The fact is that many women do leave, and they risk their lives in doing so. A woman may leave an average of seven times—leaving and going back home—before she leaves for good. There are many reasons why a woman stays in an abusive relationship or returns home after leaving, but the primary motivation is fear.
The victim has every reason to be afraid. Many abusers threaten to take the children if she leaves—either by accusing her of being an incompetent parent and gaining custody or by kidnapping them. In extreme cases, he may kill them as the ultimate revenge against his wife.
She also fears for her own safety. She may get killed herself! A woman is at 75 percent greater risk of harm from her abuser when she leaves.1 One abuser threatened to kill his wife, saying, “If I can’t have you, nobody else will either.” In another incident the abuser disfigured his wife’s face with acid, proclaiming, “Now no one will ever want to look at you again.”
Religious beliefs and guilt keep many women from leaving abusive situations. They fear the condescending and judgmental reactions of friends and family who believe she is responsible for breaking up the family by leaving. She may also fear offending God and her church family. Most women who have children try to protect them from the trauma of divorce by staying in an abusive marriage. They do not realize their children will suffer more long-lasting trauma by being in an abusive home than in a single-parent home. Women may not realize that leaving does not necessarily lead to divorce. In some cases, separation is the wake-up call that causes her husband to seek help.
Confusion and “crazy making” keep many women off balance and unable to make rational decisions. One day he worships her and places her on a pedestal. The next day she doesn’t meet his expectations and falls from grace. The fall is a long one, and she can’t understand why he has changed from a loving, generous husband into a maniacal bully who delights in punishing her.
False hope distorts a woman’s view of reality. Many women stay in an abusive home because they love their husbands and long to see their marriage succeed. They simply want the disrespect and violence to stop. She believes if she tries a little harder or waits a little longer, things will change. She believes him when he says the abuse will never happen again. Because he has been wounded in the past, she thinks he needs extra love and care, and she thinks that helping him become whole is her responsibility. Because she loves him, she denies the reality that he is capable of seriously hurting or killing her. False hope convinces her that she needs to protect her husband—even from himself.
Financial dependence and fear of the unknown paralyze many women as they ponder how they will be able to support themselves and, in many cases, their children. Most women face financial, social, and emotional hardships when they leave, and they often find that assistance is limited or not available to them. Weak criminal justice systems offer no hope, and have failed victims again and again, causing women to be terrified of possibly losing custody of their children and become destitute financially. When a woman’s life is bound up in her family, she worries about continuing important relationships with stepchildren, grandchildren, in-laws, and friends. She believes her identity will be lost if she leaves.
Lack of Information
Ignorance of the facts and of the consequences of domestic violence causes women to view themselves as the problem rather than understanding the cause of violence is within the heart and mind of the abuser. They believe his violence is caused by temporary problems based on outside circumstances, such as stress at work. Having this mind-set, they believe that once the stress is relieved, the beatings will stop. In addition, some women are unaware that spousal abuse is spiritually and morally wrong.
1 Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, “Spousal Homicide Risk and Estrangement,” Violence & Victims 8 (1993): 3–16.