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It seems logical to tell a victim of domestic violence, trapped with an abuser, to simply leave. Pack a bag, or not, and walk out the door. Go somewhere, anywhere else. Never return. The problem of abuse will not follow you. No, of course it won’t. Leaving will be the end of it.
Unfortunately, as a domestic violence journalist of nearly a decade, after interviewing hundreds of survivors of domestic violence, many of whom did in fact leave, I can say with absolute certainty that leaving is rarely the end of anything. In fact, it’s often the beginning of an equally dangerous type of abuse. Why? Because an abuser’s entire goal is to retain control and power over a partner. When their partner indicates they’re leaving, the abuser feels a loss of control and they will do anything to regain it. Often, this involves an escalation of violence.
To that effect, we never nonchalantly advise survivors to just leave. We make clear that is the end goal, of course, but it is not always the immediate one. We know there are barriers in their way that will prevent them from escaping until they deem it is safe to do so. Only a survivor knows when it is safe to leave. Even then, it is still a risk.
So, the next time a survivor steps forward to disclose abuse and your first thought is, “Why didn’t she just leave?” consider these 16 reasons below about why survivors stay.
Reason For Staying #1: Fear
Abusers are most likely to use intimidation tactics to get the survivor to stay: i.e. “If you leave me [insert awful thing here] will happen”. In a survey on DomesticShelters.org, survivors cited threats and fear of retaliation from the abuser as the top two reasons they couldn’t leave. The abuser may have already shown the survivor they are capable of escalating violence by harming family pets, obtaining a weapon and stalking their whereabouts. If the survivor gets away, the abuser may threaten to kill them, family members or themselves, and the survivor comes back out of fear or guilt.
Reason For Staying #2: Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a type of brainwashing where the abuser minimizes what’s happening by convincing a survivor her memories of events are incorrect. She ends up doubting her own intuition about the level of danger she’s actually in, even as friends and family might be able to clearly see it. An abuser will even make a survivor feel like the abuse is her fault, and if only she changed her behavior, or obeyed the abuser better, the abuse would stop.
Reason For Staying #3: Brainwashing
Similar to the above, brainwashing is when the abuser disorients a survivor to the point where she feels like she can’t think for herself. She relies on the abuser to tell her what to do and what decisions to make. The abuser can do this through tactics like sleep deprivation, restricting her access to outside information, drugging her without her knowledge, and restricting her access to making decisions.
Reason For Staying #4: Love
Yes, love. Sometimes referred to as trauma-bonding. Abusers often target individuals who are empathetic caretakers. The abuser usually comes off as very charming at first, sometimes love-bombing the survivor. The abuser may then try to explain away abuse by blaming a bad childhood or alcohol or drug dependency. They offer up endless promises of change. The survivor feels an obligation to stay and help. They hold out hope that things will return to how they were in the beginning, not realizing they were being groomed by the abuser.
Reason For Staying #5: Shame
We wish no survivor ever felt shame stepping forward, but many do. Many survivors feel like the abuse is somehow their fault—they let the abuser in their life. That They let the abuse continue longer than it should have, that they’re smart enough to know better, and they shouldn’t have gone back. Combine that with a pervasive culture of victim-blaming, shame can keep a lot of survivors trapped indefinitely with abusers. Just remember: trauma-related guilt is a liar.
Reason For Staying #6: Financial control
A common tactic of abusers is to control finances within the relationship, often restricting survivors from spending, placing them on a strict allowance, monitoring every penny they spend, purposefully ruining a survivor’s credit or overspending to leave the survivor without enough to cover basic needs. Without the financial independence necessary to secure a safe residence, buy food and find childcare so she can go to work, a survivor often feels trapped. “I see it every day,” Lucille Powell, domestic violence counselor with the Community Action Programme of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, told DomesticShelters.org. “It’s not just the cash. If you have a partner who refuses to pay child support or drags that out, it can become a vicious cycle of leaving and returning.”
Reason For Staying #7: No one will believe them
An abuser may convince a survivor that no one will believe her if she steps forward. The abuser has worked on creating a public persona that doesn’t fit the stereotype of an abuser—someone kind, charming, a doting dad, a successful business owner. The survivor might start to believe that he’s right, that no one will believe her disclosure of abuse.
Reason For Staying #8: Nowhere else to go
Leaving assumes that the survivor has another place to go besides her home. Abusers isolate survivors for this very reason—moving them to rural areas, alienating them from friends and family, forcing them to quit their job—so that they lack a support system.
Reason For Staying #9: No room at the local shelter
Due to the unrelenting problem of abuse, domestic violence shelters are often at capacity, so survivors might be surprised to call and find out that even though they’re ready to leave, the local shelter can’t accommodate them. Shelters give out their very limited space based on lethality risk—those who are at highest risk from being killed by an abuser are prioritized. Survivors who call shelter should avoid minimizing the abuse they’ve been subjected to so advocates know what level of immediate danger they’re in. According to a survey on DomesticShelters.org, 43 percent of survivors say they returned to their abuser after being turned away from shelter.
Reason For Staying #10: Child custody concerns
Some abusers will threaten to “take away” the children if a survivor leaves, often meaning they’ll use the court system to fight for full custody, a thought that can terrify a protective parent. Sometimes, abusers will make up lies about the survivor, saying they’re the abusive one, in order to convince the court to give them unrestricted access to the children. Don’t give up—talk to an advocate first, and an attorney with experience in domestic violence cases next.
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Reason For Staying #11: Pets
Abusers know that threatening to hurt children and pets is an effective way to trap a survivor. Imagine you want to leave but have multiple cats, dogs, birds, or farm animals. Can you take them with you? Luckily organizations that will help place survivors’ animals in temporary shelters while the survivor finds a place to go.
Reason For Staying #12: Distrust of police
If survivors have called police in the past and haven’t had a positive experience, they’re not likely to call again. Similarly, if the survivor’s abuser is a police officer, disclosing abuse can be even more dangerous. The abuser has likely told her no one will believe her or that he’ll be able to convince them she was the perpetrator. Police officer abusers also have access to firearms, even if they’ve had a domestic violence charge, increasing her lethality risk.
Reason For Staying #13: Racism
Among the root causes of domestic violence in Black communities specifically, 72.6 percent of participants in the 2017 Black Leaders Survey on Domestic Violence cited systemic racism as the reason. However, racism can affect how survivors of all minority groups—Asian-American, Indigenous, Hispanic and Latinx, among others—are able to access services at shelters or receive help from law enforcement.
Reason For Staying #14: Fear of being deported
Abusers may threaten an undocumented survivor with deportation if she discloses abuse. Luckily the Violence Against Women Act protects this group with something called U Visas which allow survivors of domestic violence to apply for permanent citizenship.
Reason For Staying #15: Elderly or disabled
When a survivor has other barriers on top of being abused, it can seem almost impossible to leave and start a new life on their own. This is often true for senior survivors or those with a disability or chronic illness. The abuser may be their caretaker or vice versa—the survivor might be the abuser’s caretaker. The survivor might stay out of obligation or may feel like they can’t live independently without the abuser’s help, despite the abuse that’s also been occurring. Or, the abuser convinces the survivor he’s the only one who will ever love someone “like them.” These, of course, are lies and everyone deserves a safe and healthy existence.
Reason For Staying #16: Victims of other genders face stigmas
We often refer to survivors as “she” because the most common victim of domestic violence is someone who identifies as female. But all gender identities can be survivors as well, and escaping from an abuser can add another barrier. Men often have trouble disclosing abuse, fearing they’ll not be believed or be judged for not “fighting back” as the perceived “stronger sex.” Nonbinary survivors often feel left out of the conversation of domestic violence altogether.
This piece was originally posted on The Pixel Project.
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