Breaking chains: understanding the complex barriers to leaving an abusive relationship


Let 16 Days of Activism this year be the last you spend in an abusive relationship

Abusive relationships take many forms. We have written about the dynamics of abusive relationships and the signs of abuse. Abuse may be physical, emotional/psychological (gaslighting, controlling you), sexual, financial (restricting your access to funds or your ability to work), or technological (tracking your movements electronically, hacking into your email), or even immigration-related (destroying your papers). But recognising that your relationship is abusive and leaving to make a new start are two very different things. In this article we look at the factors that make it difficult to escape an abusive relationship and examine the pressures that can trap women in these situations. In the next article in this series we will look at the practical steps you can take to plan your exit and prepare for a new life.

The fear factor

There are many factors that make it difficult for women to leave their abusers. We’ll discuss the most common ones in this article (though it will by no means be an exhaustive list). However, the most debilitating, paralysing factor is fear, which underpins all the other barriers to leaving. Many women live with the threat – spoken or unspoken – of physical and emotional harm on a daily basis.  They may fear – or know – that their partner will come after them if they try to leave. Abusers use this to control and keep women trapped. One woman who eventually succeeded in moving out said, “I was afraid of him…I knew he’d make leaving an ugly drawn-out nightmare.” 

Leaving an abuser can be genuinely dangerous. Data shows there is a huge rise in the likelihood of violence after separation. 41% of women killed by a male partner in the UK in 2018 had separated or taken steps to try to separate from them. Eleven were killed within the first month of separation and 24 were killed within the first year (Femicide Census, 2020). It’s easy for the uninformed observer to wonder why a woman in an abusive relationship doesn’t “just leave”. This is why. 

The prospect of making a life after marriage/partnership can be emotionally daunting, especially if the relationship has lasted for many years. If a woman has experienced coercive control, she may have lost the ability to make decisions or to feel that her decisions are any good. If her world has revolved around the partner, it may be hard to imagine life after leaving. If she has been constantly told she is incapable of managing on her own, she may come to believe it. However unpleasant the familiar, sometimes the unknown is more frightening. And if the partner has micromanaged every aspect of daily life, she may literally not know how to go about beginning again on her own.

Financial dependence

Abusers often control every aspect of their partner’s life, especially financially. Financial abuse is an aspect of coercive control and includes making it difficult or impossible for the woman to hold down a job, not allowing her to have her own bank account or access to a joint account, making her subsist on an allowance or beg for money. By taking away financial independence and controlling access to money, an abuser renders a woman wholly reliant on him for support, resulting in the sense that leaving is unfeasible, especially if she has children to look after. She may also fear having her children taken away from her if she has no means to support them. 

Another tactic abusers use is damaging the partner’s credit score or running up debts in her name. If she then tries to secure a lease or apply for a credit card or a loan, all of which could facilitate her exit, she is refused by landlords and lenders because she fails the credit checks. 

Social stigma and cultural standards

Abuse carries its own stigma, which plays out on many levels. Women may feel ashamed or embarrassed – because they are not able to better manage their relationship, because they are not able to stop the abuse, because of the way they look (i.e., bruised and battered). Because abuse and coercive control are traumatising, they can lead to self-blame and guilt about the behaviour. A woman may feel worthless and deserving of the degrading treatment. It is her punishment for all the things she does wrong on a daily basis.

The abusive partner is often well liked because he is charming and manipulative (see “Signs you are dealing with a narcissist”). This prevents other people recognising the abuse and so the woman may not be believed: “He’s so nice. He wouldn’t do that.” Sometimes the abuser blames the woman for the abuse. Her irritating conduct triggered his anger; it’s not his fault.

Stigma is internalised shame. There are also external stereotypes and standards that influence a woman’s perception of her situation and her options. These include family, social, cultural, and religious expectations of women. Women are socialised to believe it is their responsibility to make a marriage work. Divorce equates to failure on their part as a person, not on the part of the relationship. Identity and self-worth often come through finding and keeping a man, a norm that is reinforced by many cultures. Families exist within a cultural context and so these pressures may also come directly from the woman’s own family, particularly in more traditional communities where gender roles are more rigidly defined. Some religions frown on divorce and families may also be ashamed of having a divorced daughter or sister. Fear of judgment from family and friends and cultural and societal expectations present significant barriers to leaving an abusive relationship.

Worries about children

If an abused woman has children, the decision to leave is even more complex than if she only had herself to think about. As discussed above, there may be financial obstacles that prevent a woman from removing her children from a financially secure environment. If she does not work and is financially dependent on her partner, she may not be able to see a future in which she can support her children. The child support grant – R510 a month – is woefully inadequate on its own to house and feed a child. This can lead to the fear that her children will be taken away from her, and custody granted to the abusive partner. She may worry that he will take his anger at her leaving out on them and be violent towards them. Many women stay to protect their children. The partner may also be emotionally abusive towards the children if he gains custody of them.

The threat of a custody battle alone can deter a woman from leaving. Even if she has a good likelihood of being awarded primary custody, she may dread the process or worry about the cost of legal advice.

Lastly, she may believe that a two-parent household is a more nurturing environment in which to raise children than a single-parent family, even in the presence of abuse. She stays “for the sake of the children”. She may fear the emotional impact of leaving on the children. Despite considerable evidence that living in a home with violence is emotionally traumatic for children, these beliefs are often fostered by family, religious, and cultural patterns. She may feel stigma about the prospect of single parenthood. 

Untangling a complex web of hurdles

As this article demonstrates, the barriers to leaving are multifaceted and intertwined. Concerns about children are interwoven with thoughts of stigma, which connect to social and family opinions, which impact on self-confidence and self-worth. And running through it all is fear…fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of standing out, fear of not being good enough. We all have these are fears at some time or another, but an abused woman has them all the time, because she is regularly told she is inadequate, incapable, unworthy. And the abusive behaviour “proves” it. She fears retaliation, and may even fear for her life. An abused woman doesn’t need to be braver. She is already displaying incredible bravery just by getting out of bed every day. What she needs is support and encouragement – and practical help – to form an exit plan and make a new life. We’ll explore the practical support available and the steps to take in the next article in this series.

If you need help NOW

This article is the second in our series about moving on from abusive relationships throughout the 16 Days of Activism. However, if you need help right now, call us immediately. SD Law & Associates are experts in family law with deep experience of helping women escape abusive partners and find peace and dignity in a new life. We can serve a protection order on a controlling partner, connect you to support services, and make sure you and your children are safe. Some resources able to provide immediate support and guidance are listed at the end of this article.

At Cape Town Divorce Attorneys, we understand how deeply distressing abuse can be. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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