People who witness others living in abusive situations can feel upset, angry and frustrated. The individual involved may make excuses, behave as if they are helpless, or return to the relationship after they’ve left. It helps to understand the barriers that victims face when negotiating life in an abusive relationship.
Barriers for Victims
Denial: it takes time for victims to recognise the patterns of behaviour and face up to the fact that they are in an abusive situation. Often this is because it is common for perpetrators to tell the victim that the abuse is their fault. Victims then become locked in a dynamic where they repeatedly try to ‘improve’ their behaviour in order to avoid upsetting the perpetrator. Because it is natural within healthy relationships to be mindful of how your own behaviour affects the other person, it is easy for abusers to exploit this and convince the victim that they are only abused because of something they’ve done wrong.
Confusion: It’s very rare for perpetrators to abuse immediately, or to abuse all the time. Most perpetrators will be charming, and often they’ll be that way the majority of the time. This is usually when their victim is compliant enough to allow the perpetrator to feel in control; in this situation, the perpetrator may not feel abuse is necessary to enforce the behaviour they want. Because of this, victims can find it difficult to separate the abuser from the charmer: they are one and the same, which is a difficult concept for most people to accept.
Children: Many individuals know that their children will be better off outside toxic environments; however, victims carefully weigh up the pros and cons of leaving the relationship in terms of the overall impact it may have on this children. This process takes time. In addition, we often hear that a major motivator for staying in the relationship is to protect them. When families separate, the abusive partner often has unsupervised contact with their children. If the abused parent is concerned about their children’s welfare, they may stay with the perpetrator to try and keep the children safe.
Finances: Victims know that perpetrators will try to exert control and punishment after the relationship ends by restricting finances. Perpetrators are frequently entitled to stay in the family home, leaving the victim with no safe place to go or to support themselves. This is especially common when financial abuse has been a factor in the relationship. This is also a major reason for victims to return to the abuser after they’ve left.
Fear: The root of abuse is control. When a victim escapes the relationship, the abuser can increase their abuse in an attempt to regain control. Leaving a relationship is the riskiest time for a victim. They often take a long time to consider this step carefully in order to safeguard themselves and their children.
Societal or cultural pressure: Victims can experience a great deal of pressure from friends and family to stay in the relationship. This often takes the form of other people persuading the victim that the abuse is not ‘bad enough’ to split up a family over. They may perpetuate the idea that the victim is somehow to blame, and should work on altering their behaviour. Some victims live within communities where it may be considered unacceptable for them to leave, a fact which could put them in danger from other individuals.
Trauma: Victims of abuse often have feelings of low self-worth and high levels of fear and anxiety. This can keep individuals feeling frozen and unable to take action. All their energy is focused on surviving in the situation rather than escaping it.
Isolation: Over time, perpetrators can isolate the victim from sources of support. They can do this by preventing other friendships or relationships, making it financially impossible for the other person to go out and see people, causing arguments or bad atmospheres if friends and family visit, or any number of other ways. When a victim feels there is no one she can turn to for help, she is more likely to stay in the familiar, albeit unhealthy, situation.
Understanding these barriers can be helpful. The person you know may be juggling several of these issues and is not yet sure how to navigate their way out. Although this can be frustrating and frightening, threats, ultimatums and anger will not speed up the process, and is likely to make the victim feel more isolated. The best thing you can do is ensure the victim knows you are there, knows you will listen without judgement, and knows you will support them when they are ready to make a decision.
Call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 if you want to talk through these feelings, or signpost the victim to our helpline on 0333 333 7 444 so we can offer support.