Those who have never been abused may never truly understand the barriers a victim faces when trying to leave. As a matter of fact, a common misconception of domestic violence is that the victim can simply walk away. Surely you’ve heard or maybe even wondered the same of a loved one: “Why don’t they just leave?”
There are various reasons why someone may stay in an abusive relationship and those reasons can be complicated. Our hope is that by sharing some of the common challenges, you will be able to better understand these barriers and offer the support that someone in this situation may need.
Domestic violence is about power and control. When a victim decides to leave, the abuser involuntarily relinquishes that control. This shift in power may cause the abuser to retaliate with intensified threats and escalated violence in an effort to scare the victim into returning or as “payback” for leaving. Studies show the likelihood of a woman being killed by an abusive partner is greatest when she is trying to leave or has recently left the relationship. This fear, along with fear for the safety of her children and other loved ones, often play a role in the victim’s decision to stay.
Domestic violence is often kept in the dark because of the stigmas associated with it. Victims are labeled “weak” or “stupid” and some are even told the abuse must not be “that bad” since they haven’t left. Because of this, a victim may choose to keep quiet rather than face potential judgment or backlash from their family, friends or colleagues. Shame, low self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness may accompany this feeling.
Victims often blame themselves for the abuse and believe that they have done something to deserve it. They may worry about the effect that leaving will have on their children and convince themselves that, regardless of the environment, having two parents in the home would be better than one. Additionally, they may feel responsible for the abuser, i.e., worrying that he/she may harm themselves if they left.
Economic abuse is prevalent in 99% of domestic violence cases. For those who are financially dependent on their abuser, the fear of losing their children due to their own inability to care for them financially will oftentimes drive their decision to stay. Male victims may also fear losing their children as men are often assumed to be the aggressor in intimate partner violence. A general distrust of the court system and/or lack of legal resources are common worries as well.
“All Relationships Have Problems”
Believe it or not, sometimes people don’t realize they are in an unhealthy relationship. Think about it–if you grew up in a household or environment where violence and toxicity were the norm, chances are it would become the foundation in which you base your future emotional, mental, spiritual and physical interactions with others. When you’ve learned to function in dysfunction, dysfunction isn’t viewed as “toxic” as much as it is viewed as “normal”.
Lack or No Knowledge of Resources
If you had to leave today with nothing but a suitcase to start a new life, could you? Victims are often forced to choose between dealing with the abuse or facing life altering changes, i.e., homelessness for themselves, their children and/or their pets. Limited or exhausted financial resources, full shelters, and no familial support can add to this stress. Simply put, starting over can be scary–especially when you don’t have the tools needed to do so.
Fear of Deportation
Immigrant victims face unique barriers as they may fear reporting the abuse may jeopardize their immigration status. If they are undocumented, the abuser may threaten to have them deported or their citizenship application revoked. Documented victims may have important legal documents like passports, resident cards or work visas withheld or destroyed. In either case, the abuser may also maintain control by using the victim’s language barrier against them and not allow them to learn English–thus making it difficult to communicate the need for help.
Fear of Being “Outed”
Certain patterns of abuse can be found in both straight and LGBTQ+ relationships but some forms are distinct to the latter. In LGBTQ+ relationships, abusers may threaten to “out” their victims by exposing their sexual preference, gender or transgender status to their family, friends, coworkers, etc. Additionally, LGBTQ+ victims may fear they won’t be believed since domestic violence is often misconstrued as only occurring in heterosexual relationships.
Cultural or Religious Beliefs
Cultural or religious practices may promote outdated ideas on gender roles and go against separation or divorce. Similarly, many religious organizations have a lack of understanding and/or training on the dynamics of abuse making it difficult for them to effectively provide assistance.
As our founder once put it– “I stayed because I loved him. I didn’t want the relationship to end, I wanted the abuse to end…and there’s a difference”. Victims oftentimes believe if they love their partner hard and long enough, they will change and everything will be ok. Some may try to “save” their partner or prove their loyalty to them by staying. At the end of the day, whether you have been in an abusive relationship or not, it’s never easy to walk away from someone you love…even when you know it’s for the best.