Leaving a bad relationship can be hard; it is more complex and sometimes dangerous when one person in the relationship is physically or emotionally abusive.
The reasons victims remain in abusive relationships are manifold and complicated, according to representatives for Center for Domestic Peace and REACH.
“Some victims will draw a line immediately and say, ‘No more. This isn’t going to happen to me.’ They seek resources; they make a plan, and they execute it,” Bob Cochran with CPD said. “Others have many more reasons why it’s difficult. Every situation is different.”
Leaving is not as easy as walking out the door; victims face pressures and considerations from many directions that play into their decision to stay, said Andy Hall, victim advocate for REACH of Macon County.
“People don’t understand how many layers are in that relationship,” Hall said. “It’s a variety of reasons. We’re talking about somebody that has been (living) under fear, under threat of their survival. It (could be) their children, emotional and psychological, family expectations. It’s not that simple when you ask somebody, ‘Why do you stay?’”
One reason survivors cite for staying is love, said Cochran, who has had contact with survivors in his years as a social worker.
“Often times it’s because they’re in love, even though this guy is bad to them and abusive,” he said. “Sometimes, they’ve grown up in environments where this is the model that they are familiar with. They may have had a mother that was in a domestic violence situation, and for them it’s not unfamiliar, and they love this fellow.”
The victim tries to hold on to the plans she or he had for the relationship and tries to make the best of a bad situation.
“We all have dreams of our future life and how things are going to evolve,” Cochran said.
“For a lot of these victims, it’s the hope and dream that things will get better, and that’s reinforced by the perpetrator who often is in a cycle of being violent, threatening and coercive and then turning around and apologizing, and being sweet, the flowers and the dates and the whole nine yards; and it reminds the victim why she is in love with this person.”
Another reason victims stay is confusion about what love is or about gender roles.
Lines can become blurred in relationships and actions like jealousy and possessiveness can be misread as signs of affection.
Additionally, ideas of authority in traditional cultures, including some faiths, can be used as a means to perpetrate abuse.
“Some (ideas about domestic abuse) are compelled by long standing social mores,” Cochran said. “We have long standing social constructs where the man is in charge.”
Pressure from family and friends in male-dominated cultures often leads women to stay and to believe they have to “fill expectations” of friends and relatives, Hall said.
Children sometimes play a role in the decision to stay in violent situations. The parent stays due to the belief that children do better in a home with two parental figures, not understanding the impact that witnessing spousal abuse can have on children.
The financial impact of leaving an abuser is often a contributing factor when choosing to stay.
“The victim doesn’t really see how it could work,’ Cochran said. “How could she possibly pay rent? How can she get away and make things work?”
Sometimes the abuser has ruined the victim’s credit or cut them off financially, or they may not have work experience because the abuser has kept them isolated, Hall said.
Diminished self-confidence can likewise keep a person in a harmful relationship.
Physical and emotional abuse and isolation impact a person’s confidence, especially when the person has been victimized for any length of time.
“You can take the most confident, self-reliant, educated, financially stable individual; and if you isolate them, if you systematically berate them and erode their self-esteem, if you limit their access to financial resources, and you threaten them and reinforce that with occasional violence, any person, no matter how robust, sturdy, strong they were in the beginning will wear down and can be victimized by domestic violence,” Cochran said. “It all takes its toll. It has everything to do (with their ability to leave) because they no longer have the confidence, the social connections and the resources that they need.”
Controlling people, stripping them of self-confidence, contacts and financial stability takes away their power making them dependent on the individual who can provide those things no matter the cost to the victim’s emotional and physical wellbeing.
It also takes away their ability to make even small decisions.
“When you’ve been told for so long what you need to do, for you just to make a phone call to get help is a big accomplishment,” Hall said.
Making any decision, even one as seemingly small as buying school clothes, is a “big accomplishment,” she said.
Hall remembers a particular shopping trip that drove that point home for her.
She accompanied a victim to the grocery store. The woman began asking if it was OK for her to buy certain items.
“I said, ‘You can buy anything you want,’” Hall said. “I thought about it, and I had to check myself. Let me understand that for a long time she never really had that choice.”
Victims of domestic violence also stay out of fear.
Leaving an abusive relationship is frequently the most dangerous time in that relationship because abuse is about power and control. A victim trying to leave is attempting to exert control over her own life. Abusers can see this as a threat and make the ultimate power play, escalating to violence that sometimes results in death, Cochran said.
Agencies like Center for Domestic Peace and REACH are an important tool to rebuilding the support structures like financial resources, social connections and emotional strength that have been taken away from victims, Cochran said.
Until victims find the courage to leave, service organizations can help them talk about their problems, find resources such as work, housing, educational opportunities and discuss alternatives to their situation.
“It is a huge, monumental step for women to take, both emotionally and economically, for their children and for their own safety,” Cochran said. “It is so helpful to have people whose job it is to be aware of and experienced in this and what are the best ways to limit risks for harm and to limit further emotional trauma to the children involved.”
Domestic violence agencies are also examples letting victims know that they are not alone; others before them have found the strength to leave harmful relationships.
“It gives hope, and hope is critical in situations of human change,” Cochran said. “If you think that something is possible, then you’re open to new opportunities.”
Family and friends need to be understanding and supportive and know that it is difficult for victims to come to a point that they are ready to leave, Hall said.
A common mindset for some is that women who return to violent relationships “deserve what they get” when they are abused again.
“It’s easy to make that kind of comment when you don’t know these people caught up in these situations,” Hall said. “Behind doors in that residence it’s like a war. People really need to understand that dynamic. It’s difficult; it’s painful; it’s humiliating.”
It often takes a victim several attempts to leave for good. That is not a concern for service organizations.
“We’re going to be here for you even if you go back because we know you are not ready,” Hall said. “If you think this is not helping you right now, that’s OK. We’ll figure out another way.”