Why do abused women often stay rather than just flee the situation?

The answer given in the 1920s to this question was that battered women were of low intelligence or mentally retarded. In the ’40s it was determined that women did not leave because they were masochistic.

By the ’70s the experts claimed that a woman stayed in an abusive situation because she was isolated from friends and neighbors, had few economic resources and was terrorized into a state of “learned helplessness” by repeated abuse.

Experts spent time, energy and government grants studying women and their problems. By asking “why do women stay” they managed to blame the victims instead of doing anything to stop violent male behavior.

Few people will ask, “What’s wrong with that man? Is he in jail? Is she getting adequate police protection? Are the children provided for? Does she need medical help, financial assistance or legal aid? Does she have a place to stay?” Instead of blaming the victim, why don’t we ask, “Why hasn’t this violence been stopped? What can we do to prevent it? Has the abuser been confronted and referred to a treatment program?”

Unfortunately, the first question that comes to mind is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” When we ask that question first, we lose sight of the criminal and the crime and begin to place blame on the victim.

The fact is that many women do leave, and risk their lives doing so. However, those who choose to stay do so for the following reasons:

Confusion. One day he worships her and places her on a pedestal. The next day she doesn’t meet his expectations and falls from grace. It is a long fall, and she can’t understand why he has changed from a loving, generous husband into a maniacal bully who delights in punishing her. A day or two later, he places her back on the pedestal and turns on the charm. This emotional up-and-down strategy keeps her off-balance and in a state of confusion.

FEAR! She has every reason to be afraid. He has threatened to take the children away from her if she leaves, and she knows he will do it. He will lie in court and testify that she is not a good mother. If he does not get custody, he will kidnap them. In extreme cases, he will kill her and the children. “If I can’t have you and the kids, then I’ll make sure no one else will either.”

She also fears the condescending and judgmental reactions of others who believe she is responsible for breaking up the family if she leaves. She may also fear offending God because she has been taught He hates divorce, and she is unaware that God also hates violence, and has great compassion toward those who suffer abuse.

Self-blame. She may feel responsible for the breakup of the family, or for the abuser’s behavior. He has told her over and over that she is the reason he gets upset, and she believes the lie.

Shame and embarrassment. She doesn’t want to tell anyone because it is embarrassing to admit she has allowed herself to get into or stay in this situation. She is ashamed of making poor decisions, and failing to make her marriage work.

Need to protect abuser. Some women feel guilty for betraying the abuser. She believes he needs extra love and care because he has been wounded in the past. She feels it is her responsibility to help him become whole.

Disassociation from the pain. The abuser convinces her that the violence wasn’t as bad as she claims, or that it didn’t happen at all. Sometimes he accuses her of hitting him, even though she is the one with the bruises. Her body feels the pain, and she knows she has been hurt, but her mind tells her it really wasn’t that bad — ignore it — he won’t do it again — he promised to change — or if “I” could just change.

She denies the reality that the man she loves is capable of seriously hurting or killing her. Even though she knows he has hurt her in the past, she cannot believe he is truly an evil person because she would not choose to be with such a person, and she still really loves him.

It’s easier to deny abuse than to face making hard choices and an uncertain future. Most women face extreme financial, social, and emotional hardships when they leave and often find limited or no help available to them. Weak criminal justice systems offer no hope and have failed victims again and again.

She is ignorant of the facts and consequences of domestic violence. She believes the cause of violence is within her instead of within the abuser. She believes it is a temporary problem based on outside circumstances (like stress at work). She believes that once the stress is relieved the beatings will stop, or “If I lose weight, he’ll love me more.”

She believes children need a father-figure, and doesn’t want her kids to suffer from divorce. Women who stay for this reason are not aware that children suffer much more long-lasting trauma by being in an abusive home than in a single-parent home.

She is blamed for causing or not leaving her predicament, but abandoned when she actually leaves. Doctors, therapists and clergymen don’t take the abuse seriously and send women back home. Some feel she got herself into this while others ask “why doesn’t she just leave?”

She lives on false hope. She believes that if she tries a little harder or waits a little longer, things will change.

She may get killed! A woman is at 75% greater risk of harm from her abuser when she leaves.

These are just a few of the reasons why women stay. The real question is, “What can we do to help?” and “How can we make the violence stop?” Let’s stop blaming the victim and begin holding the abuser accountable!

4 Responses to “Why Do Abused Women Often Stay Rather Than Just Flee the Situation?”

  1. Marcia Roberts April 15, 2013 at 8:18 am #

    Great article and so right on with all the things I experienced. This truly describes the situation that I was in. Thank you!

    • Alison Soroka April 17, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

      It deeply saddens me to know that you experienced so much hardship and pain. But I know that you are now in a safe, healthy, and happy place which pleases me to no end. I’m glad that you found this article intriguing; and I hope that it will resonate with others, especially those victims that are still on the fence. Thanks Marcia for your support and contribution!

      Kindest regards,
      Alison Soroka
      Founder & Executive Director

    • vanessa October 2, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      Only now (after divorcing an emotional abuser of 29 years,) 14 years ago; do I understand why I stayed with him, when friends, close family, co-workers pleaded, begged me to leave him, dump him..I defended him, begged them to ‘understand’ him, listened to his ‘sob stories’ of woe and believed everything he said, about his life, my life..loved him enough to hope he would change and become the man I wanted him to be. It never happened. I was nearly destroyed by his rages,emotional/verbal abuse, overwork, impossibilities to be pleased..it took 28 years, and 2 friends who gently gave me support, togather with what was left of my courage and mental strength to leave and get a divorce..I should have left him long before, before children, before marriage, but the Stockholm Syndrome article explains it all. The 3 sons we had, took his side and are estranged from me. But, i AM FREE.

      • Alison Soroka October 2, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

        Thank you, Vanessa, for sharing your story! I am deeply sorry that you had to experience such pain and hardship. We as victims/survivors have been brainwashed by society to feel guilty for staying in abusive relationships; however, society is passing judgement while being extremely ignorant about the dynamics behind the reasoning. Victims continue to be judged and condemned by people who refuse to understand. So, please don’t ever blame yourself for not leaving sooner. Emotional abuse is one of the hardest types of abuse to detect. It is extremely insidious. It’s not always easy to see the signs of domestic violence, as it can be a psychological trap that is disguised as love. Don’t give up hope on seeing your 3 sons again. My son was estranged from me for 5 years and is now back in my life. Just keep being strong, positive, and loving, and you never know what tomorrow may bring. Your last line gave me chills, because I remember the amazing feeling of finally being FREE; and it appears by your bold printing that it is resonating with you as well. Big hugs!

        Kindest regards,
        Alison Soroka
        Founder & Executive Director