It isn’t easy to leave abuse behind
Why do people stay in abusive relationships?
That’s an important question, when it is a question - rather than a rhetorical rebuttal, an act of victim blaming, or an attempt to diminish the extent of the toxicity one person can suffer over a long period of time.
More important than the question, however, is the fact that people often do stay in abusive relationships.
They might tell themselves things are fine, or will get better. They might know things are desperate but not want to rock the boat. They might desperately, urgently want to leave but can’t see a way out.
Victims of abuse might not have to stay - but getting out of abusive relationships can be extremely tricky. And it might feel impossible.
Last month, Northern Ireland’s Domestic and Sexual Abuse (DSA) Helpline launched a new advertising campaign. It consists of a series of graphics, each showing a short sentence, each sentencing capturing a particular aspect of abuse.
HE SAID I’D DO IT IF I REALLY LOVED HIM
I HAVE TO ASK PERMISSION TO SPEND MONEY
SHE HAS SUCH A TEMPER, I’M SCARED OF WHAT SHE WILL DO
I CAN’T PREDICT WHAT WILL MAKE HIM ANGRY
IT ONLY HAPPENED ONCE
These advertising campaigns are so important because they not only raise awareness of domestic abuse, they can let victims know that help is out there.
Because, after all, people often do stay in abusive relationships.
The fact is that human beings can find themselves in extremely complex and tangled personal circumstances. There are many possible reasons why people stay in toxic or violent relationships.
Women’s Aid, a UK-wide charity that works to combat domestic abuse, says these reasons include:
Fear or a sense of danger – leaving can be incredible dangerous and, in abusive relationships, the risk of violence rises after a separation. “41% (37 of 91) of women killed by a male partner/former partner in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2018 had separated or taken steps to separate from them. Eleven of these 37 women were killed within the first month of separation and 24 were killed within the first year (Femicide Census, 2020).”
Isolation – abusers often take steps to isolate victims from family, friends and colleagues. As a negative relationship continues, or gets worse, a victim can feel increasingly cut off and may worry that support is out of reach.
Shame, embarrassment or denial – abusers can be outwardly charming, can be well respected socially, and can be experts at gaslighting.
Trauma and low confidence – being repeatedly told you are worthless or bad is destructive for someone’s self-esteem.
Practicalities, including money – abusers prey on vulnerabilities. A victim may feel they cannot afford to step away from a terrible relationship, for financial reasons or otherwise.
Lack of support – maybe people simply don’t know where to turn.
Women’s Aid also says: “We need to stop blaming survivors for staying and start supporting them to enable them to leave. By understanding the many barriers that stand in the way of a woman leaving an abusive relationship – be it psychological, emotional, financial or physical threats – we can begin to support and empower women to make the best decision for them while holding abusers solely accountable for their behaviour.”
Abuse can happen to anyone. Women are more frequent victims than men – and, when it comes to men physically hurting women, Northern Ireland is just about the worst place in Europe – but, as the Justice Minister was at pains to point out, plenty of men are victims too.
The new advertising campaign from DSA Helpline will hopefully help lots of people, by letting those in abusive relationships know they have people they can contact for help, and by making anyone whose friends of family could be victims of abuse more aware of how those circumstances can look from the outside.
But, in terms of services, an advertising campaign isn’t enough. When it comes to domestic abuse, Northern Ireland is going through some changes.
On top of support from third sector organisations like Women’s Aid, Men’s Advisory Project and Nexus (which operates the DSA Helpline), Stormont has been pushing legal reforms and adjustments in services over recent years.
In February, the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act 2021 came into effect. This made coercive control illegal.
“Coercive control is an act of a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. The purpose of this controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from any support, exploiting them, depriving them of their own independence and being able to regulate their activity so they have complete control over their whereabouts.”
This means legal protections are no longer limited to physical abuse.
In the first three months of this year, consultations took place on two new strategies, covering Domestic and Sexual Abuse, and Violence Against Women and Girls.
The lack of a proper Executive since the May elections will obviously have an impact on those strategies becoming fully-fleshed and, if and when they are, being implemented.
However, that is hopefully only a temporary delay, while some progress is being made anyway, with input from the departments of Justice, Health, Communities, Education and Finance.
This could all be great news, towards two important aims. First of all, there should be fewer abusive relationships, full stop.
Secondly, people in abusive relationships should find it easier to leave. For that to happen, they need to have to confidence they can do this, safely and practically.
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