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Why doesn’t she just leave?

At the last count, Police Scotland recorded 65,251 domestic abuse incidents, of which over 80% of the victims were women. The latest Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) estimates that 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse (ONS, 2019). It can take up to 35 violent attacks for a woman to seek help, so the chances are you know someone who is experiencing domestic abuse. It could be your mum, your gran, sister, aunt, neighour or co-worker.

Often, domestic violence and abuse takes place behind closed doors with friends and colleagues unaware of what's happening or not knowing what to do. There are lots of ways in which we can help a person who is suffering from physical, psychological, financial abuse or controlling behaviour.

People can endure abusive situations for years, never able to speak out through fear, shame or embarrassment. Even though we see someone we love in pain, often our instinct is not to interfere in case you’re mistaken or worry you might make things worse. It’s important that if you do suspect domestic abuse, you do not ignore it. But it can be hard to know what to do for the best.

Getting involved doesn’t mean you have to solve the situation. If someone turns to you for help and support, it means helping them find their own answers. You cannot ‘save’ them, and it is important not to be disappointed if they don’t do what you think they should. Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult, it can be dangerous, and it may take time.

Here are some of the signs to look out for:

  • Controlling behaviour: they are told what they are allowed to do, what to wear and who they can see
  • Psychological abuse: they are often insulted by their partner, put down or embarrassed in front of people, made to feel worthless and humiliated
  • Physical abuse: they are physically hurt, have bruises, or appear scared, anxious or depressed
  • Isolation: they are becoming increasingly withdrawn from their family and friends, or are prevented from contact with family and friends
  • Financial abuse: they have little or no control over their finances

There are many puzzling and unsettling questions around domestic abuse. Possibly the most difficult of all the questions is, ‘Well, why don’t they just leave?’

Perhaps turning this question on its head might help and instead we should ask, ‘Why does he abuse her?’ It’s easy to blame the victim; somehow they must have brought it on themselves. They should have done things differently in the relationship. However, domestic abuse is NEVER the victim’s fault.

It can be incredibly hard to leave an abusive relationship, so many reasons why a woman (especially if there are children) believes they can’t leave. Social stigma and family pressure not to leave can be powerful deterrents. They may believe they have no options, as leaving might mean leaving home, income, family and support network. It might mean taking children out of school, moving away and starting fresh with nothing. The things they may gain from leaving, like safety from abuse and more confidence, aren’t instant, and they aren’t guaranteed.

Leaving an abusive relationship is often the most dangerous time for women, as they take back control from their abusive partner. Some men become violent when women decide to leave, and if they are already violent it can get much worse, with threats to hurt or even kill her, her children or even himself if she leaves.

What is not helpful

What is NOT helpful is telling them what to do, confronting the abusive partner, or trying to mediate between them. This can be dangerous for you and the abused person. What is NOT helpful, indeed can be counter-productive, is implying they are to blame for the abuse, or letting them know you are disappointed if they don’t do what you have suggested or if they go back to their partner.

What is helpful

The best thing you can do to help is to listen to her, believe her, support her, and not judge her if she isn’t ready to leave. Above all, encourage her to seek professional help. At Border Women’s Aid, we will help and support you if you are concerned that a relative or friend is experiencing domestic abuse.

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