Many women make numerous attempts to leave a violent relationship before finally ending the relationship [1, 2]. In one large Australian study, 35% of women who had experienced violence in the previous five years from their current partner had left and then returned to their partner at least once, as had over half (57%) of the women who had experienced violence from a previous partner (ABS).
A woman’s decision to end a relationship usually happens in an environment where their violent partner has made it very hard for her to leave by undermining her confidence, keeping her poor, instilling fear or keeping her under close scrutiny or surveillance . Remembering this context, there are a range of reasons women don’t leave [2-6] including:
- Fears for the safety of themselves, their children or other loved ones. It’s important to note that violence often continues and even escalates once a woman leaves [7, 8].
- Lack of housing options and not wanting to become homeless. Women’s refuges often have to turn survivors away and, particularly in rural areas, there can be few alternatives.
- Financial barriers and the risk of poverty.
- Not being able to access the support they need.
- Attitudes of other people including not being believed, others minimising the violence or encouraging them to stay. (One woman we interviewed as part of research about how family, friends and neighbours could help was told, “You made your bed – you lie in it.”)
- Their own values or beliefs (e.g., they still care for their partner, they believe the violence will stop or they don’t see it as domestic violence).
There are additional barriers for specific women including Aboriginal women (e.g., discrimination and police not being seen as a potential support), culturally and linguistically diverse women (e.g., discrimination, language, immigration status), women with a disability (e.g., access to other services, fear of not being able to manage alone) and women from rural areas (e.g., additional difficulties and costs of packing up and moving, and lack of services and information).
For women who are finally able to leave successfully, there is often a turning point which gives them the determination and courage they need. According to Parkinson, Burns, & Zara :
The decision to leave was made as a result of the cumulative effect of the many dynamics of violence. There was usually a moment of epiphany that provided women with clarity about their experience and the impetus to make this decision. These revelations included critical points regarding children, personal safety and rejection of the partner’s dominance combined with reclamation of personal rights, partner infidelity and parental relationships (p. 11).
The last straw or the turning point can include [2, 3, 9]:
- An incident of severe violence
- Fear about the impact on her children witnessing, or being subjected to, the violence
- A change in beliefs and reclaiming their right to live free of abuse (e.g., coming to see the violence and abuse as not being normal and/or acceptable, realising it wasn’t the life she wanted)
- Starting work or further study
- The involvement of child protection services
- Support from family or friends.
In the TED talk below, “Why domestic violence victims don’t leave,” Leslie Morgan Steiner gives a personal account of her experience of being in a violent relationship and discusses some of the reasons she didn’t leave straight away. It can help put a personal face to the some of the dynamics involved.
The report A powerful journey: a research report. Women reflect on what helped them leave  is well worth reading as it also provides insights into the experience of women leaving a violent relationship. There’s also the twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed which was a social media response to negative reactions to a women who returned to her partner (an American football player) after he had assaulted her. (There is a good summary in the Huffington Post.)
Leaving domestic and family violence is not easy and we need to ensure that we don’t blame the victim. Domestic and family violence undermine a women’s control of her life and in providing support it is vital that we don’t perpetuate this loss of control. There are many reasons why women don’t leave, or return to, an abusive or violent relationship and the last thing we should do is be judgemental. We need to ask them how we can best support them, be patient and let them know we will be there whatever decision they make.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- What can you do when someone you know is experiencing domestic violence?
- Domestic violence, family, friends and neighbours
- Domestic and family violence – What about men?
- Domestic violence training materials
- Childhood trauma and brain development
- White Ribbon Day
- Bell, M.E., L.A. Goodman, and M.A. Dutton, The dynamics of staying and leaving: implications for battered women’s emotional well-being and experiences of violence at the end of a year. Journal of Family Violence, 2007. 22(6): p. 413-428.
- Benevolent Society, Moving forward : women’s journeys after leaving an abusive relationship. 2009, Benevolent Society: Paddington, NSW.
- Parkinson, D., K. Burns, and C. Zara, A powerful journey: a research report. Women reflect on what helped them leave. 2004, Wangaratta: Women’s Health Goulburn North East.
- Meyering, I.B., Staying/leaving : barriers to ending violent relationships. Fast facts. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Fast Facts, 2012(7): p. 1-4.
- Bell, K.M. and A.E. Naugle, Understanding stay/leave decisions in violent relationships: A behavior analytic approach. Behavior and Social Issues, 2005. 14: p. 21-45.
- Bosch, K. and M.B. Bergen, The Influence of Supportive and Nonsupportive Persons in Helping Rural Women in Abusive Partner Relationships Become Free from Abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 2006. 21(5): p. 311-320.
- Kirkwood, D., ‘Just Say Goodbye’ Parents who kill their children in the context of separation. Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria Discussion Paper, 2013(8).
- Bagshaw, D., et al., The Effect of Family Violence on Post-separation Parenting Arrangements: The Experiences and Views of Children and Adults from Families Who Separated Post-1995 and Post-2006. Family Matters, 2011(86): p. 49-61.
- Patton, S., Pathways: how women leave violent men. 2003, Women Tasmania, Department of Premier and Cabinet: Hobart, Tas.