- Many victims stay in unhealthy or even abusive relationships due to societal and family expectations placed on them to stay.
- Due to fears of the police, women of color may stay in abusive relationships despite a higher risk of death.
- Domestic abuse survivors who seek support from their place of worship are sometimes pressured to forgive and stay.
Expectations from family, society, and faith can exacerbate an already present sense of isolation and shame for survivors of domestic abuse, especially when they first attempt to leave. This shame and isolation prevents many from leaving, or contributes to their return if they do attempt to leave.
Outsiders without an understanding of domestic abuse can harm a situation. Often, this comes in the form of what many clinicians call “well-intended but still harmful advice.” Some people may think their words are supportive without understanding that they can be dangerous in the context of abuse.
So many of my patients have described family and friends who encouraged them to stay in their situations when they opened up about abuse they had experienced. Things like, “It’ll get better, think of the children.” “Maybe they didn’t mean it that way.” Or, “Maybe you should try counseling.” These are all common phrases heard by people considering leaving. While well-intended, these comments end up unintentionally gaslighting an abuse victim even further, leaving them more susceptible to the belief that they are somehow overreacting.
Women are more susceptible to this kind of relationship-shaming than men. Faith and culture alike have long conveyed to women that their value lies in large part in their ability to sustain a relationship. The responsibility for compromise in relationships is disproportionately placed on women, and if a relationship ends, the tendency is to wonder how the woman failed to meet expectations.
Many faiths and cultures view separation as a badge of dishonor for a woman. Children who grew up in abusive households often watched their mothers and older female relatives bear the burden of physical and emotional abuse with nowhere to turn, due to larger family expectations that they stay. As adults, we can now make more educated decisions, but challenging those ingrained belief systems is work, and doing it comes with consequences. Cultural expectations for women in relationships leave many victims with little to no support.
Spiritual communities can also end up making a situation worse when a victim wants to leave an abusive partnership. Victims of abuse often sit in my office and tell me how they previously went to spiritual leaders for support, only to be told they should stay in the abusive relationship to honor their religion. Either their faith views separation with disdain or promotes forgiveness as the ultimate virtue. Many other survivors have described how their churches or other places of worship shunned them for divorcing an abusive partner.
Some spiritual leaders can play valuable roles in supporting victims of domestic violence, but while some may be excellent listeners or great at expressing empathy, their background is often not in mental health or therapy. If they view divorce or separation from an intimate partner as a sin, their input in a case of domestic abuse would be biased, which could unintentionally become victim-blaming.
Members of the LGBTQ community are even more likely to encounter shaming advice when they leave an abusive relationship. The partnership itself is subject to more scrutiny and judgment because of underlying biases against their right to express themselves freely and legally. This can make them feel pressure to stay in an unhealthy relationship. After fighting for so many decades just to be recognized as having legitimate partnerships, it can feel stigmatizing to end a relationship that their community fought for so long to have recognized.
Added to all the stress of being a victim of domestic abuse, an LGBTQ victim also has to worry that a breakup will further delegitimize them in the eyes of their family, community, and society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “44% of lesbian women and 61% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. These numbers are significantly higher than the rate of violence that heterosexual women experience, which is 35%.” It is safe to say that many of these numbers are most likely underreported due to fears of outing one’s self, especially for gay and bisexual men, as well as trans individuals of all genders, who often face shame and discrimination when attempting to report abuse. When doing research for my book, I heard many stories of individuals who chose to ignore abuse rather than report it and deal with the ramifications of outing themselves in a community in which they felt unsafe.
People of color have reported feeling more pressure to stay due to fears of the police, distrust of authority, and cultural expectations of women. “For Black women, domestic violence risks are extremely high. In fact, they are 30-50 percent more likely to experience domestic violence than white women. And, worse yet, they are almost three times as likely to die as a result of domestic violence than white women.” (Buddy, 2021)
Expectations from family, faith, and culture are ingrained in all of us and difficult to break away from. Seeking support from people and places that are validating is essential while trying to leave an abusive situation, as shame and isolation are some of the most common reasons that victims return to abusive relationships. Seek support groups online and in person, as well as therapists, coaches, friends, and faith groups that are supportive, empowering, and encouraging. Your support can make all the difference in your healing as you leave.
Excerpted in part from my book, Invisible Bruises.
If you need support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) or visit thehotline.org