“Why Doesn’t She JUST Leave?”

By Julieta Barcaglioni-Heller, Housing Assistance Program Manager, Safe Harbor

“Why doesn’t she JUST leave?”

Let’s face it. Maybe, this question has crossed your mind.

In fact, that is the question that most people ask me (I am sure my coworkers get this one a lot, too) when I share that I work with victims of domestic violence through Safe Harbor.

Many may not realize it, but this particular question, worded this particular way, almost automatically places the blame on the victim. And it almost automatically assumes that there’s something wrong with her that she’s not leaving. “It’s her fault. Gosh, what is she thinking? Just leave! “

This particular question shows a misunderstanding about the dynamics of domestic violence, and it fails to address its complexity.

In order to talk about barriers to leaving an abusive relationship and to begin to address why it is so hard for victims to remove themselves from these situations, we must first come up with a better, more informed, more appropriate and less re-victimizing question. A better phrased question that can convey and capture the dynamics, complexity and pervasiveness of domestic violence could be:  

  •  “How can I or we help the victim gain access to safety?”
  • “How can we eliminate some of the barriers that are keeping the victim from being able to leave?”
  • “What are some of the power and control tactics that the perpetrator is using that are preventing her from leaving?”

Now, we can talk.


#1 – Fear

The most real, almost immediate barrier to leaving a domestic violence relationship is fear. Victims are afraid.
Abusers are characterized for being excellent manipulators and for having what is described as a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality. These characteristics, among others, make abuse sometimes unpredictable. In fact, victims of domestic violence are in the MOST danger when they are trying to leave.  Domestic violence relationships are all about power and control, and the victim leaving represents a threat to the abuser’s ability to control.

When contemplating whether or not to leave, a victim could be afraid that –

• The abuser will kill her if he finds her
• The violence will increase if he finds her, based on their past experiences
• The abuser will take the children or harm another family member
• The abuser may harm pets
• She will lose her children to the criminal justice system or DSS

Keep in mind that the abuse does not always end once a victim leaves. Even after she leaves, abusers usually try to get the victim to go back to them either through violence or threats of violence or by bringing out a ‘sweet, loving’ side. An abuser can – 

•  Stalk, harass and threaten his partner
• “Teach her a lesson” for trying to leave using the children, other family members or pets
• Threaten to kill himself
• Apologize profusely, make promises that he will change and go to counseling, state that he will be lost without her,  promise that this will be the last time that he will hurt her, among other things

#2 – Lack of Resources

A wide variety of resources are needed for anyone to start over. This is true for a survivor of domestic violence, a recently divorced couple, someone who just relocated to another city, even a new college student who just moved out of their parents’ house.  Think about the time when you moved into your apartment or house for the first time. Didn’t you need a lot of things to make it work? Didn’t it require some things to be in place in order for you to be independent?

Having the resources in place to make the courageous decision to leave is sometimes very difficult. A challenging economy, high unemployment rates, lack of affordable and stable housing, limited capacity and funding in shelters and other emergency organizations, and limited social networks severely limit the access, quality, quantity and stability of resources for victims. 
Some of the resources that survivors frequently need include:

• Money or financial resources. This is the #1 reason why some victims return to their abusers. Victims need money for housing, child care, transportation, clothing, food and insurance.
• Community resources like shelters or services
• Personal skills and abilities to obtain employment and navigate community resources.
• Social resources, including support from friends and families. Many victims have lost friends and family members throughout their abusive relationships given that their abusers have isolated them for extended periods of time.

This particular set of barriers may affect those victims from a lower socio-economic background more severely. But, domestic violence does NOT only happen in low educated, low income families. This issue affects victims all across the board and does not discriminate against income, ethnicity, education, race, or education.

#3 – Family Responsibilities and Values

For survivors, like other people in our communities, family is important. Many have a strong desire to hold the family together. These beliefs and perceived responsibilities can sometimes make it hard for survivors to separate from an abusive partner. In addition, other family members, religious organizations, societal norms, or friends may put pressure on the survivor to stay in the relationship. The specific beliefs that survivors may hold include:

• The need for a two-parent family
• The need to be the perfect wife or mother as defined by her community or culture
• Fear to disappoint family members
• Divorce is a sin.
• The children love their father and don’t want to leave their school, home, or friends.
• As long as the children have a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs, she/he can stand the abuse.

#4 – Personal Feelings

As mentioned earlier, domestic violence is a complex issue. Most abusive relationships start with emotional/psychological abuse. The pervasive nature of domestic violence invades all aspects of the victim’s life. This can be evidenced in the following feelings:

• Hoping the abuser will change, that he will return to be the person she fell in love with.
• Feeling commitment and love during the “honeymoon periods” that may occur between abusive events.
• Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, guilt and shame as a result of the abuse undermine the confidence to leave.
• The victim doesn’t think anyone will believe or understand her or will wonder how she got into such a relationship
• The victim may be embarrassed about some of the things she has done or was made to do in the relationship.

If you or your group is interested in learning more about the barriers that victims face or is interested in helping to lower/eliminate some of these barriers, please contact us. It takes partnerships throughout the whole community to address and eliminate the issue of domestic violence. Safe Harbor needs volunteers and community partners like you!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Good article, and it applies to a lot of other situations as well in which we might be tempted to ask why doesn’t someone “just do” what WE think they should …. not just domestic violence but many other situations as well.

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