For anyone aware of someone – a friend, a colleague, a family member – experiencing abuse and violence at home, one of the biggest questions is often why don’t they just walk away? It can be difficult to understand the extent of the coercive control and the practical hurdles in getting out, not to mention the complex feelings a survivor of abuse has to unpack. Four experts discuss why survivors might not ask for help, or feel unable to leave.
Fear and control
Cassandra Wiener, Senior Lecturer in Law, City, University of London
Coercive control is a calculated strategy of domination. A perpetrator begins by grooming their victim, thereby gaining trust and access. They then make their victim afraid – usually, but not always, by instigating the fear of physical or sexual violence. Fear is what makes threats credible. And it is when a threat is credible that a demand becomes coercive.
Research has shown that an abuser will exert control by restricting access to family and friends, money and transport, thereby isolating the victim and making it harder for them to resist. The victim experiences constant, generalised anxiety – what psychologists term a state of siege – that they have not moderated their behaviour sufficiently to avert catastrophe.
Contrary to what people often assume – that the victim chooses to stay; that they have options; that employing those options would keep them safe – research has shown that leaving is in fact dangerous. The control continues once the relationship is over but changes in emphasis from attempting to keep the victim in the relationship to trying to destroy them for leaving it.
Accommodation, childcare, support and finances
Michaela Rogers, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Sheffield
For victims with children, practical and psychological barriers to ending an abusive relationship can overlap. Economic abuse often means the victim is left with low confidence and without the knowledge they need to manage their own finances and support themselves and their children. They feel guilty for removing children from their parent, their home, pets and school. They worry about moving them away from family and friends.
There may be delays in securing appropriate housing and a new school due to a shortage of social housing. There may also be a lack of affordable childcare or poor transport links. Conversely, some survivors may be tasked with daily trips back to their former neighbourhood to take children to school with the attendant risk each journey brings that they encounter their abuser.
Research shows that survivors of domestic abuse who have insecure immigration status may fear being deported. They may have little or no spoken English or access to interpreters. And they may hold concerns about managing day-to-day if they have no independent income or the right to access benefits or appropriate state funded accommodation.
For survivors who identify as LGBTQ+, meanwhile, there are myriad barriers. They might not recognise their experiences as abuse. They may fear being outed and they may worry about social services intervening, especially in terms of child protection measures.
LGBTQ+ people often also don’t know of, or think they’re ineligible for, mainstream domestic violence support services. Speialist services do exist but provision across the country is very modest, particularly in rural areas.
Victims with disabilities or health conditions face further practical hurdles, particularly in terms of accommodation. For some, the abuser might also be the care giver. Those with multiple and complex needs (such as mental ill health, substance use, homelessness or offending) also often struggle to access specialist support services.
Stigma and shame
Alison Gregory, Research Fellow (Traumatised and Vulnerable Populations), University of Bristol
Domestic abuse occurs in every society and culture. And yet, despite changes over the past 50 years, we are still woefully underprepared to be confronted by the idea that domestic abuse happens to people just like us.
Many survivors feel embarrassed or ashamed that they have experienced domestic abuse. They may fear that, in deciding to end an abusive relationship, their experiences will become known to others and they will risk exposing themselves to outside opinion and judgement – that they will be treated differently as a result.
Research shows survivors are concerned, in particular, about letting their parents down. Equally, ending an abusive relationship means that a survivor is confronted with their own experiences, and they may fear having to make sense of those experiences.
Alison Gregory and Sandra Walklate, Chair of Sociology, University of Liverpool
Love can be an incredibly powerful reason why people remain in an abusive relationship, why they don’t feel they can leave, or why they leave and then return. And it is, perhaps, one of the hardest reasons to understand. Research shows that survivors themselves become frustrated that their love, concern and care for the abuser has kept them ensnared.
A 2021 analysis of responses to the #WhyIStayed Twitter campaign reveals how complex these feelings can be. It also speaks to the powerful influence that social commentaries around relationships, marriage and the family have. Some women tweeted, “Marriage is forever”, “I didn’t wanna run when we hit a rough patch” and “Children need a father”.
Further, the study shows the power that social expectations on romance and love exert. As one person tweeted, “The first time he hits you, you tell yourself it was an isolated incident. He’s remorseful. You forgive. Life is normal again.” Research has shown that that forgiveness stems from a victim’s desire to maintain the relationship, as being a primary life goal, even at the expense of their own safety.
Abusers, conversely, can be wily and skilful when it comes to manipulating a survivor’s feelings of love. They will premise coercive edicts with, “If you loved me, you would …”. They will also use survivors’ feelings of care and concern to try to prevent them from leaving, commonly making threats to harm or kill themselves if they do. Abusers know that the thought of potential harm to the abuser will cause the survivor distress and possibly feelings of guilt (even though the survivor has done nothing wrong).
Survivors may be asked by incredulous friends, relatives and professionals, “How can you still love them after what they’ve done?” This sees many survivors stay silent about their residual feelings, which, in itself, is dangerous. Love is a strong motivator, and if we don’t give permission for it to be voiced, we risk alienating survivors and further isolating them – which is just what abusers want.
Cassandra Wiener previously received funding from the ESRC to conduct research into the implementation of section 76 Serious Crime Act in England and Wales. Cassandra is co-founder and trustee of the Treebeard Trust, an organisation that seeks to address inequality and climate change.
Alison Gregory currently receives fellowship funding from the AXA Research Fund to develop an intervention for informal supporters (friends, family members, neighbours, and colleagues) of domestic abuse survivors.
Michaela Rogers is affiliated with Vida Sheffield.
Sandra Walklate received funding from the ESRC 2020-21 grant number ES/V00476X/1 to examine policing and court responses to domestic abuse under Covid-19