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Why can't a victim of abuse just leave?

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There isn't a one size fits all solution if you are in an abusive relationship. A woman is often told “just leave”. This can be a foreign idea to a woman who is being controlled, abused, and manipulated. “Just leaving” is not only NOT an option for her, it may not even be a blurp on her radar screen yet. The process of her coming out of denial and into awareness can be very slow. It can be frustrating to watch someone struggle with facing their reality.

Some factors that make it hard for a women to “just leave” are:

Cognitive dissonance. A woman who is being abused has more than likely developed conflicting beliefs. The difference between beliefs and reality is overwhelming to an abused women. She may hold the belief that a man should never hit a woman. Then when her husband hits her this reality comes into conflict with her belief. She begins to develop a new conflicting belief. The new belief may be “I can control whether or not he hits me by adjusting my behavior.” As she realizes time and again that she cannot control if her partner hits her or not she becomes more mentally stressed. The inner conflict that arises between these two beliefs is cognitive dissonance.

Traumatic bonding. The bonds that are created in an abusive relationship can run very deep. When a victim of abuse is repeatedly belittled, beaten, lied to, and isolated she becomes so desperate for the pain to stop. She has usually lost grasp on reality because of cognitive dissonance. Being isolated from outside sources of help makes her dependent on her abuser for all of her needs. Generally abuse runs in a cycle. Tension building, incident of abuse, reconciliation, and calm. It's circular by nature and repeats itself endlessly. What creates the bond is the relief a woman feels when the violence has finally taken place and the relationship moves into reconciliation and calm. It's like she has been drowning and finally for a moment can break the surface of the water to catch a deep breath. She is so grateful to her abuser for finally letting up on the tension and violence. In her mind the cycle of abuse is something that they have gone through together instead of something she has been a victim of.

Mental health issues. Post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety are a few of the more common long lasting disorders that a victim of abuse acquires from living with abuse. Having any of these disorders can make it very difficult for the victim to have the focus and energy required to put together a plan to leave the relationship. She may be to ill from mental disorders to have the capacity to accomplish much.

There are some things that you can do to help a woman in her struggle with accepting her circumstances. You are not completely powerless.

1. Believe her when she tells you she is being abused. Abusers use covert methods, especially with verbal and emotional abuse. When she shares the details of an abusive occurrence with you it might not sound as bad to you as it was for her to experience.
2. Listen without judgment.
3. Don't offer advice unless she asks you for it.
4. Allow her to come to her own decision on staying or leaving the relationship.
5. Offer true support if she decides to leave. Any of the following are things she will need help with:

  • Take her and her children in for an extended period of time until she can get established in her own home. This can take months.
  • Offer her financial support for a few months until her income situation improves. The court system can take up to two full months to activate child support. And that's only after a divorce has actually been filed for. She may be afraid to actually file. It's a very final step and may be extremely agonizing for her.
  • Borrow her a vehicle so she can get to her numerous court and lawyer appointments or back and forth to work.
  • Accompany her to court hearings.
  • Babysit her children so she can go to work, court, lawyers appointments, or counseling appointments.
  • Still be there for her if she goes back to her abuser numerous times.
  • Talk to her and help her work through her feelings every time she is trying NOT to go back to her abuser. Which may be very often, sometimes even a daily struggle.

She may or may not leave her abuser. Her chances of getting out increase greatly if she has good solid support through the whole process from being in denial, to awareness, and finally into recovery.

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