Jennifer Focht, M.A.
Domestic violence is a fact of life in the U.S. for approximately 35% of women and 28% of men in their lifetimes.1 When we learn someone is in an abusive relationship, the first question many people ask is “Well, why doesn’t she just leave?” Unfortunately, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim tries to leave; that is when he or she is most likely to be killed by the abuser. Homicide is one of the top 10 causes of death for women aged 20-44,2 and more women are killed by their partners than by anyone else.3
The threat to personal safety is not the only reason many people find it difficult to end an abusive relationship. No one wants to be abused, but people may blame themselves or grow up thinking that abuse is a normal part of a close relationship. If getting out of the situation were as easy as people like to think, every single person would leave at the first warning sign.
Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Partner
Even in 2013, many people still believe domestic abuse is okay. Facing questions from friends and family like, “What did you do to make him hit you?” or comments like, “You must not have minded him treating you like that, since you stayed so long” can be enough to keep some people from leaving. The longer the person stays, the more shame she or he may feel—first for ending up in an abusive relationship, and then for not immediately ending it. This shame can make it all the more difficult to get out of the relationship.
Ending a relationship, especially a marriage, can be extremely expensive. Just finding a safe place to live can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Many people don’t make enough money to support themselves without a partner’s income, so they may have to choose between suffering the abuse and not being able to afford groceries, utilities, or transportation to work.
Lots of parents think that raising children in a two-parent home is better for the kids than raising them alone, regardless of whether or not the parents have a healthy relationship. Some don’t want their children to lose the love and security associated with a 2-parent family. The victim may see the abuser as a good parent or fear losing their children’s love if they end the relationship. For many parents, staying in the abusive relationship seems like what is best for their children, which can make it extremely hard to leave.
For many people who are married to their abusers, leaving the relationship is inconsistent with their religious beliefs. Even for people of faith whose religion does not specifically forbid divorce, it may feel like their significant other’s behavior is part of a greater plan or part of a spiritual test. In some circumstances, ending the relationship requires not only a break up with the abuser, but possibly rejection by their religious community as well.
For immigrant victims, day-to-day living may be subject to the abuser’s control regardless of whether the abuser is also an immigrant or a U.S. citizen. An abuser may hide or destroy their partner’s immigration documents, and without them, it will be very difficult for the victim to prove they are in the country legally. In situations where there are no immigration documents, an abuser may threaten to have the victim deported if he or she tries to leave the relationship. Although leaving the country, even by government force, could potentially be an effective way to break off the relationship, abusers may maintain control of their partners, maybe even from a distance, by making and carrying out threats of violence against the victim’s loved ones.
Fear of Being Outed
Despite changing attitudes, in many communities, people live in fear of others finding out they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transexual. An abuser—whether in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship—may threaten to disclose the victim’s sexuality to their family, friends, or coworkers which could put the victim at further risk of violence. If the person thinks they will lose their job or their friends and family by being outed, then staying in the abusive relationship may seem like a better option.
He/She Promises to Change
When the abuser promises to change, many victims decide that it’s riskier to leave than it is to stay. Staying in a relationship when the other person promises to stop being abusive can mean avoiding the failure associated with the end of a marriage or long-term relationship.
It’s easy to assume that someone cannot possibly love an abuser, but abusive relationships are just as complex as any other. Sometimes the person doesn’t necessarily want to break off the relationship; sometimes they just want the violence to stop. Even after years of abuse, the victim may still feel love for the abuser and want to give them “one more chance” to change.
If you know someone who you believe is in an abusive relationship, be supportive. Abusers often isolate victims from their friends and family to make them feel like they have nowhere to go for help. Come up with a way you can safely keep in touch with the person being abused. (For example, if the abuser is monitoring their cell phone, try e-mail instead.) Find resources to help the victim, like the telephone number for the local domestic violence advocacy program, or safety information.
Remember to be patient with the person. It may seem obvious to you that the victim should just leave the abuser, but situations are rarely that simple. Sometimes leaving just isn’t a realistic option, and victims in those circumstances need support too. In a lot of cases, leaving the abuser doesn’t actually end the abuse. It is extremely common for people who have left abusive relationships to eventually go back, and it often takes several attempts before a person can successfully and permanently end the relationship.
If you are in an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at any time of day or night to speak to someone trained to help you. The Hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential and anonymous, and interpreter services are available for more than 170 languages.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf. Accessibility verified March 13, 2013. ▲
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Vital Statistics Reports. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_07.pdf. Accessibility verified March 13, 2013. ▲
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. Available at: http://www.bjs.gov/content/intimate/victims.cfm. Accessibility verified March 13, 2013. ▲