How can I support a woman who does not want to leave her abuser?

When the violence against women movement became increasingly organized in Canada and shelters for abused women and rape crisis centres began to open, most of the work was focused on helping women get away from their abusers. There was an inherent belief that this was what was best for women. While shelter work has always been rooted in a commitment to providing non-judgemental support to women, there was an underlying belief by many workers that women should leave their abusers.

It is also a common attitude of the public at large that women should leave abusive relationships. In fact, many people take the position that if a woman remains with her partner it means her claims of abuse are either fabricated or greatly exaggerated. If she stays, these people think to themselves (and sometimes out loud), then she deserves whatever she gets.

Not surprisingly, public attitudes find their way into public policy and practices as well, with the result that we have laws and court procedures that assume women want to separate from their abusive partner.

All of these assumptions – whether held by a shelter worker, reflected in a shelter policy, spoken aloud by a trusted intermediary to whom an abused woman turns for support, illustrated in a law or manifested in a court proceeding – have a profound impact on women and the choices they think they can make.

The criminal system offers a good example of this. Many women call the police, not because they want their partner charged but because they want some assistance in an emergency situation where they need immediate protection from danger or a threat of danger. They have no idea that the criminal system is required to charge their partner when there is evidence a crime has been committed. This may be the last thing the woman wants or thinks is best for her family or for her own safety. But, once she makes the call to the police, she has handed over control about what will happen next. (For more information about this, see our FAQ on mandatory charging.)

If her partner is charged and held for a bail hearing, his terms of release will almost certainly contain a no-contact provision. The reason for this is easy to understand: if he can have no contact with her, he is less likely to be able to assault or abuse her again. However, some women do not want such a provision. They need contact with their partner, despite the risk of ongoing violence, to manage their household, take care of their children and generally continue with their lives. They may be hoping to reconcile. They may be too afraid not to have contact with their partner. They may be worried about where he will live and how he will manage if he cannot live in the family home.

Right or wrong from anyone else’s perspective, this is the reality for many women.

We could explore other situations in which assumptions that women want to separate from and have no contact with their abuser are not realistic and not reflective of the realities of women’s and families’ lives.

“Why doesn’t she leave?” is an important question. It implies the assumption noted above: if she does not leave, she is somehow at least partly responsible for the abuse she is experiencing or that the abuse is not really all that serious.

This assumption then informs the response to the woman; whether it is a police officer deciding what steps to take when responding to a domestic violence call, a housing worker trying to decide whether to give a woman priority status on a waiting list for subsidized housing, a social assistance worker determining a woman’s eligibility or an employment counselor considering an appropriate placement for a woman.

It is also an understandable question: why would someone continue to expose herself to ongoing abuse and violence?

There are, in fact, many reasons. They are as diverse as the women who are abused and as the men who abuse them. Often, a woman stays for a combination of reasons, the exact combination changing over time, depending on her personal circumstances, the situation of the family and external factors.

  1. Financial: Particularly but not exclusively in the present economic climate, women often remain with abusive partners because they cannot afford to leave. Especially for women who do not work for money, there are just not enough social supports (affordable housing, child care, job retraining, job opportunities, adequate social assistance) to make leaving a viable option. This is true for women who are employed, too: research clearly establishes that women, especially if they have children, experience a significant drop in their standard of living when they leave a relationship while men experience an improved standard of living.
  2. Love: It may be difficult to understand when looking at an abusive relationship from the outside, but many women continue to love their abuser. Whatever the reasons — the relationship probably has periods of tranquility and even pleasure, during which the abuse seems far away and possibly over, the woman may have grown up in an abusive home so associates violence with love, popular culture reinforces notions of male power over women as being romantic and others — the desire for many women is simply for the violence to stop, not for the relationship to end.
  3. Fear of losing the children: One of the most powerful threats for a woman with children is when the abuser says he will take them away from her if she leaves. He may tell her he can beat her in a custody case because he has more money or because the court will think she is crazy or he may threaten to keep the children on an access visit and perhaps even take them out of the country. He may say that he will call the CAS and tell them she is an unfit mother. Because of the power the abuser holds in the relationship, these threats will appear very real and believable to her and may well stop her from leaving him.
  4. Fear of leaving the children alone with the abuser: Many women with abusive partners have never left the children alone with their father because they have concerns about his parenting ability. She may be concerned that he will get unsupervised access if she leaves him, which would mean the children would be alone with him for the first time. She may have concerns that he will become frustrated with them and be physically or emotionally abusive in an attempt to maintain power and control, that he will be abusive to them as a way of getting back at her for leaving or that he will simply not know how to care for them properly if he has not played an active role in their upbringing prior to separation.
  5. Fear of increased violence: Abusive partners frequently threaten to increase their violence if the woman takes any steps to protect herself – calling the police, telling a friend or family member about the abuse or leaving. Research has established that violence often escalates for several months post-separation. The Coroner’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee annual reports confirm that many of the women killed by their partners are killed during the separation process. Staying with the violence she knows can seem like less of a risk than leaving to face new and potentially increased violence.
  6. Cultural expectations: Many non-white cultures are collectivist in nature. Collectivism is defined as “a personal or social orientation that emphasizes the good of the group, community, or society over and above individual gain”.  In contrast, individualism is defined as “a political and social philosophy that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual”.  In other words, the individual’s goals or desires are given precedence over the interests of any other entity; for example, society or family.  Women from collectivist cultures use a different value system to decide whether to stay or leave an abuser than do women from individualist cultures.
  7. Denial: Both abusers and their victims often deny the seriousness of the abuse. Women who convince themselves that “it is not that bad” or “it only happens every now and then” or “he hardly ever hits me” are not likely to leave because they really believe that “he will stop this time.”
  8. Self-blame: Abusive partners often shift responsibility for their abuse onto their partner’s shoulders. An abuser might say: “I only hit you because you did not have dinner on the table on time” or “If you had been able to keep the kids quiet, I would not have had to hit you” or “Stop nagging me.” When a woman hears this often enough, she can come to believe that the violence is her fault and that she should change her behaviour to end it.
  9. Shame: It is very difficult for a woman to admit that the person she loves and with whom she has chosen to share her life is abusing her. If she cannot admit this to herself, she is not likely going to tell anyone else what is going on.
  10. Isolation: Isolating a woman from her family and friends is a common strategy of abusers. This leaves her with few supports if she is thinking about leaving, which can make that decision difficult or even impossible to make, Isolation can play a role post-separation too, if leaving her relationship would isolate her from her family or religious or cultural community. Her family or community may pressure her to stay, because they do not know about the abuse, because they do not believe her or because they think she should stay despite it.
  11. Legal: A woman may stay with her abuser because her immigration status requires it, because she is afraid he will be deported if she leaves him or because one of them has criminal issues unrelated to the abuse that she does not want to come to the surface.
  12. Wanting to help: It is not uncommon for an abuser to threaten to harm himself or to tell his partner he needs her. She may think she can help him stop abusing her. She may have made a deal with him; for example, that she will stay if he stops drinking.
  13. Status: There are still significant cultural messages that tell women they are not complete without a male partner. Many women are afraid of being alone and would rather have an abusive partner than no partner at all.
  14. Learned helplessness: After being told again and again by the abuser that she is “stupid,” that she “cannot do anything right,” a woman will begin to believe this and will think she is incapable of managing on her own.

This is a potent mix – some reasons are based in love, some in fear and some in pragmatic consideration of the options – that can be all but impossible to overcome.

Indeed, for some women, staying is actually a better option as it allows them to manage the violence and protect their kids in a way they could not if they left. It may keep them a part of their community, which is more important than leaving the violence and being isolated.

Even for those who want to leave, the process is a slow one sometimes called the evolution of separation. It can involve a number of trial departures, expeditions into the world to find out what it is like to be away from the abuser, what services and supports are available, how the children cope, what he does to try to get her to come back.

Whatever stage in the process a woman is at, whether her ultimate goal is to find ways to live within the abusive relationship as safely as possible or to find ways to leave and be safe, it is important that the people she reaches out to understand the complex reasons she has stayed in the relationship or returned to it and demonstrate support for her in the choices she makes.

You may encounter women who have not yet made the decision to leave their abusive partner. For instance, you may provide assistance to a woman who simply wants to know her legal options or who is thinking about leaving and wants to know what would be involved to resolve issues like child custody, support and property division. You might meet with a woman who wants to know if family law can provide her with any more safety and protection than the criminal system can offer her. A woman may meet with you because child protection authorities are involved with her family and she does not know what she should do.

Your role is very important. You can provide women in these kinds of situations with information about family law and family court process. You can point out to them what they can realistically expect from the family court system and what that system cannot give them. You can help them meet with a lawyer if they want some initial legal advice. You can refer them to other services in your community.

Above all, you can let them know that you believe they will make the best choices they can and that you will be there for them, whether they decide to move ahead with separation and a family court proceeding now, next month, in 6 months or two years from now.

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