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A commonly heard question when it comes to abuse is, “Why doesn’t the victim just leave?”
It seems obvious (even simple?) enough—if your partner is abusive, why would you stay? No doubt, many who have never endured abuse have surely said to themselves at some point, "Well, if my partner ever hit me, I'd walk out that door and never look back."
Unfortunately, separating from an abuser is often much more complicated than anyone—especially the survivor—realizes until they're in the thick of it. Let's start with the number one threat—homicide.
“The most important thing to know is that leaving is the most dangerous time for a woman. It’s the time when she’s most likely to be killed,” says Anna Marjavi, program manager with Futures Without Violence, a national nonprofit aimed at advocacy to end violence against women. Often times, abuse will escalate after a survivor leaves because abuse is based on a cycle of power and control. When an abuser feels he has lost control over his victim, he often uses violence as a way to coerce his partner to return, or as a form of retaliation for her leaving.
“The biggest factor [for not leaving] is fear,” says Marjavi. “A lot of women are threatened by their partner, who’ll say, ‘If you ever leave me, I’ll kill you,’ or ‘If you ever talk to anyone about what’s happening, I’ll kill you.’ They’re very intense threats.”
A DomesticShelters.org survey showed that survivors agree—the number one barrier survivors said they faced when trying to leave was threats from their abuser, with fear of retaliation coming in at a close second. Not only are survivors afraid for their own lives, but for their childrens' lives as well.
An abusive partner may threaten to harm the children, a survivor’s extended family or pets if the woman leaves, says Marjavi. In fact, she says, some abusive partners will kill a family pet as a warning to prove the seriousness of their threats. “This is why it’s important for women to work with an advocate so they can leave in the safest way possible,” says Marjavi.
Another reason a survivor may stay with an abuser is because they find themselves financially dependent on the abuser. “Survivors may not have control of their own money, or even have a credit card,” says Marjavi. Without any financial resources, it may seem impossible to leave. (Find out how to take control of your money in "Finding Financial Independence After Abuse.")
Marjavi also says that many people also don’t think about how a survivor believes that she really loves the abuser, in spite of what she's enduring. “They [survivors] hate the behavior, but love the person and believe they can change.” This is where it can be frustrating for friends and relatives who try to help their loved one facing abuse. Those who haven’t experienced violence may not understand how strong the control is that the abuser has over his victim.
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There are so many barriers to leaving, in fact, that a Harvard law professor and survivor penned a paper outlining 50 different reasons why a survivor might be trapped with an abuser.
Bottom line: It must be the survivor’s choice to leave. Providing a survivor with resources for help, such as shelters, advocacy groups and information about orders of protection, can be vital in convincing her that leaving is, indeed, a possibility. Find an advocate in your community that can help you with safety planning and options for the future by entering your ZIP code on the DomesticShelters.org home page.
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