Why Don't They Leave? Barriers to leaving an abusive relationship

 “Why Don’t They Just Leave?”

This question is sadly one which is heard all too often when having conversations around domestic abuse. 

Asking this question is extremely damaging as it can make victims feel that the abuse is their fault, that it is being implied that they have some control over the abuse that they are experiencing and that it is in their power to stop the abuse, which  is not true.

The question eradicates the reality which is that there are many different barriers for those in abusive relationships who are thinking about leaving the relationship or reaching out for support. LGBTQIA+ people and those in the BME (Black, Minority and Ethic) community also experience additional barriers. 

It’s important that we believe all victims of abuse, we listen without judgement and offer support.

Some of the barriers or situations that may prevent someone leaving an abusive relationship:

  • Economic dependency: Abusers often restrict their partner’s financial resources to ensure that they are dependent. This can happen in many ways, such as ensuring that all benefits are paid into the abusive partners account, the victim having to pay their salary into the abusive partners account and then being given an allowance by the abusive partner to debts being incurred in the victim’s name, or being forced to sign over large sums of money to the abusive partner.
  • Children are often the reason why victims will flee an abusive partner, but is some circumstances children are used by an abusive partner to keep the victim in the relationship. Find out find further information about the effects of domestic violence on children.
  • Religious and community pressures: Many victims live in absolute fear of being excluded for their community or making a decision against their religious teaching such as separating from your husband/wife. On many occasion the abuser will use this real fear to control the victim.
  • Parenting: Many communities place a strong emphasis on the importance of having a two parent household.
  • Hope: It is important to remember that no one falls in love with an abusive, violent and controlling partner. They fell in love with the charming, attentive and protective partner that they first met. The abusive partner will have convinced the victim that their abusive behaviour is the victim’s fault, so it is only natural for a victim to hold the belief that if they change or do thing differently that their partner will return to the person that they first met.
  • Fear of the abuser hurting themselves or others: Many abusers will threaten to hurt themselves, family members or pets if a victim leaves. Those experiencing abuse know what their abusive partners are capable of, they may be aware of the resources available to the abuser and be aware of their networks that the abuser has. It is important to listen, believe and not exclude a victim from any safety planning process.
  • The belief that the victim is sick or that there is abuse because of substance abuse: A victim may believe that with ‘treatment’, such as substance abuse treatment, treatment for a mental health condition or anger management will stop the abuse. Experience tells us that with treatment the physical abuse at times could stop but the emotional, financial and sexual abuse will continue. Alcohol and drugs can make someone indiscriminately violent or aggressive, however in the context of abuse within a relationship this is not the cause of the abuse. As the abuse is targeted and is often coupled with the other forms of abuse that occur regardless. However we recognise that the risk to a victim whose partner is using alcohol or drugs is significantly high.
  • Denial: A victim may feel that the abuse is, ‘really not that bad’. They may have experienced abuse in previous relationship or witnessed abuse as a child. It is important to listen to the victim and work with them to explore the different forms of abuse and the concept of a healthy relationship.
  • Responsibility: Many victims may feel obligated to make the relationship work. They may be experiencing pressure from family, religious teachings and the greater community to make the marriage work.
  • Shame, embarrassment and humiliation: A victim may not want anyone to know about the abuse. One of the most common statements that a friend or family member say following a disclosure of abuse what, ‘how could I not know’, and the simple answer is the victim did not want you to know. This is why it is so important to listen without judgement, ensure that you do not make decisions for the victim and allow them to lead on what, when and how they want to leave the abusive relationship. *It is important to remember that as professionals we have statutory obligations to report abuse, and our own organisational polices that would need to be followed.
  • Isolation: Many abusers with systematically isolates their victim from friends, family members and at time they may interfere with victim’s employment opportunities. In some circumstances, a victim with be prevented from learning English so that they are then dependent on the perpetrator for all communication.
  • Low self-esteem: It is important to remember that the abuser has subtly over time diminished the victims self-esteem, to the point they may believe that they deserve the abuse, that it is their fault or that no-one else will ever want to be with them.
  • Survival: The abuser may have threatened to hurt them, their children or other family members if they leave.

It important to remember that a victim’s risk of significant harm increases at the point of separation and does not decrease once the separation has occurred.

It is also important that we understand the impact of coercive control – a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

By understanding coercive control we will be able to understand with more compassion, patience and empathy why a victim of abuse stays in an abusive relationship, or struggles to cease contact once they have fled the abusive relationship.

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