That’s perhaps the most common question in the air when a severe incident of violence or gross long-term abuse in a family or intimate relationship makes the news. Questioning the victim, however, promotes judgment instead of connection with the person’s humanity and circumstances. Believe it or not, most people prefer it that way because there’s something about domestic and sexual violence that makes us uncomfortable. It’s too close, too intimate. We tend to go the extra mile to help those affected by collective disasters. But after a domestic or sexual violence incident, we tend to take a step back from the victim(s) after an initial expression of sympathy. Maybe it’s because situations like that prompt us to question our sense of trust and the quality of our relationships.
When we decide to overcome the tendency of judging the person instead of focusing on the problem, we open ourselves to understand the barriers that prevent victims from leaving their abusers. This new perspective can empower us to do something about it because victims of domestic violence need support. They need to know that they are not alone. People in this horrible situation need to know that they matter and are worth the effort to help them. Empowering them with our support can enable their self-agency and determination to leave their abusers.
Barriers to leaving an abusive relationship
Fear – leaving may be the most dangerous decision for a victim since domestic violence is about the obsession with power and control. The loss of control over their partner may prompt the abuser to act impulsively in destructive ways, trying to regain control over the relationship. If their efforts are unsuccessful, they'd likely retaliate in vindictive ways.
Anxiety – people experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they are worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of the incipient abuse and control it. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear, something like walking on eggshells.
Isolation – this is a covert sign of abuse but a critical one. Isolation robs victims of domestic violence of their personhood. It suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece as family members and friends are being pushed away by the abuser. Isolation creates a hated emotional dependency on the abuser.
Denial – most domestic violence victims don’t know or they refuse to realize that they are in an abusive relationship. They are madly in love with their partners and honestly believe that they are the only ones strong enough to help them through their psychological issues or addiction problems. That looks like codependency to many people. But for many victims of domestic violence, it's just Crazy Love.
Trauma Bonding – abusive relationships aim at crushing people’s sense of trust and healthy attachments to gain control over the relationship. The cycle of abuse – a conditioning cycle of intermittent reinforcement – disrupts victims’ normalcy, creating the right environment for an unhealthy attachment. Trauma bonding is toxic and destructive. It takes away the victim’s sense of self.
Shame and Guilt – domestic violence creates a feeling of shame so intense that it leads victims to isolate themselves yet more. Then shame begets another powerful negative feeling, guilt. Because of the abuse cycle, victims tend to feel guilty for anything that goes wrong in the relationship, including the abuse and violence they suffer. Childhood trauma is a powerful reinforcer of the negative feelings of shame and guilt.
Cultural Practices – have a powerful influence on an individual’s view of self, others, and the world. In androcentric cultures, where male privilege is the norm, male interests and the collective family prevail over females. Women are conditioned since birth to specific roles and views that tend to benefit male and family interests over their own.
Practical Reasons – financial despair, age, fear of losing custody of children, homelessness, family unity, medical problems, mental health issues, no support network, undocumented status, etc.
Community Resources – because of the paralyzing feeling of shame, asking for help is always a challenge for domestic violence victims. Thus, many of them are not aware of the various resources available in their communities. Others get frustrated with the scarce resources available, like in the case of male victims.
The California Victim Compensation Program (CalVCB) can help pay bills and expenses that result from certain violent crimes. Victims of crime who have been injured or have been threatened with injury may be eligible for help. Call 1-800-777-9229.
Violent crimes include Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, Assault, Sexual Assault, Elder Abuse, Homicide, Robbery, Drunk Driving, Vehicular Manslaughter, and Hate Crimes.
If you are in an abusive relationship and find it difficult to leave for some reason, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 to speak in confidentiality with an advocate to explore possible alternatives and resources available in your area.