The answer seems straightforward: “just leave.” But for victims of abuse, it’s never that simple. There are a myriad of reasons that keep them trapped in unhealthy relationships. For survivors, leaving the abuse can feel like an impossible task. However, understanding why victims stay in abusive relationships can help us better support those we love.
Power and Control: Why Victims Feel They Can’t Leave
Abuse is all about power and control. While physical and sexual assault are the most obvious forms of domestic abuse, it can take many forms. Abusers often use a host of tactics, some of which we’ve talked about before:
- Emotional abuse
- Withholding financial support or other economic abuse
- Isolating the victim from friends and family
- Using children as leverage to keep the victim trapped
No matter the packaging, domestic abuse is serious, damaging, and potentially life-threatening.
Leaving an abusive situation is complicated, complex, and often fraught with fear, shame, and potential physical danger. Some victims stay in abusive relationships for years. Some stay in them for life. While it might be mind-boggling to those on the outside, there are many reasons victims stay with their abusers.
The Obstacles That Keep Victims Trapped
Abuse victims often experience months, years, and even decades of abuse. The abuser asserts dominance, power, and control over many aspects of a victim’s life, leaving her feeling powerless and alone. There are many obstacles a survivor may have to overcome before leaving an abusive relationship, including:
Physical Harm and Threats Against Others
Leaving is often the most dangerous time for an abuse survivor. As mentioned above, abusers rely on power and control. When a victim leaves, the abuser loses that power and control, making the abuser very volatile and unpredictable. They’ll often go to great lengths to get that power and control back. Sometimes, that leads to violence or threats of violence against the victim, her children, or her friends and family.
The threat of physical harm is understandably concerning, and it keeps many abuse victims trapped.
Many abuse victims find themselves without the financial means to leave a relationship. The abuser controls the bank accounts, has access to credit cards, and withholds money to prevent a victim from leaving.
The threat of financial ruin is very real and very frightening. While some survivors can depend on friends or family members for financial support once they leave, many others do not have that option. That’s when organizations like Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) step in to provide shelter, food, and necessities for survivors.
Abusers will often use children as leverage against a victim who tries to leave. He might threaten to take the children, harm the children, or seek sole custody and therefore cut the children out of her life. Many mothers choose to stay in an abusive relationship rather than face even the slight chance of losing their children.
Cultural and Religious Beliefs
For some survivors, their cultural or religious beliefs forbid or highly discourage divorce. Additionally, some cultures and religions teach that men are to be revered and have ultimate control and say over everything at home. These deeply ingrained systems leave many abuse victims feeling powerless to escape and worried their communities would shun them.
Shame and Low Self-Esteem
Years of abuse create a narrative of unworthiness. Many victims begin to believe that they somehow caused or deserve the abuse. They believe what the abuser tells them: that they’re not good enough, not smart enough, that no one will ever love them. There’s also shame that comes with admitting to the abuse. Together, this shame and low self-esteem keep many women from reporting the abuse at all.
Lack of Access to Resources
Abuse victims often feel trapped, like they have no options and no resources to leave. In truth, there are plenty of resources available for abuse survivors, from national domestic abuse nonprofits to local shelters.
How to Leave an Abusive Relationship Safely
Leaving an abusive relationship doesn’t have to happen all at once. It’s a process. If you’re in an abusive relationship, the first step is to reach out for help. Tell a trusted friend or family member. Access online support through the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
You’re not alone. Read more about others who have escaped abusive situations in our Survivor Stories section.
If you suspect someone you know is experiencing abuse, encourage them to get help. Let’s end the stigma and shame surrounding abuse and help those around us find happiness and safety.