an abusive environment. Unfortunately, sometimes the only alternative is that the victim might be unable to support her children at all — or that sole custody will be given to the abusive parent.
5. Not being able to take a pet with them. Many men actually keep their partners in line by threatening the victim’s pets. If a woman’s only option is to go to a shelter where her pet isn’t allowed, her fears for the animal’s safety keep her from leaving. She may not have any options for temporary care while she works on becoming more independent.
6. They may be afraid of being alone. Obviously, it’s better to be alone than to be in a relationship that hurts you, but many victims of physical and emotional abuse have been convinced over the course of their relationship that no one else could possibly want them. When you truly believe that you may never find someone else, it’s possible to rationalize away some seriously twisted behavior.
7. Family or community pressure might be keeping them from leaving. If the victim belongs to a religion that frowns upon divorce, or if family members have a strong relationships with the abuser, they may pressure the victim to try to work things out. This social pressure can make the victim feel guilty for wanting to leave and keep her from accessing the resources she would need to make a clean break.
8. They may feel guilty for “causing” the abuse. A common tactic abusers like to use is listing all the reasons why the victim’s behavior provoked them. Believe it or not, hearing this over and over again can actually make the victim start to doubt her own sanity — making her question her version of events. Victims will often find themselves walking on eggshells and trying desperately to avoid behaviors they believe will cause the abuse.
9. Sometimes the relationship may seem healthy. Some abusers will go weeks or months between violent or manipulative episodes. They may seem genuinely remorseful about their bad behavior and claim they’re willing to change. A woman in this type of relationship may believe that the abuse really won’t happen again — or that it’s worth sticking through the bad parts because the rest of the relationship makes her happy.
10. They may be afraid of provoking additional violence. It’s a sad statistic, but a good 75% of women who are killed by their partners are murdered during or after an attempt to leave the relationship. If the choice is between a black eye or death, sometimes the smart choice is to stay put.
Obviously, if you know someone who’s in an abusive relationship, you should make every effort to help her leave. But if she’s reluctant or isn’t ready, you can’t force her. Instead, try to find out why she won’t leave — if you know the reason, you may be better able to help her find the resources she needs to make the transition easier.
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