Non-victims of domestic abuse might find it hard to understand why anyone would stay in an abusive relationship. Victims are often blamed. Some people falsely believe that if a person stays, she or he must be weak or needy. This is not true. The reasons for staying vary from one victim to the next, and they usually involve several factors. There is so much judgment surrounding domestic abuse — so much victim blaming. I’ve come across some really heart-breaking assessments of victims of domestic abuse, sometimes people would warn men not to date women who stayed in abusive relationships in the past, on the grounds that, since she didn’t leave right away, she is clearly a damaged person who makes poor choices and probably even enjoys being abused. (I wish I was kidding about this.)
This judgment exists because we as a society have this preconceived notion of what domestic abuse looks like: an angry drunk man in a wife beater shirt and a meek woman with a black eye who will stare at the floor and tell you numbly that she walked into a door, again.
This version of domestic abuse is simple and fits neatly into a box. The choice is clear — the man is a terrible person and obviously, the woman should leave. If she stays, we believe, she is partly responsible for the physical, psychological and emotional damage inflicted upon her, because she could have prevented it by getting out and never looking back. In a way, we suggest tentatively…isn’t she almost asking for it?
Real domestic abuse rarely plays out like this. It is never simple, and it is never black and white. Leaving is never the easy choice — it is just one more painful choice in a reality full of painful choices.
The most important thing is for a person not to judge another person for staying in an abusive relationship. It may be a temporary or longer-term decision, but it is theirs to make. So please, be supportive of a person who may be in an abusive relationship. Encourage them to leave, but don’t sound like a broken record in stating your opinion. Most victims are just looking for the right time with the right resources in place to leave.
People stay for many reasons, such as:
Emotional Reasons for Staying
- Belief that the abusive partner will change because of his or her remorse and promises to stop the abuse.
- Fear of the abuser who threatens to kill the victim if abuse is reported to anyone.
- Insecurity about living alone.
- Lack of emotional support.
- Guilt over the failure of the relationship.
- Attachment to the partner.
- Fear of making major life changes.
- Feeling responsible for the abuse.
- Feeling helpless, hopeless and trapped.
- Belief that he or she is the only one who can help the abuser with his or her problems.
Situational Reasons for Staying
- Economic dependence on the abuser.
- Fear of physical harm to self or children.
- Fear of emotional damage to the children who need two parents, even if one is abusive.
- Fear of losing custody of the children because the abuser threatens to take the children if victim tries to leave.
- Lack of occupational skills.
- Social isolation and lack of support because abuser is often the victim’s only support system.
- Lack of information regarding community resources.
- Belief that law enforcement will not take him or her seriously.
- Lack of alternative housing.
- Cultural or religious constrains.
Issues Specific to Women
Women, in particular, can experience hesitant and contradictory feelings and thoughts about the abusive partner and the relationship. These are some common victim reactions toward the abuser’s behavior—reactions that can keep the woman in the relationship:
- Feels emotionally attached to the abuser, but also feels anger toward him which she denies.
- Is grateful toward the abuser for small acts of kindness and tends to explain away his violence.
- Is very attentive to the abuser’s needs with the mistaken belief that she will be able to anticipate his needs and prevent the beatings.
- Believes the abuser will change.
- Believes he needs her and feels guilty about leaving him.
- May use alcohol or other drugs to cope with the anxiety, fear or depression.
- Justifies the violence and feels responsible for it.