As I talk to the community about domestic violence, I’m always asked why women stay in abusive relationships. Sometimes the tone reflects compassion or curiosity, but more often it’s accusatory.
The question sounds more like “What is wrong with her?” or worse, “How bad can it really be if she’s staying?” And the real kicker, “What is she doing to bring this on herself?”
No one deserves abuse. No one seeks abuse. And no one likes abuse. Abuse creates many barriers to safety and freedom. Just recognizing the patterns of an abusive relationship can be a confusing and agonizing process.
If she decides to leave, she must carefully plan her next steps. This takes time.
Here are 10 common reasons why women might temporarily or permanently remain in an abusive relationship:
- BLAME AND SHAME
Emotional abuse is the cornerstone of domestic violence. Violence need not escalate to a physical level to damage a woman’s self-worth and confidence. Her abusive partner blames her for any conflict in the relationship. She wonders if she deserves the punishment. She feels guilty, scared, confused and ashamed. She tries to do better. She doesn’t talk about her experience because she believes she is the problem.
- LACK OF AVAILABLE AND/OR COMPETENT RESOURCES
She may be ready to leave. She may have even attempted to leave. But she doesn’t have any support. Perhaps she doesn’t have a car. Maybe the police said there’s nothing they can do. Or she may have been denied a protective order.
Where is she supposed to go? Friends or family may open their homes briefly. If available, shelters are a short-term option. But domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women and children.
An abusive partner most likely controls the finances. Many times, the woman doesn’t have access to the bank account. She’s most likely expected to report all expenses. And her abuser may not let her work.
- CULTURAL, RELIGIOUS AND SOCIETAL BELIEFS
The woman may believe she shouldn’t leave her relationship — even if it’s abusive. In many cultures and faith traditions, husbands rule the home. She may have sought help but was told “to be a better wife.” In North American society, despite the rise and growing recognition of female voices, our gender norms are built upon patriarchal beliefs. Some men even think being a “man” means entitlement, power and control.
Abusers often threaten to take the children. She’s afraid she will never see her children again. She may lack knowledge and be intimidated by a potential legal battle. She also likely wants to keep her family intact. While children may initially be a reason for staying, they usually prove to be the ultimate reason for leaving.
- VULNERABILITY AND MARGINALIZATION
Women feel vulnerable. We see many women who don’t have documented citizenship and are afraid to leave. In other cases, the abuser is the woman’s only source of help in managing a mental, physical or medical disability. A shelter may not be equipped to handle her special needs.
An abused woman knows she’s dealing with a dangerous person. She likely knows he will escalate his behaviours if she attempts to leave. And sadly, statistics prove this true. Her chance of being killed by her abuser increases 75 percent as she leaves.
Even in abusive relationships, there are good times. So she hopes for change. She believes his apologies. She hopes his promises mean something. She hopes the goodness and peace can be restored.
- ABUSE WORKS
Domestic violence is a pattern of intentional behaviours and tactics. Over time, these tactics work to manipulate reality, incite fear and gain power. An abusive person gets what he wants. Anytime we minimize a victim’s suffering, we are colluding with the abuser.
We must also remember that abuse doesn’t immediately end when a woman leaves. It just takes on different forms.
We can help by learning about the cycle of domestic violence. And if you know someone in an abusive situation, give her acceptance, guidance and support as she takes each courageous step toward safety.
Ellen Kaney-Francis, LMSW, is a therapist at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support in Dallas. She works with women and adolescents, who have been impacted by domestic violence. Ellen also contributes to community outreach and education. Ellen holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from The University of Texas at Dallas and a master’s degree in social work from The University of Texas at Arlington.