Circle of Hope

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Why Victims Just Don't Leave?

Many people not involved with an abusive partner say that if their mates ever harmed them they would leave.  Many battered victims remember the same resolve.  Why do they stay?  Why might they go back?  Why do some permanently separate from abusers?  There are serious factors that weigh on a victim's decision to leave.  This is the man she loves, or has loved.  He may be the father of her children.  Ending an intimate relationship is very difficult, even more so when self-confidence has been destroyed by the abuser.  

Victim of domestic violence report the following reasons for staying with or going back to the batterer:

Economic autonomy:  The most likely predictor of whether a battered woman will permanently separate from her abuser is whether she has the economic resources to survive without him.  Therefore, it is very important that battered women obtain support awards in protection orders and are referred to battered women's programs where they can learn about the issue, about other economic supports, job training and employment opportunities.

Hope for change:  Many abusers become remorseful after inflicting violence.  This contrite behavior may include promising never to hit again, agreeing to seek counseling if the victim does not leave, reminding the victim of how hard he works, pointing out the incredible stresses under which he is operating, acknowledging the wrongfulness of his violence to the children and asking their help in stopping it, and demonstrating his love for her in meaningful ways.  Since battered women are in committed relationships and have often built their lives around the relationship, they hope for change.  When the batterer acknowledges the error of his ways, when he breaks down and cries out his despair, and concedes the need for dramatic change, hope is often renewed for battered women.

Isolation:  Many battered women lose their support systems.  The batterer has isolated them.  For example, a batterer may prohibit a battered woman from using the phone; may humiliate her at family gatherings; may insist on transporting her to work; may censor her mail, etc..  Men who batter are often highly possessive and excessively jealous.  They believe that they 'own' the woman and are entitled to her exclusive attention and absolute obedience.  He knows that if the truth is told about his conduct, supportive people will urge the battered woman to leave or seek assistance.  Therefore, batterers quickly isolate battered women in order to sustain their power and control.
Societal denial:  Battered women fear that no one will believe their partners abuse or beat them.  Batterers often are very ingratiating and popular men who keep their terrorizing, controlling behaviors within the family behind closed doors.  The battered woman knows this, and it reinforces her fear that no one will believe her.  Battered women discover that many people and agencies in the community trivialize the impact of violence (e.g. doctors prescribe Valium for coping; ministers recommend prayer and more accommodating behaviors; therapists advise better communications with the perpetrators, etc.).  No one understands that she feels like a prisoner who might be severely injured or die at the hands of her jailer.  She concludes that since they don't understand the seriousness of the violence, they will not support her disruption of the family.

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

Belief in batterer treatment:  Battered women are reluctant to leave when their partners are in treatment.  She believes the treatment will motivate him to make the profound changes necessary to stop the battering.  Therefore, it is very important that battered women are referred to domestic violence programs so that they can gain full information about treatment programs for batterers and evaluate whether these programs are likely to effect the change that will make life safe for them.

Dangers in leaving:  Many battered women believe that leaving is not necessarily going to make her life or her children's lives safer.  Many battered women 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 battered woman into reconciliation or to retaliate for her departure.  Leaving requires strategic planning and comprehensive legal intervention to safeguard victims and their children.

Leaving is a process:  Most battered women leave and return several times before permanently separating from the batterer.  The first time a battered woman leaves may be a test to see whether he will actually get some help to stop his behavior.  When he is violent again, she may leave to gain more information about resources available to her.  She may then reconcile and begin to get some economic and educational resources together in case she decides that she must later leave.  She may next leave to try to break out of the isolation in which the batterer has virtually imprisoned her.  Most battered women do eventually leave. 

When friends, family and helping agencies, such as police, shelters, clergy, courts, medical personnel, educators and therapists, lend substantial and concerted efforts to assist battered women in the leaving process, battered women are more likely to leave and secure protection for themselves and their children.  Therefore, when battered women 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 for safe leave-taking.

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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GA 30531
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