Written by Ava Mazzye
For those who have not experienced abuse, it is difficult to understand why the survivor in an abusive relationship might stay with their abuser. However, leaving an abusive relationship is much easier said than done. Many survivors of abuse are stuck in cycles of emotional manipulation and physical or sexual violence and exploitation, which are difficult to escape from. The only people that truly understand the complexities of any given abusive relationship are those people in the relationship.
When survivors of abuse come out about their experience, they are often asked this question: “Why didn’t you just leave?” While it may be innocently intended, survivors of dating abuse may interpret this question as demeaning, and may regret coming out about their experience.
So, why don’t survivors of abuse simply leave their abusers? Well, here’s why:
On average, it takes a survivor 7-8 attempts to leave their abusive partner before it is done successfully. Domestic violence experts say that the risk of domestic homicide is at its highest when a survivor attempts to leave an abuser, because an abuser may try to escalate their power and control tactics to force a person to stay.
In youth, the issue could be all the more complicated. For example, if the people within the relationship attend the same school, the survivor may have to switch schools, which would require explaining the situation to one’s guardians. Youth dating is often stigmatized in families, making it all the more difficult for teens to tell their guardians about their experience with dating abuse.
Financial security and shelter are two things which survivors of abuse may need before even thinking of leaving an abuser. If someone cannot obtain either of these, they might have to choose between enduring abuse and homelessness. Separating from an abusive partner while maintaining financial security can involve many steps, like separating assets/bank accounts, finding housing or a way to generate income.
Emotional abuse or threats may stop someone from leaving an abusive relationship. Oftentimes, abusers do not only reserve their abuse for their romantic partners. Leaving an abuser might cause them to threaten pets or the survivor’s children as collateral.
Immigration status or language barriers also pose difficulties for a survivor of dating abuse. An undocumented individual may fear that their partner will report them if they leave the relationship, or otherwise may not report abuse for fear of contact with law enforcement. Language barriers may also hinder one from finding resources.
Isolation is also a major barrier in leaving an abuser. Abusers often utilize the tactic of isolation, pushing away the survivor’s friends and family, in order to assert control over the survivor. Without a support system, a survivor of abuse may not have the resources to leave their partner.
Finally, a person may not leave an abuser because they may not understand themselves to be in an abusive relationship. While New York City middle and high schools are required to include sexual health education in their curriculums, topics of dating abuse and unhealthy relationships are not always taught. In addition to this, youth have warped ideas of romantic relationships due to popular culture, like Romeo and Juliet, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
The notion that leaving an abusive relationship is simple and easy contributes to the shame and isolation that survivors feel when trapped in the cycle of dating abuse.