A question which many survivors of domestic violence receive when confiding about the abuse they experience, is: why didn’t you just leave?
There are a plethora of reasons why someone might not be ready to leave an abusive situation, or that it might not be safe to leave yet. This kind of question (“why didn’t you just leave?”) rings of victim blaming. Nobody asked to be in an abusive situation. It is not the survivor’s fault. Abusers are often extremely charismatic at the onset and it can be hard at the beginning to differentiate abuse from rough patches in healthy relationship. A more helpful response it to ask how you can support, and perhaps fill in some of the gaps in the following list.
So what are some reasons that can make leaving an abusive relationship so hard?
At the core of abuse is controlling another person through fear. Threats of harm to the survivor and their family, friends, children, or pets are common, particularly threats of harm if the survivor leaves. Abusers may also threaten to harm property, to ruin a survivor financially, to spread rumors about or slander a survivor, to accuse the survivor of abuse, or threaten suicide for themselves. These fears are often justified. According to the Vermont Office of the Attorney General and Council on Domestic Violence: 47% of homicides in Vermont are domestic violence related.(1) Abusers often stalk their victims after they leave and may attempt to carry out threats that they've made. There’s also the fear of how society will react if a survivor leaves and admits to having been in an abusive relationship.
While leaving can be very dangerous, so is staying. Abuse tends to escalate over time. Past history is not a good indicator of what future abuse will look like. In a study of women murdered by their partners, 20% of the women had never been physically abused prior to their murder.(2) There are resources to help survivors evade stalkers and find safety.
Where to Go?
Once a survivor leaves, where should they go? Should they try to couch surf and leave their house behind? Will they be homeless? A survivor may be at loathe to leave a home that they paid for, or have lived in for years. They may also have had adverse experiences in shelters or may not have people willing to take them in. At Safeline, we see survivors whose family was originally supportive, but after the survivor returned to the abusive situation and left again, the family cut off support.
Safeline can connect survivors with resources. We don’t have a shelter at Safeline, but we can refer survivors to local shelters and offer resources while safety planning. Couch surfing or asking friends and family for a temporary stay may be far from ideal, but it can be a first step. In Orange and northern Windsor County Vermont some key area resources are using Vermont 211 to find local shelters, calling Economic Services for emergency temporary housing, and contacting Capstone Community Action to get started on finding more permanent housing options.
The Cycle of Violence
In the Cycle of Violence, an abusive relationship starts out seemingly healthy or even seems too-good-to-be-true. The abusive partner may provide excess praise and gifts, and profess the depth of their love. The abuse often starts as a single incident which is quickly and profusely apologized for, with the assurance that “it will never happen again.” The abusive partner may also express jealousy at time spent with other people and start exhibiting controlling behaviors. Weeks, months, or even years later there’s another incident of abuse followed by more apologies (love bombing). The cycle repeats over and over, with the abuse steadily increasing, the time between the incidences shrinking, and the apologies fading away. This isn’t the way every survivor experiences domestic violence, but this pattern of grooming coupled with steadily intensifying abuse is common. With the emotional manipulation and gaslighting which abusers often employ, survivors may not know that what they are experiencing is considered abuse.
This cycle makes it difficult for survivors to leave an abusive relationship. The periods of time between incidences of abuse can instill survivors with a sense of hope that the abuse has stopped: after all, they fell in love with their partner before the abuse started. It can be tempting to think that if they just stay, maybe things can go back to the way they once were. Domestic violence systematically degrades survivors’ confidence and feelings of self-worth. They may feel like they deserve the abuse, or don’t deserve anything better. They also might feel responsible for caring for their abuser out of love. In any case, Safeline is here to listen and help survivors untangle the web of abuse which they are snared in. We can provide educational materials and an advocate’s perspective.
Lack of Economic Support
Many abusive partners discourage their victims from finding employment. If a survivor does have a job, their income might go directly to the abuser, leaving none for the survivor. In some cases, abusive partners may intentionally ruin a survivor’s credit. This economic manipulation can make it hard for survivors to support themselves after fleeing violence. Survivors may not have knowledge of programs offering assistance or have large gaps in their resume. Conversely, a survivor may make too much money to qualify for assistance programs, yet not have access to the funds. Survivors may have to flee an abusive situation with nothing but the clothing that they are wearing.
For survivors in this situation, there are resources to provide support. Safeline can help with job readiness skills and provide resources for economic empowerment. We can refer survivors to services that provide the needed assistance. Sometimes it’s possible for survivors to set aside some funds to hide or store with someone trusted, for when they flee.
Survivors may have children with their abusive partner, which adds extra complexity when fleeing domestic violence. There is often a concern about how school-age children will attend school if they are fleeing domestic violence, or the safety of children in shelters. If survivors are subsisting off of limited finances, supporting children stretches those resources even further. However, if a survivor is unable to flee with the children, that might mean leaving them with an abusive parent. Survivors also may want to keep household together out of the belief that this would be better for the children.
Safeline advocates can share information with survivors about local agencies and services to aid parents. Federal and state programs can provide support for survivors to access food or supplement their income. For school-age children, Vermont’s McKinney-Vento Act protects students’ rights to free, public education for homeless children and youth. The best thing for children is often to get them away from an abusive situation, even if they are not directly experiencing abuse. Witnessing or experiencing abuse is considered by the CDC to be an Adverse Childhood Experience (or ACE), which can have negative long-term consequences on health and mental wellbeing.(3)
Threats to Pets
Pets are part of the family. A survey of survivors with pets found that 50% of survivors would not consider shelter for themselves if they couldn’t bring their pets. 91% of respondents from the same survey said that the emotional and physical support from their pets was essential to maintaining the survivor’s well-being.(4) Leaving pets behind not only means leaving a loved one behind and experiencing a lack of support, but also exposes the animal to abuse. One study found that 89% of women who had pets in an abusive relationship found that their pets were threatened, harmed, or killed by the abuser.(5)
Some shelters allow pets—it can be helpful to inquire at local shelters to learn if pets are accepted for shelter. It also may be possible to temporary board pets with a local animal welfare organization. Reporting animal abuse to police, vet clinics, or Animal Control is also a good option if a pet is experiencing abuse.
Not only may survivors not have friends and family or other support networks in place due to isolation in abuse, but they may lack other support systems if they flee. Survivors may not have access to medications or mobility aids if they flee. Moving might lengthen a commute and survivors may not have access to transportation. Police and courts may not recognize the domestic violence as abuse. Even supportive friends, family, and community members may dismiss abuse, or advocate for a survivor to stay in an abusive situation to avoid leaving a marriage. Survivors also may also encounter racism, ableism, homophobia, or transphobia in local support systems. There are many additional potential barriers to leaving abusive relationships which are not addressed in this article. It is important to remember that barriers to leaving an abusive situation are specific to each survivor.
With these factors to consider, leaving is a big decision for survivors. It takes an average of 6.3 attempts for a survivor to leave an abusive situation for good.(5) Leaving and then returning multiple times is normal, and there are area resources which can help.
4. “Executive Summary National Survey on Domestic Violence and Pets: Breaking Barriers to Safety and Healing”. The Hotline, Urban Resource Initiative NYC.