It really isn’t a question of just getting up and walking out
One refrain I hear very often in response to the subject of women who have been abused by their partners is the question of why the woman didn’t ‘just leave’. It’s actually something many women are taught from a young age – I can remember my own mum saying to me that if a man I was in a relationship with ever hit me, I should leave him.
But for all the sound teachings – and what my mum said is, undoubtedly, a sound teaching – just upping and leaving really isn’t an option for most women in abusive relationships. The practical and emotional ties a victim will have to their partner are often far too strong to contemplate cutting. At the point at which a partner becomes physically abusive, they will typically have been inflicting emotional abuse on their victim some time. No-one ever tells you to walk out on an emotionally abusive partner, largely because very few people can put words to what emotional abuse actually looks like. People who are physically abused by someone who ought to love them have often been reeled in and disarmed by charm, affection and seeming love, and so they are in no position to ‘just leave’.
I’ve put together a list of five reasons why women in abusive relationships are often unable to walk out. The reasons are complex and varied, but they all point to one thing: physical violence is not just an isolated event, it is inseparable from and dependent on the emotional manipulation an abuser deploys.
The victim loves their abuser
Abusers don’t just begin abusive relationships by inflicting violence right from the start. Often, there is a significant ‘honeymoon period’ where victims form a strong attachment to the person who ultimately hurts them.
The thing to remember with abusive relationships is that they are, fundamentally, relationships. There is far more shared between victim and abuser than the simple fact of the abuse. There are memories, good times, laughter and shared experiences – just like in any ‘normal’ relationship. These things will likely play on repeat in victims’ minds when they confront the possibility of leaving their abuser. Yes, they may regain physical safety if they walk away, but the thought of losing love or a relationship that seems to be fulfilling is often too much to bear.
While physical safety may seem to be of paramount importance to an outside observer, most of us do know what it is like to be in love. And love is such a powerful emotion that it can override, rightly or wrongly, all else.
The victim has been emotionally manipulated by their abuser
This is very much tied into the first point. Usually, victims of abuse are attached to their abuser and have also developed a dependency because of sustained emotional abuse. Some methods of emotional abuse that prevent a victim leaving are:
- gaslighting – simply, making someone believe they’re going mad. Gaslighting involves an abuser convincing their victim that things that are actually occurring aren’t, or that things that aren’t occurring are. For example, an abuser might convince a victim that they made a fool of themselves at a social event, even if they didn’t. This then simultaneously convinces the victim to distrust their own sense of self-perception, and increases dependency on the abuser as the victim begins to see only them as a reliable source of reality.
- isolation – this involves cutting a victim off from others around them. By isolating a victim, an abuser ensures they have no-one else to turn to for help and feel wholly emotionally dependent on their abuser. This can be done by convincing the victim that no-one else cares for them, or by demanding the victim’s time to such an extent that they cut themselves off from others.
- the abuser highlighting their own vulnerability – many abusers are actually emotionally dependent on their victims, as their self-esteem relies on lowering another’s. Abusers may threaten to kill themselves if a victim leaves or may say that they won’t survive without the victim. This is a huge burden and often makes leaving too stressful to contemplate for a victim.
- putting a victim down and then lifting them up – this tactic ensures that a victim’s feelings can be controlled by their abuser. By putting a victim down, an abuser can make them feel worthless and cause their confidence to drop to such an extent they don’t see themselves as being able to function without their abuser. But by then lifting the victim up with nuggets of praise or gifts, an abuser can make the victim believe that they are special. This makes the victim dependent on their abuser for emotional sustenance, and convinces them that only their abuser can make them feel good about themselves.
All of these tactics ultimately increase a victim’s dependence on their abuser, meaning that should their abuser become physically violent, it is emotionally unbearable to think of leaving.
The victim has nowhere to go
If a victim has been isolated from others, the chances are that they may struggle to find a safe place to escape to. They may not be in contact with many others or have any solid support systems (which is what makes them vulnerable as an abuse victim in the first place).
Even if they have family or friends willing to take them in, a victim might be aware that staying with someone else could put that person in danger.
And of course if a victim wants to turn to an established body or charity for support, they may not find that they have much luck there. Statistics show that in January 2020, more than 60% of domestic abuse referrals to women refuges were declined, because of refuges facing a continued crisis in securing funding. If that was the case in January, the situation in a post-COVID world is likely to be far worse.
The same Women’s Aid report highlighted that just 5% of refuge vacancies were available for women with no recourse to public funds – meaning that, essentially, a woman’s residential status determines whether she has the right to access protection against a serious crime. This same issue is also what prevents many women in the UK with uncertain immigration status from seeking police support for any violence they face – a consequence of this could be their ultimate deportation. A statutory right to receive protection from physical violence is unfortunately guaranteed to no woman in the UK, with policies having an especially detrimental effect on non-British and non-white women. It is not fair to suggest that women should ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship when for so many the law inadvertently conspires to keep them there.
The victim has practical and financial ties to their abuser
Another reason that victims may struggle to leave abusive situations is that they may have several practical ties to their abuser.
If a victim shares children with the abuser (and especially if the abuser is not violent towards the children), they may feel that it is unfair on the children for them to leave. Even if the abuser is not good with the children, a victim may feel that they cannot adequately care or provide for the children on their own.
In addition to the tie of children, there are several other practical ties that can make it difficult for an abuse victim to walk out on the relationship. Financial worries play a significant part in why victims cannot leave. Financial and economic abuse is commonplace in abusive relationships anyway, so the chances of victims being fully in control of their own money can be slim. Many abusers control the amount of money that the victim has access to and force them to account for all their spending. There is no way many victims can save up enough to escape or live on afterwards. Victims may also have been pressurised out of the workforce by their partner, and so will feel as if they have no prospects of achieving independence. Ties like mortgages also leave victims fearful for their housing situation should they try to leave.
A victim may also be part of the same set of friends as their abuser, or may work closely with them. This semi-practical, semi-emotional tie means that many victims feel that social circumstances will prevent them from leaving. Imagine if none of the couple’s shared friendship group are aware of the abusive situation – the victim might risk ostracisation from the wider group (and so from sources of support) if they leave.
Victims are likely to have had their self-esteem systematically broken down; they are unlikely to feel that they are particularly capable of severing the practical ties they have with their partner as a result of this.
The victim is too afraid to leave
This is perhaps one of the biggest considerations for victims of domestic abuse. They are too afraid of their partner to leave. Last year, 41% of all victims killed by their partners had either left them or were in the process of leaving when they were killed. 30% of those women were killed within the first month of leaving and 70% within the first year. The fear of greater physical harm means many victims are too afraid to leave already terrible situations.
And it’s not just fear for themselves – it’s fear for their loved ones or fear of repercussions for their children. It’s fear that their partner will be able to make their life and the lives of those who support them even worse from afar.
Even if victims don’t fear physical repercussions for leaving, they may feel a distinct emotional fear. A fear that their partner will make them feel terrible for leaving, or will even browbeat them into staying. And that if they stay through pressure their lives will become even worse for having expressed the desire to leave.
So if you ever find yourself thinking ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’, maybe have a rethink. It’s a lot more complex than it might appear on the surface.