Why Domestic Violence Victims Don´t “Just Leave”

Hiding in Plain Sight

Chances are, you know someone with a violent partner.  Perhaps you already suspect that is the case.  Why?  There are clues.  Missed work, healing injuries coupled with implausible explanations of how they occurred, visible nervousness and anxiety when the phone rings—perhaps you can even hear the angry tone of voice on the other end.  

You suspect that you have never met the potentially violent partner because he or she would be a walking red flag of controlling, rude mannerisms.  Or maybe you are suspicious because you have.  

Whatever the circumstances, when you suspect domestic violence is affecting the life of  someone you know, you probably have asked yourself, why doesn´t the victim just leave?  The answer might not be so obvious.  Although domestic violence victims can be men or women, statistics reveal there are more female victims then male.  One wonders, however, whether those statistics are impacted by women reporting abuse more often than men, as opposed to reflecting the frequency of abuse by men versus women.

As a prosecutor, I have spent decades prosecuting domestic abusers.  One consistent factor in cases of domestic violence is that the stated reasons for refusing to leave an abuser are supported by research.

Why Victims Stay With Abusers

Researchers have studied the reasons women do not leave their abusers.  In a study aptly named “Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?’” Anderson et al. (2003) investigated exactly that question.[i]  Some of the reasons they discovered included financial need, lack of another place to go, as well as reported lack of help from law enforcement.   

They note that family and social role expectations may create pressure for the victim to remain in a caretaker role and attempt to repair the relational damage caused by the abuse. They note that victims who seek to maintain their relationships are motivated to accept apologies from the abuser and promises to change.  

In a more recent study, Yamawaki et al. (2012) cite prior research indicating a variety of reasons victims do not leave their abusers, including a cost-benefit analysis weighing relational benefits against the costs of separation.[ii]  

In addition, the reasons victims stay with domestic abusers change over time.  Maybe at the beginning of the relationship, the victim truly believed it was a “phase,” or that she could behave in a way that would prevent the abuse.  Or maybe she bought in to the abuser´s promises to go to counseling.

Later, even after the abuse continued, she did not leave due to financial concerns.  Perhaps after she was able to land a steady job, her reason for staying was concern for the children they had together at that point.  After that, perhaps she wanted to stay home and raise the kids, which she could only do that if husband was working.  And even absent financial concerns, many victims would rather live under the same roof with her children—and her abuser, than deal with complicated shared custody arrangements.

We could reverse the genders of the abuser and victim and have the same relational and situational dynamics at play.  The reasons for staying in an abusive relationship are complicated, and often evolve over time as circumstances change.

Separation Anxiety

Some victims do not leave an abusive relationship because they fear they will be subjected to far worse abuse than they are already enduring. Research corroborates the justification for that fear.  

In “Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence,” (2016) Petersson et al. note that research shows that the risk of intimate partner violence is increased within the context of a separation, and that femicide may be triggered by an actual or even anticipated separation.[iii] They also note that the risk of violence during a separation is not a long-term possibility, it is immediate.  

Regarding the explanation for the spike in serious or deadly violence risk during a period of separation, they note that prior research has identified the perpetrator´s loss of control over their partner as a trigger.  

Knowledge is Power

Given the myriad of reasons victims do not leave their abusers, it is important to raise awareness of community resources, in the hopes that more victims will know where to go for help.  Knowledge is power, and we hope that when it comes to domestic violence, enhanced community awareness will have a positive impact on both perception, and prevention. 

References 

[i]Michael A. Anderson, Paulette Marie Gillig, Marilyn Sitaker, Kathy McCloskey, Kathleen Malloy, and Nancy Grimsby, “‘Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?’: A Descriptive Study of Victim Reported Impediments to Her Safety.” Journal Of Family Violence 18, no. 3, 2003, 151-155. 

[ii]Niwako Yamawaki, Monica Ochoa-Shipp, Craig Pulsipher, Andrew Harlos, Scott Swindler, “Perceptions of Domestic Violence: The Effects of Domestic Violence Myths, Victim’s Relationship With Her Abuser, and the Decision to Return to Her Abuser,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 27, iss. 16, 2012, 3195 – 3212.

[iii]Joakim Petersson, Susanne Strand, and Heidi Selenius, “Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence: A Comparison of Antisocial and Family-Only Perpetrators,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2016, 1-21.

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