If you know a friend or family member in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, it may feel natural to tell them to “just leave.” After all, you’re looking out for your loved one and want the best for them, right? Let’s take a step back and talk about why this can be dangerous advice.
Typically, people who have never been in an abusive relationship don’t understand that leaving can be extremely complicated. We want to emphasize that leaving an abuser is a process, not a single event. Additionally, leaving is often the most dangerous time for a victim, as this is when the abuser may escalate behaviors in order to maintain power and control.
It is highly recommended that victims of intimate partner violence work with an advocate. Advocates are available to create personalized safety plans to ensure that the victims and their children, pets, family members and co-workers take proper precautions. Leaving takes extensive planning, as well as a strong support system and resources.
Even if a victim decides to leave the relationship, there’s a good chance that they will go back. On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. But why? There are many factors that play into leaving an abusive relationship permanently.
Why Do Victims Stay?
A victim’s reasons for staying with their abusers are complex and, in many cases, are based on the reality that their abuser will follow through with the threats they have used to keep them trapped: the abuser will hurt or kill them, they will hurt or kill the children, they will win custody of the children, they will harm or kill pets or others. A victim knows their abuser best, and is likely aware of the extremes that the abuser will go to in order to maintain control.
Aside from immediate threats of physical violence, abusers may practice financial abuse. This can look like many things, including limiting access to shared bank accounts or sabotaging credit scores, which can make it difficult to get a loan or housing.
We often see that if victims experience pressure from their partner not to work, they may not be financially stable or have a savings account. Or if they do work, they may not make enough money to support themselves and/or their children on their own.
When an abusive spouse controls household funds, it is unlikely that the victim could have access to payment for an attorney related to child custody or divorce. Additionally, the victim may not have access to private transportation, such as their own vehicle or a ride share service (especially if the abuser monitors the victim’s phone and app usage) to get to appointments.
Additional Barriers to Leaving an Abuser
- Love: It is easy to forget that victims may still love their abusers, even after they leave. In many cases, love for an abuser plays a significant role in returning, especially if the victim is married. They may have children with them and want to maintain their family. It is common that victims want the violence or abuse to stop, but not for the relationship to end.
- Financial Dependence: Because abuse is about control, many victims have limited access to resources. They may fear that by leaving the abuser they — including children — will become homeless or have to stay in a crowded shelter, have to rely on welfare or be unable to find a job and childcare.
- Believing Abuse is Normal: Some victims have grown up in abusive households, or have only ever been in abusive relationships. When this happens, those who have been abused don’t always recognize the patterns of abusive behaviors. They might just think it’s normal.
- Fear of Being Outed: If someone is in an LGBTQ relationship and has not yet come out publicly, the abusive partner may threaten to reveal this secret or “out them.” In the majority of the United States, someone can lose their job due to their sexual orientation.
- Cultural/Religious Reasons: Traditional gender roles supported by someone’s culture or religion may influence them to stay rather than end the relationship for fear of bringing shame upon their family. For example, a victim may be banned from their family or place of worship for getting a divorce, causing further isolation from support systems.
- Shame: It’s difficult for someone to admit that they’ve been abused, especially if it’s been occurring for a long period of time. Abusers often blame the victim for the abusive behavior.
- Lack of Support: Leaving an abusive relationship requires tons of support. Victims need a place to go (whether shelter or a trusted friend/family member’s place), help with child care and access to vital resources such as advocacy, counseling or legal aid. Judgment from friends or family as well as a lack of resources can isolate a victim of violence. The best thing that you can say to a victim is “I believe you. This isn’t your fault. You have my support and you are not alone.”
If you are in an emergency situation, or witness an emergency, please always call 911. The phone numbers below are resources available to victims, survivors and bystanders of abuse, but should not replace 911.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Call 1-800-799-7233, 24-hour crisis hotline
Chat: http://www.thehotline.org/what-is-live-chat/, 7a.m. – 2 a.m. CT
LoveIsRespect – serves teens and young adults experiencing dating violence
Text “love is” to 22522
The Center for Family Safety and Healing – provides advocacy, safety planning and counseling
614-722-8293(Adult Services intake)
CHOICES – shelter, safety planning, counseling and advocacy
614-224-4663, 24-hour crisis hotline
Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN) – shelter services in each county in Ohio
Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) – serves LGBTQI community
Ohio Hispanic Coalition – serves Latino communities