Why I’m Not Telling Victims to ‘Just Leave’ Their Abusers

I’d miss a chance to support survivors if I told them to “just leave.”

Eric Magnuson, Flickr

Let me get this out on the table before I get letters about a glaring “omission.”

In much of my work, I’m writing for survivors of domestic violence, and for people who know survivors — so in other words, for all of us. I’m gathering in one place everything I know about intimate partner violence (IPV, also called domestic violence), from my experience as a survivor, a survivors’ advocate, and a writer covering partner abuse.

But you know what you won’t find in my writing? You’re not going to find me urging people to “just leave” their abusers.

And I already know I’m going to get questions about that, because it’s one of the most common questions about IPV: Why don’t people being abused by their partners “just leave” their abusers?

There are lots of resources that list some of the most common reasons why victims stay with abusers. I know those reasons well, so I’ll fill you in on why I’m choosing not to write about why victims should leave.

This might help you stop asking why survivors don’t “just leave,” and start understanding more about the nature of partner abuse.

Other people know their own lives better than I know them.

Of course, if someone’s in danger, I want them to find safety — and immediately leaving an abusive partner could very well help make them safe.

But without knowing the details of each individual situation, I don’t know if that’s true for every victim who’s reading. There’s no way I could give out blanket advice that would guarantee safety for everyone.

For instance, one survivor might not have anywhere to flee to. If they need to secure safe housing, then telling them to leave before they get a chance to do so doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense? Each survivor finding what works best for their unique situation.

A survivor might be in more danger if they leave.

Grim stats show that the most dangerous time for a survivor is when they leave. Some abusers retaliate or escalate the violence when their partner tries to escape them.

It’s all the more reason why a victim might need more time before it’s safe for them to leave.

I don’t know who I’m telling survivors to leave behind.

Who would be affected if took off by yourself today? Your children? Your pets? Other people who depend on you?

Many survivors are in similar situations. Many stay with abusers to protect vulnerable loved ones.

You might think they should leave their abusers no matter what — but consider that some would be leaving children uncared for, and you’ll think again. I could support survivors far better by helping them navigate such difficult situations, like with resources to help them plan with their children, instead of telling them to “just leave.”

Survivors don’t need another person invalidating their feelings.

I can tell you from experience that if someone’s being emotionally abused, they’re already being invalidated left and right. Their abuser might be telling them that their feelings don’t matter, that their feelings are wrong, that they should be feeling something else.

By telling them, “You should just leave, no matter what,” I’d only add to that invalidation.

I’d essentially be saying: If you don’t feel ready to leave, your feelings don’t matter.

That would only show that I don’t understand what they’re going through. And they’d feel even more alone, and quite possibly ashamed, for being in a situation that other people don’t understand.

I’d rather encourage survivors to trust their own feelings about what’s best for themselves instead.

Survivors have the power to leave for their own reasons — not because I told them to.

The truth is, I’d be underestimating the hell out of survivors if I assumed they needed me to tell them to leave their abusers.

They’re not staying simply because it hasn’t occurred to them to leave — many stay for reasons like protecting themselves, protecting others, or having nowhere else to go.

And if a survivor does decide to leave their abuser, that’ll be for their own reasons, too. With all of the factors making it difficult to leave, it’s a powerful choice to make.

Every survivor deserves the power to make that choice on their own. They’ll need that power to continue choosing to care for themselves every day afterward, as they lead their own path toward safety and healing.

If I’m not telling survivors to “just leave” their abusers, what am I urging instead?

If you’re in the position to speak to someone who’s being abused, I suggest asking them what would be helpful, instead of simply telling them that they should leave.

You could create a safety plan with them, letting the survivor fill in the blanks of what they need for safety — like plans for housing, for children, for emotional support, and for emergency situations.

Leaving an abuser is a process, and it often can’t happen as quickly as we’d hope. But even if someone’s not ready to leave, there’s plenty we can do to support their safety.

If you or someone you know is being abused, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is always available at 1–800–799–7233.