When we talk about abuse, we often wonder why the victims don’t leave those toxic environments? The reality is that it is not as easy as it seems.
We think that no one would want to stay in an abusive household and should just pick their bags and walk out the door. The truth is it is never so black and white. While some people will throw around fancy sounding words like "Stockholm syndrome" or "battered spouse syndrome" etc to explain it, a simple Google search itself on "why do victims stay?" itself will yield several pages of results to throw more light on the reality which forces many victims of abuse to stay. The struggle to break free from the abuse is very real for many people and for a whole host of reasons. A victim's reasons for staying with their abusers are extremely complex and, in most 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 kids, they will win custody of the children, they will harm or kill pets or others, they will ruin their victim financially -- the list goes on. The victim in violent relationships knows their abuser best and fully knows the extent to which they will go to make sure they have and can maintain control over the victim. The victim literally may not be able to safely escape or protect those they love; and this can be a very crippling feeling which often pushes them to stay. This blog post will look explore some of the reasons why victims find it hard to leave these circumstances.
Abusive relationships are extremely complex situations and it takes a lot of courage to leave given that the abuse is about power and control which abusers exert over their victims. Owing to this, when a victim chooses to leave, abusers often see this as a threat to that very power and control which thy have exerted on the survivor and this may push them to retaliate in even more dangerous and harmful ways. This further makes leaving often the most dangerous period of time for victims of abuse. One study found in interviews with men who have killed their wives that either threats of separation by their partner or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that lead to the murder.
There is a significant element of fear involved. A person will likely be afraid of the consequences if they decide to leave their relationship, either out of fear of their partner’s actions or concern over their own ability to be independent (especially if they have been gaslighted as well through the process and made to feel small about themselves). Fear can also be coupled with intimidation. Individuals may be intimidated into staying in a relationship by verbal or physical threats, or threats to spread information, including secrets or confidential details (i.e. revenge porn, blackmailing etc). This is also a major barrier for LGBTQ+ people who haven’t come out yet as such threats to out someone may be an opportunity for abusive partners to exert control.
There are cases where individuals have seen abuse being normalised and this poses a risk to their feeling of agency. If someone grew up in an environment where abuse was common, they may not know what healthy relationships look like. As a result, they may not recognize that their partner’s behaviours are unhealthy or abusive. Additionally, there is also a chance that victims feel that the relationship is a mix of good times, love and hope along with the manipulation, intimidation and fear.
It can be difficult for someone to admit that they’ve been or are being abused. They may feel that they’ve done something wrong, that they deserve the abuse, or that experiencing abuse is a sign of weakness. Shifting the focus from being wronged to making a person feel ashamed for being abused is also a common tactic that abusers deploy. This behaviour can also lead to low self-esteem where after experiencing verbal abuse or blame for physical abuse, the victims might believe that they’re at fault for their partner’s abusive behaviours and this can further lead them to not leave.
Often victims feel that being with the abuser may keep them safer than if they leave as they have some control over triggers and often the behaviour can be predictable. They know their abuser’s whereabouts and moods and therefore know how to act in the way that will be least likely to trigger their temper. The victim fears that if they attempt to leave, the violence could extend to their family or friends who are helping them escape.
In several cases, victims may be financially (or otherwise) dependent on their abusive partner or have previously been denied opportunities to work, a place to sleep on their own, language assistance, or a network to turn to during moments of crisis. This lack of resources can make it harder for them to leave. Additionally, for many their relationship might be tied in with their immigration status. People who are undocumented fear that reporting abuse will affect their immigration status. If they have limited English proficiency the concerns can be amplified by a confusing convoluted legal system & an inability to express their circumstances to others. Disabilities can also often make it hard for individuals to leave, especially if the victim has to depend on others for physical support. This may lead them to feel that their wellbeing is directly tied to their relationship and a lack of visible alternatives for support can heavily influence someone’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. Another aspect linked to the lack of resources is a lack of social support. Victims may fear homelessness, lack of safe shelters and no social support should they leave. The victim’s identity and sense of self has been lost because for the duration of their relationship the abuser has made many of their life choices for them. More often than not abusers forbid the victims from keeping in contact with or see their friends and perhaps even keep their job which completely deprives them of social support.
Lack of legal support to victims by police officers and law enforcement who may treat violence as a "domestic dispute," instead of a crime where one person is physically attacking another person. Often, victims of abuse are arrested and charged by law enforcement even if they are only defending themselves against the batterer. Additionally, there is often reluctance by prosecutors to prosecute cases. Some may convince the abuser to please to a lesser charge, thus further endangering victims. Additionally, judges rarely impose the maximum sentence upon convicted abusers. Probation or a fine is much more common. Furthermore, despite the issuing of a restraining order, there is little to prevent a released abuser from returning and repeating abuse.
The pressure of society and being judged can also play a role in the decision. Additionally, traditional customs or beliefs may influence someone’s decision to stay in an abusive situation, whether held by the individual themselves or by their family and community. Religious or cultural beliefs and practices may not support divorce or may dictate outdated gender roles and keep the victim trapped in the relationship. Societal factors that teach women to believe their identities and feelings of self-worth are contingent upon getting and keeping a man are also detrimental and can make it hard for people to leave.
Many victims may feel guilty or responsible for disrupting their familial unit, especially if there are children involved. Keeping the family together may not only be something that a victim may value, but may also be used as a tactic by their partner to coerce the victim into staying. Very often victims may stay in these situations for the sake of their children either out of fear of losing custody or worries for the safety of their children.
Last but not the least, Love can also play a big role in the decision to stay. Experiencing abuse and feeling genuine care for a partner who is causing harm are not mutually exclusive. Victims can still often have strong, intimate feelings for their partner. They may have children together, want to maintain their family, or the person abusing them may simply be charming (especially at the beginning of a relationship) and the survivor may hope that their partner will return to being that person.
As we can see from this, beyond the physical risks of leaving an abusive situation, there are countless other reasons why people stay in their relationships. Things are not as easy as they appear on the outside for people to walk out. No matter the reason, leaving any relationship can be difficult; doing so in an abusive situation can feel impossible without the right access to support. However, no matter the circumstances, victims deserve to be supported in their decision-making and empowered to reclaim control over their own lives. We need to show empathy to them irrespective of their circumstances - know that no one wants to be in this situation.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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