Why some victims of domestic violence just can’t walk away

Sad Woman Sitting Alone © Bewuel

The title of this article alludes to a very real phenomenon among victims that is often hard for many to understand. ‘Why some victims of domestic violence might temporarily consider staying’ is a more approachable title for many.

The above alternative is NOT a suggestion that victims should stay; it serves to highlight three points:

First: Victims/survivors have a lot to deal with and there are risks. Fear, threats, past experience and neurobiology (fight/flight/freeze) play a part in how individuals respond. Leaving often requires forethought and planning as many victims may have a limited number of “tries” before things escalate.

Second: Given the first point, we should not blame the victim or otherwise judge them for the choices they make (to stay, leave or return). If anything, we can try to help victims/survivors take steps so they can leave safely if and when they choose. But: We also want them to remain safe once they actually leave.

Third: Given the second point and the fact that abusers often threaten the lives of their victim’s loved ones, and this cannot be stressed enough, the victim/survivor is not the person to blame. The person committing the act of violence or assault against another, the one making a choice to harm a loved one, is to blame! Domestic violence is a crime punishable by law. Combining assaults with other forms of violence or tactics (e.g., isolation, name calling, etc.) is a tragedy. Perhaps a better question to ask would be ‘why don’t abusers stop’ (and then there’s the societal accountability piece for those who make the choice to abuse, assault or harm).

So with alternate title aside, here are a few reasons why some victims of domestic violence just can’t walk away:

  • Fear of being harmed
  • Fear that their children and/or other loved ones will be harmed or killed
  • A belief that ‘threats’ are real
  • Fear of losing support or support systems (e.g., family, friends, social network, familiar surroundings, medical or legal support provided by the abusive spouse/partner, etc.)
  • Fear of losing custody of the children or having the children kidnapped
  • Fear of losing access to their passport, Green Card, etc.; fear of being deported if immigration status is tied to abusive spouse, etc.
  • Fear of a substantial decrease or loss of income, lifestyle and/or transportation to school, work, etc.
  • Fear of losing community status; possible stigma and isolation
  • Fear of being homeless
  • Fear of being embarrassed
  • Fear of losing support while dealing with a personal illness or crisis (e.g., physical, emotional, psychological; alcohol or substance addictions, etc.)
  • Pressure to “stay” by family, friends, church/faith-based and other communities
  • Hope or belief that things will change or get better
  • Unhealthy self messages (e.g., shame, not feeling worthy of having a healthy relationship, fear of being alone, guilt, etc.)
  • Feeling guilty about breaking traditions, vows, etc.
  • Normalizing the violence because of past experiences or because they witnessed unhealthy relationships during childhood
  • Lacking trust in systems based on past experiences or responses from service providers (e.g., shelters, legal advocacy systems, law enforcement, child welfare agencies, hospitals, immigration systems, etc.)

Many survivors suffer from a host of these fears all at once and statistics tell us that leaving poses the highest risk of being killed so the moral of this story is really: Safety planning, support and timing cannot be understated!


For resources, click here.

Originally published in the Examiner.com March 24, 2010; revised May 31, 2015.  Last updated in December 2016.

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