Why She Doesn’t Leave: The Barriers to Ending Domestic Violence

The solution to domestic violence can seem so simple that some find it difficult to empathize with victims.  Leaving the partner, it would seem, would end the violent partnership and save the victim.  This is a commonly held yet oversimplified view and there are a lot of reasons why leaving a violent intimate partnership is much more difficult than ending a relatively healthy intimate partnership.  

First, it is important to realize that the person being abused is often late in realizing that the relationship has become abusive.  Abuse escalates slowly and it most often begins with a partnership that is already founded on situations that leave one person making excuses for the other.  The trademark behaviors of an abuser manifest early but seem harmless, they blame others for their mistakes and martyr themselves to put their partner in the mindset to excuse them.  As the relationship gradually becomes more abusive, the abused partner is likely to believe that the violent behavior is their fault, not the fault of the abuser.  It often takes an extended period of time for the abused person to realize that abuse is occurring.

Once the abused party does make this realization, however, our book identifies many obstacles they must overcome in leaving their abuser.

The belief that a relationship or marriage must be preserved at all costs is widely held and some people may feel like a failure if they allow their relationship to end, even if it’s the fault of the other party for abusing them.  This psychological barrier is quite a hurdle to overcome, especially if there are children involved.  The abused party may believe that the abuser is a good parent or that their children need the financial stability of both parents and would therefore also believe themselves a failed parent if they end the relationship.  Often the abuser also plays off of the victim’s emotional attachment and vulnerability, promising remorse and intention to change.

Studies show that battered women have much lower self-esteem than non-battered women.  This lowered self-esteem can cause a kind of depressed attitude toward an abusive situation.  A feeling of helplessness in changing things or lack of motivation to save oneself can result from this kind of low self-esteem that is often reinforced by the abuser.

Leaving the home of an abuser also involves physically abandoning the home and possibly possessions as well.  Moving itself is a trying experience, involving many obstacles.  The victim must be financially prepared to support themselves, have a place to go, and a plan to move any personal effects.

Often by the time a victim is ready to leave a domestic violence situation, it has already escalated to the point where the abuser has become worryingly violent and struck fear into the abused party.  That fear may include fear that the abuser will hurt them if they try to leave, become violent toward family or friends, or that the threat will only get worse.  The victim may have to sever ties with many people in order to become truly detached from the abuser and after an extended time of being abused and usually isolated in conjunction with that abuse, that may leave victims with few places to turn.

Regardless, leaving is certainly the answer, but empathizing with a victim’s plight in facing domestic violence can be more important than encouraging him or her to leave.  Receiving empathy from outside parties can help the depression and low self-esteem issues victims face that serve as obstacles in leaving, more effectively helping them make that decision than the assertion that they must.


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