Some people assume that leaving an abuser is an event that feels like a breakup: uncomfortable, but easy enough to do. The truth is, leaving an abuser is not one event, but rather a process filled with barriers.

At Dixon, we support women at all stages of their journey towards a life free of abuse. So, what are some of the common reasons women stay in a relationship, even if they are experiencing violence in that relationship?  

The cost of leaving

Leaving home is no small feat for anyone, let alone a woman experiencing abuse. In Metro Vancouver specifically, the high cost of housing poses a prohibitive barrier to fleeing violence.

Though transitional housing like Dixon does exist, there is a lot of demand for space in transition houses and not enough supply to support everyone who needs it.

Finding a safe place may also be physically impossible. This is often the case for women who have been physically isolated by their partner, live in a remote community, or lack access to a vehicle or public transportation.

Much like physical isolation, social isolation can play a key role in a woman’s decision to leave. When an abuser limits a woman’s social network, her access to material or emotional support is also decreased. This makes it even more challenging for women to flee abuse.

Lastly, women who have experienced financial abuse may not have the money to find alternate housing or access support services. This makes leaving even more costly.

Woman has a suitcase and is walking away, which can be even more challenging for domestic violence survivors.

Family first

If a survivor has children with her abuser, leaving the relationship can be even more difficult.  This is the case for many women who come through our doors.

The prospect of being a single parent can be daunting. Even if an abuser has not perpetrated violence on the children in the house, women might fear that if they leave without their children, the children will experience abuse.

For many survivors, keeping the family together is a priority. She may believe her children deserve to grow up in a home with both parents.

Getting a divorce, even in relationships where abuse is not present, is often expensive and messy to say the least. A woman may fear the financial implications of divorcing her partner.

Lack of support or negative role models from a woman’s own family can impact her decision to leave. If a woman saw that her mother experienced abuse growing up, she may believe violence is the price of intimacy. A woman’s family also may not know the extent of the abuse.

Some families hold the belief that marriage is not a commitment to be taken lightly. These families may not provide critical support to a survivor when she attempts to leave.  

Sad child with a doll is visibly upset.

Highest highs, lowest lows 

The cycle of abuse includes acts of violence punctuated by brief moments of elation. Periods of violence may be followed by honeymoon periods where an abuser is apologetic. The abuser may shower a woman with praise and promises to never hurt her again.

It is very common to have moments that are intensely fulfilling or feel genuinely romantic, even after acts of violence. Women may stay in a relationship in the hope these rewarding moments of romance will return. They may rationalize their partner’s abusive behaviour as fluke moments.

Women may also feel a need to remain with a partner who has experienced trauma or has a substance abuse problem. She may feel like she is the only one who knows or cares about him. This drive to “fix” her partner may lead her to believe that leaving represents a failure on her part. She may also be concerned her partner might hurt himself.

Abuse may be viewed by many women as her partner letting off steam. She may view it as a temporary response to misfortune. In today’s current circumstances, for example, a woman might see her partner’s abuse as a reaction to losing his job or some other fear and uncertainty due to COVID-19. She might stay since she believes that once the misfortune is resolved, the fulfilling aspects of the relationship will return.

If a woman has escalated to violence in response to abuse, she might believe that this abuse is her fault. “I pushed him so it’s okay he burned me on the stove” thinking may pose a barrier to a woman fleeing violence.

Man holds a fist towards a woman with her head down.

Blurred thoughts 

After being told so many times that she is worthless, women may begin to doubt their value or believe they do not deserve better. Physical and social isolation might make her feel confused, disoriented, or unable to strategize how she could leave.

Abusive partners also are attracted to powerless or marginalized women, namely those who experienced abuse or volatility growing up. An abuser may make these vulnerable women feel fortunate someone loves them. This sometimes makes them more likely to remain in the relationship.   

Emerging literature also discusses the role of brain injuries in domestic violence survivors’ decision to leave. The Ohio Domestic Violence Network recently completed a community-based study. They found that 81% of women abused by their partner have experienced a head injury. The authors of this study conclude that brain injuries make it more difficult for women to plan for the future or make critical decisions about their safety. This suggests the inability to leave can be the result of physical injuries in some cases.

A graphic of derogatory terms that abusers may use to describe a survivor.

Society isn’t helping

We as a society need to do a better job of believing women and supporting them during the process of leaving. If a partner is conventionally attractive or provides a woman with material support, many members of her social network may fail to support her in her decision to leave. They may instead chastise her for leaving such a “good” partner. 

We need to understand that just because a man is someone we respect, maybe a brother or friend, doesn’t mean he does not have the potential to be an abusive partner. Domestic violence is deeply complex! Just because you have never seen a man be violent, doesn’t mean he isn’t inflicting violence behind closed doors.

Abuse is also not always physical, but the failure of society to recognize the severity of financial or emotional abuse may lead a woman to feel trapped in a relationship.  

Often, cultural or religious beliefs can hinder a broader community from supporting a woman who chooses to leave an abusive relationship. For example, many cultures consider marriage a life-long commitment and look down on individuals, especially women, who pursue a divorce. Women who might feel it is a choice between their safety and the support of their community. 

Broken paper heart on a string with a black background.

How can you support women leaving an abusive relationship? 

Believe survivors. There are already so many barriers to reporting! Don’t make yourself one of them. By letting her know that you believe her, you show that you support her. That can go a long way in rebuilding a life after violence.

Provide material support to the best of your ability. By offering a place to stay for a few weeks or watching a woman’s children or pets, you can ease the logistical struggles a woman may experience as she plans to leave an abuser. If a woman doesn’t have to worry about where she’s going to stay or what to do with her children while she seeks legal services, it can be easier for her to focus on what she needs to do for herself.  

Ask how you can best support her! Every situation of domestic violence is different, and survivors may need your support in different ways. While some women might just need a sympathetic ear, others might want your assistance in connecting her to a shelter such as Dixon.  

Challenge the notion that because you have never seen the abuse occur or you like the abuser personally, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. A person you don’t expect can still be a perpetrator of violence. Avoid telling a woman who discloses violence to you that you like her partner or that you doubt violence is present. Your relationship with the abuser is entirely separate from hers. It can be hard, but your familiarity with an abuser should never devalue a woman’s disclosure of abuse to you.  

Safety first. The moment of leaving an abuser is often the most dangerous. Leaving a relationship is a huge blow to the abuser’s power and control, and often aggravates violent tendencies. It is important to look out for the safety of the woman leaving, but also your own safety as an abuser may lash out at you if he knows you are assisting his partner. Always call 911 if you are concerned for your safety or that of the woman you are helping.  

Dixon Transition Society is here to help 

At Dixon, we recognize the complexity of domestic violence and never reprimand women for not leaving earlier. Every woman’s journey is unique, and we celebrate women who chose to pursue a better life for themselves and their children no matter how long they waited to leave. We seek to address all the potential barriers to leaving, offering services such as affordable housing, job training resources, counselling, and connecting our women to legal advocacy resources in our community.  

If you or someone you know is in need of our services, call our 24-hour intake line at 604-298-3454. If you are in danger, please call 911.

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