Why doesn’t she just leave?

Content Note for discussion of intimate partner abuse (domestic abuse)

As someone who has worked with the survivors of intimate partner abuse (commonly known as domestic abuse) part of the work is often around unpacking the myths and victim blaming they have absorbed. As a society we often reduce complex human relationships to a simple black and white choice, and in doing so, pass judgement on others. High on this list of myths is the idea that victims should just leave their abusers,and that it is easy to do so.

The reality is very different. I have, over a series of blogs, followed the storyline on The Archers of coercive control. Taking almost two years to unfold it has shown, with admirable realism, how an abuser undermines, grooms, and disempowers their victim. This hold has extended to such a degree that Helen (the victim of coercive control) still feels unable to speak about what has happened to her. Leaving is not the final step, it is a link a chain, which begins in recognising that abuse is happening, and carries on into the future of the survivors as they heal.

The earliest links in this chain may be forged long before a victim even meets their abuser. Research into the intergenerational transmission of abuse shows us that children who grow up in abusive households are more likely to reproduce that dynamic in their adult relationships. It is hardly surprising, we are all formed by our childhood experiences, and it takes a lot of unlearning, usually with support of trained professionals, to challenge those deeply embedded lessons.

One of the organisations who have taken a lead in providing this kind of longer term support is Women’s Aid. As a member of the LGBTQ community I am well aware they are not perfect. However without ever hearing the phrase like many others I have seen “calling in” to be more useful than calling out. The need for specialist services for the survivors of intimate partner violence is so huge, and the myths so prevalent, that the expertise of those who work with victims/survivors is vital. For many the system of refuges across the country have meant there was a place that understood it was not about “just leaving.”

There are a number of barriers to “just leaving” which include

  • Financial dependence
  • Blaming oneself for the violence
  • Family pressures to make the relationship work
  • Cultural/societal norms
  • Fear of homelessness
  • Fear of the partner
  • Normalisation of abuse
  • Failing to recognise abuse
  • Trivialisation of the abuse (by the victim or others)

This is not an exhaustive list, rather it is an indication of the web which is woven around a victim, trapping them in an abusive relationship. Imagine someone whose parents communicated by violence (normalising the idea this how adults relate).As an adult they meet someone who themselves has not learnt to control their anger. The previous life experiences of both intermesh to create another generation of intimate partner violence.

Sometimes its easier to believe they myth, the idea that if someone hits you, then you just leave. This ignores the complex reality of all of us, that we are not newly reborn each morning as little more than machines, but instead are the products of our own histories. This process of understanding, of unlearning, takes time, support and experienced people walking alongside the survivor. Imagine if you had been taught all your life that milk was poisonous, then one day someone poured you a big glass and said “drink this”. Would your first reaction be to happily drink the milk, or would you assume that this new knowledge must be wrong, and the person was trying to harm you?

Currently we still seem to live in a world where we think a survivor will just drink the milk, and the only support they need is to be told, “this is good for you” Specialist IPV services, from refuges to Broken Rainbow are being lost, and replaced with models which whilst perhaps good on paper seem dominated by outcomes and pre determined targets. How do you measure for a woman believing she does not deserve to be hit? What target is met by a man believing it is OK to ask for help? Under what goal does children growing up not to beat their partner belong? It seems as if despite over fifty years of research on the complexity of intimate partner abuse we still want to say, it’s easy, leave and move on.

This post largely focuses largely on the experiences of female victims and male perpetrators of abuse, since it was prompted by the closure of the Newcastle Women’s Aid refuge. This is not to erase the experience of other victims/survivors of IPV, or to say that it is only men who perpetrate, or that IPV does not also take place in non hetrosexual relationships.


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