Why Women Stay: an analysis of the barriers to leaving domestic violence situations

Why Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence remains a large problem in our society, and can happen to anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or other factors. It is estimated that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. (“Domestic Violence: Statistics & Facts”) Many men are also affected by domestic violence, however with more women affected, and more information about female victims, I will be focusing on the dynamic of a female victim and male abuser.

If you don’t know a lot about domestic violence, watch this short video. DNews explains some domestic violence statistics. After this video you will be able to understand the seriousness of this issue.

Domestic Violence History

Domestic violence is prevalent throughout history. Prior to the mid-1800s, most people saw spousal abuse from a husband to wife as an exercise of a man’s authority. Feminist movements in the 1800s started to create a change, and at the end of the 19th century, most legal courts saw spousal punishment as incorrect. However, women still had no resources to get out of their situations. The revived women’s movement in the 1970’s again brought the issue of domestic violence into public attention. Women’s organizations fought for police interference, and a change to public opinion. They also began battered women’s shelters and counselling agencies. (“domestic violence | social and legal concept”) Today things are better for women in abusive relationships, but domestic violence is still largely prevalent in our society. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.” (“Statistics”) Women often have a hard time leaving their abusers because of many different barriers. On average, it takes women seven attempts to leave their abuser for good. (“50 Obstacles to Leaving: 1–10”)

Barriers to Escaping Domestic Violence

Dealing with an abusive relationships requires victims to cope with a complex set of circumstantial factors. The ability of women to cope with an abusive relationship is influenced by societal, internal, and external factors. There are many factors in each of these categories, however I will be highlighting societal factors of opinions about femininity and romance, internal factors such as mental health and psychological commitment, external factors of children and economic dependence, as well as specific stories of women to illustrate those points and provide factual examples of scholarly sources from real world stories. I understand and realize that there are additional factors such as residency status, education, and many more that also influence a woman’s ability to leave an abusive situation, but I will not be focusing on those problems in this report.

Societal Factors

A full explanation of the behavior of an abused woman needs to consider societal factors in context to their situation. There are many studies that have explored cultural and social attitudes and opinions that can maintain women in abusive relationships. According to a study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence on women leaving abusive relationships, these attitudes include mindsets about femininity and romance that create unrealistic expectations of relationships, and passive roles for women. (Baly)

From societal roles of femininity women see themselves as needing to be “passive loving, caring, and nurturing.” (Baly) The media’s portrayal of romance can create skewed opinions of what love looks like, and can keep women from leaving. Women will see relationships as something requiring “perfect love,” which entails them giving everything they have to keep their abuser happy, and hoping it will have the power to change or stop the abuse. Women admitted to beginning the relationship in hopes to “separate their partner’s violent behavior from their ‘true’ nature.” When that isn’t the case, the women feel like they’ve failed to give sufficient love. (Baly) As a result, a lot of abused women take responsibility or blame for their abusers problems, and minimize or completely deny the abusive behavior. (Baly) This isn’t likely to end without changes in media structure. The Journal of Interpersonal Violence says that, “Such attitudes are likely to remain problematic while the general media continues to portray partner violence in ways that focus the attention on the perpetrator, blame the victim, downplay incidents, and perpetuate conservative views of gender and family life.” (Baly)

Below is a Melissa’s story. She believed that love was enough to stop his abuse, and this is what kept her in the relationship.

Internal Factors

Along with cultural and societal factors, there are many overlapping themes in a victim’s psychological well-being can prevent them from leaving an abusive relationship. Their psychological well-being can be represented by any mental health issues. (Baly) Mental health is examined from both diagnosable mental health illnesses, and an overall state of self worth or degradation that comes personal beliefs about oneself. These internal factors can be hard to measure accurately, so there have been few studies focusing on these aspects of a woman’s barrier to leaving an abusive relationship.

However, one well known fact is that a young girl being abused will often grow up to be in an abusive relationship, as a result of not knowing another type of loving relationship. According to a study in the Journal of Family Violence, “experiences of parental abuse were found to be associated with mental health problems for women in adulthood.” (Downs et al.) This shows that because we know mental health is a large predictor of whether a woman will leave partner violence, there is a correlation between damaged mental health from an abusive childhood and the ability to leave current abusive relationships.

A way that this mental well-being can be tested is through studies of “psychological commitment.” (Strube and Barbour) Psychological commitment stems from societal beliefs that being a wife and mother are the most important roles for a woman, and transfers into a belief about oneself. According to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, “society places the burden of family harmony on the woman, with the implication that a failed marriage is her fault.” (Strube and Barbour) This means that women who believe that they are responsible for making the relationship work are more likely to stay. These feelings lead to women using self-blame, and that results in a “greater tolerance of abuse and a lower likelihood of leaving the relationship, since the women will be more likely to feel that the abuse is justified.” (Strube and Barbour)

This video, by Leslie Morgan, talks about a specific domestic violence situation, and has an example of an internal factor that acted as a barrier.

In this video, Leslie Morgan talks about her experiences with domestic violence. She speaks about why she felt she couldn’t leave the relationship. This whole video is worth watching, however specifically at minute 10, she talks about wanting to help him fight his demons.

External Factors

The final piece to understand a woman’s choice to stay in an abusive relationship is more personal and specific to each victim. There are hundreds of external factors that can influence a woman’s decision to stay or leave. I will be examining two factors, the number and safety of children, as well as economic dependence on the abuser.

The impact and reality of hurting their children is often both a negative and positive factor in helping women leave violent relationships. These conflicting feelings cause women to consider the impact that their decision will have on their children. They want to keep their children from being hurt by abuse, but also don’t want to uproot them and expose them to police, courtrooms, and instability. According to a study in the Journal of Family Violence, “children influence victims to stay in the relationship, due to emotional concerns about the impact of uprooting them and economic concerns about being able to provide for their children.” (Rhodes et al.) Many women commenting on not wanting to “put [their] child through all that,” (Rhodes et al.) in reference to dealing with court testimonies, police interviews, and divorce.

As shown in the previous paragraph, women are also concerned with the financial well-being of their families after leaving an abuser. Often times abusers will isolate their victims from bank accounts, money, or having a job. The Journal of Marriage and Family talks about women who are economically dependent on their abusers. These women were less likely to leave, and “were more likely to tolerate severe abuse, [because] they had no alternatives.” (Strube and Barbour)

Below is an example of a story, where a woman felt like she couldn’t leave because of her children. Lisette wanted to protect her family, and keep them together.

Kate became financially dependent on her partner, and didn’t feel like she could leave.


Domestic violence is a horrible event that has happened as long as men and women have lived together. Domestic violence can be anything from a push or shove, to extreme violence. It can be emotional, physical, mental, and psychological damage, and can leave the victim feeling helpless and scared. Although many people’s first reaction would be to run away, abusers are careful to give their victims many reasons to stay. These reasons can be internal, external, or societal. They can include anything from fear of judgement, women’s roles, money dependency, children, or simply having no other place to go. By understanding the reasons that women don’t leave abusive relationships, we can move towards helping and empowering them to leave and never go back.


“Domestic Violence | Social and Legal Concept.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/topic/domestic-violence>.

“Domestic Violence: Statistics & Facts.” Safe Horizon. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <http://www.safehorizon.org/page/domestic-violence-statistics--facts-52.html?gclid=CNCr_KXitcgCFcZhfgodQEIDtw>.

Baly, AR. “Leaving Abusive Relationships: Constructions Of Self And Situation By Abused Women.” Journal Of Interpersonal Violence 25.12 (2010): 2297–2315 19p. CINAHL Complete. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

Rhodes, KarinCerulli, CatherineDichter, MelissaKothari, CatherineBarg, Frances. ““I Didn’T Want To Put Them Through That”: The Influence Of Children On Victim Decision-Making In Intimate Partner Violence Cases.” Journal Of Family Violence 25.5 (2010): 485–493. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

Downs, William, Thomas Capshew, and Barb Rindels. “Relationships Between Adult Women’S Mental Health Problems And Their Childhood Experiences Of Parental Violence And Psychological Aggression.” Journal Of Family Violence 21.7 (2006): 439–447. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

Strube, Michael J, and Linda S. Barbour. “The Decision to Leave an Abusive Relationship: Economic Dependence and Psychological Commitment.” Journal of Marriage and Family 1983: 785. JSTOR Journals. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

“Statistics.” Statistics. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. <http://www.ncadv.org/learn/statistics>.

“50 Obstacles to Leaving: 1–10.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. <http://www.thehotline.org/2013/06/50-obstacles-to-leaving-1-10/>.