Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Why women couldn’t ‘just leave’ a violent or abusive partner

Since the early 1970s one of the most frequent questions asked in relation to domestic violence and abuse is why women don’t “just leave”? Research over the last 45 years shows very clearly the rational and logical reasons why this is not the right question to ask. We seldom ask why a perpetrator, who is using abusive behaviours towards someone they say they love, doesn’t leave. Asking women why they don’t leave places the blame on women for the abuse they experience by suggesting that they are somehow responsible for ending it. The women we talked to found it very difficult when they received advice from others to ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship. They said that others - professionals, family members of friends, should be sensitive if they suspect domestic violence or abuse, and they need to be aware of women’s anxieties about disclosure so that they do not feel pressurised into taking action when they are not ready or safe to do so. 

One of the reasons that professionals and others ask this question is that they feel powerless to resolve the issue, but it can lead to women being more isolated in the future. As research shows, leaving can be the most dangerous time for a woman as the partner’s control starts to reduce and he may retaliate. Assuming that leaving will make everything better, especially if the right support is not in place, is wrong.

All the women we interviewed had left an abusive relationship but they said leaving was not that easy. Women described the obstacles, difficulties and dangers they had to overcome, which are summarised in eleven points below:

1. Leaving an abusive relationship was dangerous as abusive partners often sought women out and continued to abuse them.

In the topic ‘Leaving a violent or abusive partner’, women talked about the importance of leaving at the ‘right time’ when they felt ‘ready’ and safe to do so. Jane reported her social worker’s words: “Actually when women leave, that is the most dangerous time, is when they leave.” Yasmin was desperate to leave her husband who controlled and monitored all her movements, demanded sex in return for money to feed the children and physically abused her. When she got away, she said that was when the ‘real abuse’ started.
2. Abusive partners made threats to kill or harm them or the children if they left.

Following continuous harassment and threats to kill her, Ana’s partner turned up at her house fuelled with alcohol and drugs. She managed to escape to a friends’ house, and the police went looking for him. Ana realised she needed to find safety in a women’s refuge.
3. Women were brainwashed and emotionally dependent on abusive partners which made it hard for them to leave.

Tanya’s support worker suggested she had Stockholm syndrome* so that what happens is ‘no matter how horrible your abuser is, you’re in love with them’. Abusive partners often covered up controlling behaviour to make it look caring, as with Tasha’s partner.
4. Women had little knowledge about domestic violence and abuse and thought that their partner’s behaviour was all their fault, so they felt they should try harder to make it work.

The majority of women believed it was up to them to change their own behaviour in order to stop their partner’s abuse, so this became their initial strategy, before deciding to leave.
5. Family members, friends and work colleagues generally knew little about domestic violence and abuse and found it difficult to offer help.

Looking in from the outside, it could be difficult for friends and family members to understand what was going on, or to voice their concerns. In the early days of her relationship, a few of Chloe’s family and friends met her partner and felt uneasy about him but did not speak up.
6. Women, particularly from minority ethnic groups, were under cultural and family pressure to stay with their husband.

Khalida was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. When her husband became abusive, neither her family nor her in-laws supported her and they expected her to fulfil her commitment to the marriage.
​7. Women were afraid to tell any professionals about what was happening at home in case they lost their children.

This was a major obstacle for women in seeking help or leaving their partner.
8. Women’s self-confidence became very low during an abusive relationship, they often became very depressed, anxious and unable to make a move.
9. Women were rarely able to go out unaccompanied and seek help.

Many women said how their homes became a ‘prison’ and, if they left the house, their movements were monitored and timed.
Women with children did not want to break up the family and take their children away from their father.

Many women wanted to avoid their children having to experience a ‘broken family’.
11. Women often had no money of their own and nowhere to go to, with no knowledge of support services that might be available.

Many women said their partners never gave them any money, partly as a way of maintaining control. They had to find a way to get some money before they could leave. Ella had to sell her car to get enough money for a deposit on a flat when she left. Kanya, a Thai immigrant, lost her job and had to return to her partner.
Stockholm syndrome refers to feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor.


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