Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Many people ask “Why doesn’t the victim leave? Why does the victim stay?”–it is not that simple. It is important to understand that there are many barriers to safety in an abusive relationship. Leaving is often dangerous and there are many factors a survivor must consider in the analysis of how to respond to an abusive partner. The better question is “Why does the abuser do this and how can I help the survivor gain access to safety?” The reality is that the most dangerous time for a survivor is when they leave the abusive partner; 75% of domestic violence related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years. These concerns are very real and must be addressed with safety planning. The following are common barriers:

Isolation: from friends, family, community support, resources, as abusers often attempt to cut off survivors from support networks as a control mechanism; this often includes monitoring of a survivors texts, emails, and social media accounts.

Children: fear for their safety if abuser has threatened to hurt them if they leave, custody concerns (such as the abuser gaining custody, which still occurs in 50% of cases), child abuse that has occurred as a result of trying to leave in the past.

Fear: of retaliation; of being killed; of the abuser hurting loved ones; of being stalked; of not being believed; of unsupervised visits with the abuser putting children at risk.

Physical harm that occurred after trying to leave or after having called the police, or after having sought medical attention.

Threats: the abusive partner may threaten to commit suicide or hurt their partner/children, other loved ones and/or pets, threaten to call INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services), threaten to take the children, threaten to “out” their partner to family or coworkers, etc.

Economic necessity: the abusive partner may control the finances or be the sole source of finances for the family; the abusive partner may have destroyed the survivor’s credit or forced joint accounts so starting over financially is not feasible.

Homelessness: the abusive partner may threaten to kick the survivor and possibly their children out of their living situation; the abusive partner may have control over the survivor’s living situation.

Lack of resources or information about available resources, such as lack of transportation to services or lack of access to the internet to find services, or lack of resources in the survivor’s language.

Shelters are full and there is nowhere to safely go

Immigration status: fear of deportation without partner’s support, fear of separation from children, law enforcement etc.

Racism, transphobia, homophobia, and discrimination against individuals in LGTBQI+ relationships in the criminal justice system that results in a fear of turning to resources such as the police or courts.

Failure of the criminal justice system: with a very low prosecution rate, survivors are not likely to pursue prosecution when they will have to be re-victimized in court without any meaningful results. Perpetrators often threaten the partner if they don’t recant and even when victims do “press charges,” it often only leads to a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator.

Culture/ religion/ family pressures to stay together; however, it is important to note that  all cultures have both traditions of resistance to relationship abuse as well as forms of acceptance of it.  Culture cannot excuse relationship abuse—though abusers may use “culture” as a way to justify their choice to abuse.  Abuse is not inherent or natural to any culture or group — it is always a choice.

Hope/belief that partner will change, often resulting from manipulative tactics by the abuser. A connection to partner’s well-being: fear that partner will be arrested, imprisoned, deported etc. which may have consequences for retaliation, finances, and children.

Shame or belief that the abuse is their fault, largely because of societal victim blaming.