Survivors, Why don’t they just leave?

Survivors hiding her face and pushing away.
Survivor hiding her face and pushing away.

For survivors, leaving an abusive relationship can be complex, challenging, and even dangerous. But once in a while, people looking in from the outside don’t fully understand the challenges survivors face when making such an important decision. Advice or comments like “Why don’t you just leave?” or “Just get a divorce” might seem to make sense to someone unfamiliar with the specific situation. Still, it can also leave the survivor feeling unheard and ultimately misunderstood.

So why don’t survivors of intimate partner violence “just leave”? The thing is, it’s not always quite that easy.

Lots of Concerns

The first and most important concern for survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) is their safety – them and their children. Unfortunately, there are nearly 17,000 homicides associated with IPV every year, often once the abuser realizes they’re losing control over their victim. While sometimes the safest option is to leave immediately, the survivor has a better idea of their circumstances and what their partner is capable of than most people. When children and pets are involved, their safety is also affected by the survivor’s decisions. In fact, many abusers use threats against children and pets in an effort to control their partner. This is further complicated by fears of custody issues or cultural pressures.

Another concern survivors have to contend with is a potential lack of resources, such as finances, housing, and transportation. Research shows that between 94 and 99% of abuse cases include an element of financial abuse, where the abuser controls or limits the survivor’s access to finances. This can lead the survivor to weigh even their physical safety against their other survival needs. When the survivor doesn’t yet have the resources lined up, even temporarily, escaping can be an even greater challenge.

What are the Options?

Even if it’s the safest option, leaving an abusive relationship can also be difficult emotionally or psychologically. Abusive relationships are often cyclical, where acts of abuse are followed by seeming remorse and “love bombing.” or excessive forms of affection and gift-giving to manipulate the target. Until the survivor notices the pattern, it can lead to a sense that things “aren’t that bad” or have somehow gotten better. Another thing that can make abuse difficult to confront is the concept of trauma bonding, where the cycle of abuse and reinforcement- as well as the “shared” experience surrounding abuse- leads to an unhealthy bond with the abuser.

Leaving any relationship- especially an abusive one- can be difficult and complicated. But no one knows better than the person leaving just how difficult and complicated it may be. Understanding the many challenges they face can help allies, relatives, and friends of survivors focus on what’s truly helpful.

But what would that be?

How To Help

If someone confides in you that they’re in an abusive relationship:

  • Make time to talk. If you don’t have privacy or time to talk at that moment, make time for them as soon as possible
  • Share your concerns about their safety.
  • Be specific in what type of help you can offer, whether it’s support, resources, a ride, or anything else.
  • Don’t blame the victim or push them into leaving before they’re ready or it’s safe.
  • If they’re in immediate danger, help them find nearby emergency resources.
  • Help them make a safety plan, which is something Operation Safe Escape or a local domestic violence advocate can assist with.
  • Encourage them to seek therapy and medical services as needed.
  • Encourage them to reach out for help, which can include:
  • Keep in mind that they might not decide to leave at that time. Accepting that can be difficult, but they may be willing to discuss their reasons with you. If those reasons include a lack of resources or support, they may be encouraged to find out those resources are available. But either way, let them know you’re available to help, you care, and that you’ll support them no matter what. Knowing people are there for them can be a real lifesaver.