Why Don’t They Just Leave?!

This is THE question when it comes to domestic violence, isn’t it? Why don’t they just leave?

I’ve heard this question from audience members and even well-meaning curious friends and family over the years. However this question came to the forefront of our collective consciousness in the early Fall of 2014 when yet another famous person was caught on video physically assaulting his then-girlfriend. The expressions of shock and horror made by the public in response to the video were quick and strong — a reaction only overshadowed perhaps by their reaction upon learning that during the time between when the incident actually took place and when the video leaked, she had married him.

Logic 101

Many people clearly thought the behavior of that high profile survivor was absurd. “If someone is being abused, it defies all common sense to stay,” one person remarked, “not to mention marrying that person!” (The subtext being twofold: 1) If it’s really abuse, people leave, and 2) If they don’t leave, it couldn’t have been that bad). 

Of course sassy advocates know better than to agree with this surface level snap-to-judgement. And at the same time, it’s not entirely difficult to see why people leap to the “Just leave, already!” battle cry. In general — and you can accuse me of being an over-committed optimist— I don’t think Americans like to see people get hurt.  We want people to leave situations where they get hurt.

A Hashtag is Born

While survivors of domestic violence have been responding to these questions for decades, in the age of social media — 21st Century survivors did not have to reason with the public alone. The hashtag #WhyIStayed quickly appeared on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.   

And you should seriously go check them out.


Because what follows on this page are general highlights. While I’ve compiled some of the more common reasons I’ve heard from my work with survivors, read about in texts, and lectured about in seminars, I will barely scratch the surface. Every relationship is unique, as are the people in them. There is no better source of information on what motivates a survivor to leave or stay than survivors themselves. And sometimes, the best we can do for a survivor is to hear their story.

Four Common Reasons Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships

The Cycle of Abuse1) The Cycle of Abuse

Many of us are guilty of all-or-nothing thinking — and this applies to domestic violence as well. We like to categorize people in two ways: heroes and villains. However, many abusers aren’t abusive 100% of the time. While every relationship is different, abuse often follows a pattern — a cycle, if you will— that includes periods of relative peace along with periods of abuse. And the length of these periods vary.  A person can cycle through each phase in the course of a day, or over the course of several months.

The Tension Building Phase: Imagine your daily life stressors. Things like money, family members, or work stressors build. Often the abuser will start with verbal abuse in this phase. Victims often report feeling as if they are “walking on eggshells” and may make attempts to appease the abuser by giving in or deescalating the tension.

The Explosion Phase: At some point, and in spite of any efforts made by the victim to alleviate the tensions, the abuser is triggered and reacts with violence. The triggering event can be just about anything — a situation at work, a delusional thought, an ‘off mood’.  Sometimes abusers will claim that the victim did something to provoke the abuse.  This is an excuse, not a justification for perpetrating violence on another person.

The Honeymoon Phase: Following a violent episode, many abusers will become calm and even appear kind and concerned for their victim’s wellbeing. Think “hearts, flowers, and teddy bears”. Abusers may tend to wounds, clean up messes caused by an altercation, and apologize, or promise, “It’ll never happen again.” Sometimes abusers will use this phase to also convince the victim the explosion was their fault too or caused by something they did, which can lead the victim to tend carefully to the abuser.

Central to this cycle is Denial: The desire to believe the incident either didn’t happen or will never happen again. Because abusers aren’t abusive (at least in the eyes of their victims) all of the time, many victims hold on to the hope that the abuser will change or the situation will improve.

2) “But I love him*…”

I think we often forget the relationship component of domestic violence. Survivors of domestic violence are not being battered and abused by strangers. They are being abused by people whom they love (or at least loved at one time). Just like the rest of us, they enter relationships with hopes and dreams. They frequently report having at least some good memories with this person.

Technically, the person who put a hole in your living room wall with his fist is the same person who brought you flowers on your second date. This is the same person who or picked up your dog from doggie daycare when you were sick, also threatened to kill the dog (or you) if you ever tried to leave. It’s the same person, but somehow — different.

“The man I left isn’t the same man I married,”

“This isn’t the real ‘him’. I don’t know why he’s acting like this.”

“I know the good version of him is in there. I’ve seen it.”   

Not only are these conflicting realities difficult to swallow, but so is some of the internalized shame or embarrassment of being in an abusive relationship. So many survivors I’ve worked with report not reaching out for help for fear of being looked down on by friends and family. As if only “stupid” or “weak” people can end up in abusive relationships. (Totally not true.)

*This is probably a good place to point out that not all survivors of domestic violence are women, and not all abusers are male. There are female perpetrators, and male survivors. And the barriers men face in getting help can be staggering given the gender roles and stereotypes that surround this issue. Additionally, studies suggest that the LGBTQ+ community faces similar rates of domestic violence as heterosexual couples.

“The truth of the matter is that domestic violence and relationship abuse begins long before the first physical altercation, and its effects last long after the last bruises fade.” 

3) Power and Control

The public is learning. It’s very rare that I run across someone anymore who truly doesn’t know that behaviors like rape and domestic violence aren’t about love or sex. In fact a lot of people “know”— at least well enough to answer the question— that abuse is about power and control.  Bravo! We’re making some progress!

The answer breaks down, however, when people fail to understand or apply that knowledge of abuse to real life examples of domestic violence.  The “Why doesn’t she just leave?!” question illustrates this point so tragically, as it seems to assume no long term psychological, social or financial effect from previous abusive episodes.

[bctt tweet=”Why don’t you just leave? assumes abuse is a 1x thing w/ no lasting effects”]

The truth of the matter is that domestic violence and relationship abuse begins long before the first physical altercation, and its effects last long after the last bruises fade. And it is almost always a multi-pronged attack. Although every relationship is different, experts often suggest that abuse may escalate after a significant life event that creates barriers to leaving, such as marriage or the birth of a child. The first time I heard of someone being beaten by their husband on their honeymoon, I thought it had to be an anomaly.  Apparently not.

Abusers work to create a power differential within the relationship.  Financial abuse, is one of the more subtle tactics, and it appears in over 90% of domestic violence cases.  Abusers may create scenarios that involve actions such as putting cars or financial assets all in one person’s name. Abusers also frequently work to undermine a victim’s sense of esteem or self-worth to the point that they come to believe the are unable to make it on their own. Isolation tactics, such as moving away from family or forcing a victim to choose between the abuser and friends, family, career, church, etc… may reinforce this sense of social dependence.  Over time, victims may give up hope, or stop believing that a life devoid of abuse is possible.

To learn more about the power and control dynamics of domestic violence, check out our explanation of the Power & Control Wheel and download your own copy.

4) It Can be Dangerous To Leave

Among advocates for survivors of domestic violence, it is widely understood that the most dangers time for a woman involved in a domestic violence relationship is when she tries to leave. Think about it:  We know that abuse is about power and control. Abuse also requires having a victim to dominate and control. Leaving an abusive relationship is the ultimate threat to the abuser’s power, which they are unlikely to give up willingly.

If a person is considering leaving an abusive relationship, they are well-advised to take time to plan their exit. Safety Planning is an important piece in making a safe and permanent exit. If it is possible, survivors planning an exist strategy can benefit greatly by working with an advocate.

Of course, no amount of planning will 100% guarantee safety in any or all circumstances. That being said, considering the presence of things like weapons, access to alcohol and/or drugs, excessive jealousy, depression, stalking behaviors, choking or strangulation, and past threats or attempts of homicide or suicide can be helpful. These circumstances and behaviors are items that are frequently included on lethality assessment questionnaires to help more accurately assess a victim’s risk for being killed by a partner. 

Seek Compassion

So there you have it — Four Common Reasons Why People Stay In Abusive Relationships. Of course this list is far from comprehensive, and on the other hand, not all of these scenarios will apply to all situations either. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, the most important things to remember are: 1) Abuse is never okay. 2) Abuse is never the victim’s fault. 3) Help is available.

Beyond that, I strongly encourage you to do a search for #WhyIStayed on social media to hear from the survivors themselves. 

If this is a topic you’re interested in, check out EJ’s radio interview on Voice America!