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A recent newspaper commentary once again raised the issue of why victims stay in abusive relationships. Even though the information is so easily available these days via many platforms, still far too many seek to blame the victim out of a mistaken belief that a victim can walk away at will from an abusive relationship.
On average, female victims leave and return to relationships seven times because an abuser often apologizes and promises to change after a victim leaves. The victim returns believing the apologies are sincere. In some instances, leaving the abuser isn’t a goal for victims who have invested in their relationships and don’t want the relationships to end; they just want the abuse to end. Other reasons for not leaving include:
Leaving can be dangerous: Many people experiencing intimate partner violence, fear that their abusive partners’ actions will become more violent and even lethal if they attempt to leave. Abusers may kill them or hurt their children, family members and/or pet if they leave. In fact, a 2020 U.S. Department of Justice study found in interviews with men who have killed their wives, that either threats of separation by their partner or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that lead to the murder. And a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found 20% of homicide victims were not the domestic violence victims themselves, but family members, friends, neighbors, persons who intervened, law enforcement responders, or bystanders.
What about the kids? Many survivors are not sure that leaving would be the best for their children. Concerns may include: Will my partner win custody of the children? How will I support my kids without my partner’s income? I want my children to have two parents.
Isolation: Victims are often isolated from friends and families, either by abusers or because they feel “ashamed” of the abuse and try to hide signs of it from the outside world. The isolation contributes to a sense that there is no one to turn.
Cycle of Violence: Most abusive partners exhibit a behavioral pattern that has been described as a cycle of violence. The cycle of violence has three phases: the honeymoon phase (when everything in the relationship seems lovely), tension building, and violent incident. Many abusive partners become remorseful after inflicting violence and promise that they will change (beginning the honeymoon phase again). Besides, during non-violent phases, the abuser may fulfill the victim’s dream of romantic love. Often, the victim may rationalize that he abuser is basically good until something bad happens and the abuser has to “let off steam.” This cycle makes it difficult to break free from an abusive partner.
Hope for change. Many victims wait for “someday.” They are waiting for the person they fell in love with to return. Most abuse begins slowly and escalates over time. The relationship is not violent all of the time; there may be good days, so the victim waits for the next “good” abuse-free time. As well victims may rationalize that their abusers’ behavior is caused by stress, alcohol, problems at work, unemployment, or other factors.
A life of abuse. Victims who grow up in abusive homes may believe that violence is a normal part of a relationship. Many victims are also survivors of childhood sexual abuse and feel worthless. Their abusive partners tend to reinforce this low self-esteem and makes the victims feel unlovable. Victims are often told no one else would want them. In fact, the psychological damage on victims of abuse is immense and may result in victims having trouble making decisions, feeling dependent on their abusive partners, suffering from depression, or using drugs/alcohol for coping.
Lack of Resources: Because abuse is about control, many victims have limited access to resources. They may not have their own source of income due to financial abuse, or may not have access to alternate housing, cash or bank accounts. They may fear that by leaving the abuser they — including children — will become homeless, have to rely on others or be unable to find jobs and childcare, especially since some may not have any marketable skills, credentials and/or work experience.
Institutional Responses: Police officers do not consistently provide support to survivors. They may treat violence as a “man and wife story,” instead of a crime where one person is attacking another. As well some dismiss or downplay the abuse, side with the abuser, or do not take the victims’ account of the abuse seriously. Very often, victims have told The Caribbean Voice, ‘police a waste time, dem na do nuthin’. Occasionally we have also been told that when victims go to police station to report abuse, they are laughed at and ridiculed. And, despite the issuing of a restraining order, there is little to prevent a released abusive partner from returning and repeating the assault.
Cultural beliefs and practices often play a role in preventing a victim from leaving — religious beliefs, prescribed gender roles and the cultural importance of marriage may prompt the victim to stay. Such beliefs include that women’s identities and feelings of self-worth are contingent upon getting and keeping a man.
Guilt: Often victims are worried about the effect their leaving will have on the abuser — “It will ruin his life”. Or they fear the effect it will have on their family — “It will destroy their reputation”. They may feel responsible for taking care of their abusive partners, feel guilty about admitting the relationship is not working or feel they, in some way, deserve the abuse.
Emotional dependence: The cycle of abuse and control often leads victims to feel emotionally dependent. They may be afraid to be on their own, fear what others will say, or feel they cannot take care of themselves.
The bottom line is that we need to stop blaming survivors for staying and start supporting them to enable them to leave. By understanding the many barriers that stand in the way of a victim leaving an abusive relationship – be it psychological, emotional, financial or physical threats – we can begin to support and empower them to make the best decisions for themselves while holding abusers solely accountable for their behaviour.
Annan Boodram, The Caribbean Voice