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Why Don't Victims Just Leave?

There are serious factors that weigh on a victim’s decision to leave. Ending an intimate relationship is very difficult, even more so when a victim’s self-confidence has been destroyed by the abuser.

1. Economic Autonomy: 

The most likely predictor of whether a victim will permanently separate from her/his abuser is whether she/he has the economic resources to survive without their partner. Therefore, it is very important that victims obtain financial support awards in protection orders and are referred to domestic violence programs where they can learn about the issue, other economic supports, and job training and employment opportunities.

2. Hope for Change:

Many abusers act remorseful after inflicting violence. This contrite behavior may include promising never to hit again, agreeing to seek counseling if the victim agrees to stay, reminding the victim of how hard he/she works, pointing out the incredible stresses under which he/she is operating, acknowledging the wrongfulness of their violence to the children and asking their help in stopping it, and demonstrating his/her love in meaningful ways. Those in committed relationships have often built their lives around the relationship, and they hope for change. When the batterer acknowledges the error of his/her ways, hope is often renewed for the victim.

3. Isolation:

Many victims lose their support systems because the batterer has isolated them from family and friends. Examples of isolation include a batterer prohibiting a victim from using the phone, humiliating victims at family gatherings, insisting on transporting her/him to work, censoring her/his mail, etc.. Those who batter are often highly possessive and excessively jealous. They believe that they ‘own’ their partner and are entitled to her/his exclusive attention and absolute obedience. He/she knows that if the truth is told about their conduct, supportive people will urge the victim to leave or seek assistance. Therefore, batterers quickly isolate victims in order to sustain their power and control.

4. Societal Denial:

Victims often fear that no one will believe their partners abuse them. Batterers are often very charming and popular with other, and keep their terrorizing, controlling behaviors behind closed doors. The victim knows this, and it reinforces her/his fear that no one will believe them. No one understands that she/he feels like a prisoner who might be severely injured or die at the hands of their jailer. She/he concludes that since others don’t understand the seriousness of the violence, they will not support her/his decision to disrupt the family.

5. Barricades to Leaving:

Even when a victim decides to leave, batterers put up many barricades. Many threaten to seek custody of the children, withhold financial support, interfere with her/his employment, advise prospective landlords that she/he is not credit-worthy, turn the children or family against her/him, threaten to kill other family members if she/he leaves, threaten retaliatory suicide, or in other ways to escalate their violence in an attempt to hold the victim in the relationship.

6. Dangers in Leaving:

Many victims believe that leaving is not necessarily going to make her/his life or the children’s lives safer. Many victims killed by their partners are killed after they have left or separated. Leaving can be a dangerous process. In fact, many batterers escalate their violence to coerce a victim into reconciliation or to retaliate for their departure. Leaving requires strategic planning and comprehensive legal intervention to safeguard victims and their children.

7. Leaving is a Process: 

Most victims leave and return several times before permanently separating from the batterer. The first time a victim leaves may be a test to see whether she/he will actually get some help to stop the abusive behavior. The second time a victim leaves, she/he may leave to gain more information about available resources. She/he may then reconcile and begin to get some economic resources together in case they decide they must later leave. The process may continue to repeat itself, but many victims do eventually leave.

How to Help

When friends, family and helping agencies, such as police, shelters, clergy, courts, medical personnel, educators, and therapists, lend substantial and concerted efforts to assist in the leaving process, victims are more likely to leave and secure protection for themselves and their children. Therefore, when victims stay, we as a community should look to see what we are doing to hinder the leaving process and then make changes to facilitate leaving and ultimate safety. Leaving must be done in a way that does not further jeopardize safety. Victims should be referred to domestic violence programs to help develop plans to safely leave the relationship.


Browne, A. & Williams, K. R. Exploring the Effect of Resource Availability on the Likelihood of Female-Perpetrated Homicides. Law and Society Review, 23, 1989. Gender-Specific Effects on Patterns of Homicide Perpetration. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association, New York, August 1987.

Cazenave, N. & Zahn, M. Women, Murder, and Male Domination: Police Reports of Domestic Homicide in Chicago and Philadelphia. Paper prepared for presentation at the 1986 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Atlanta, Georgia.

Gondolf, E. The Effect of Batterer Counseling on Shelter Outcome. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol 3, No. 3, September, 1988, pp. 275-289.

Okun, L. Women Abuse: Facts Replacing Myths. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1986

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