Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?

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When talking to people about women experiencing domestic violence, I’m often asked the same questions time and again – why don’t they just leave? And, why do they go back? These questions often contain an element of frustration, as though there is a simplicity to the solution. In reality though, there are a variety of reasons why women stay in – and go back to – a violent relationship.

Some of these are more commonly understood and widely documented – the woman can’t afford to leave, it’s too dangerous for her to leave, she has children who love their father and attend school in the area. Add to this cultural pressures or the fact that she has her network there or is so isolated she doesn’t know who to turn to. What is less understood is the relationship between childhood trauma and a subsequent vulnerability to being in a domestic violent relationship, something that we can take a closer look at here.

We are hearing more and more about the importance of mental health and mental health support, and it is understood that if you’ve experienced childhood neglect or abuse then it can have a negative impact on your mental health as an adult. This can manifest in many different ways, and has been widely studied for years. John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist and psychotherapist and originator of attachment theory, believed that there is a biological drive when we are born to maintain proximity to our care givers in order to receive protection from the wider world. He believed that the relationship between the primary carer and child created a template for future relationships, an internalised self-view or working model and a view of how someone expects the environment to treat them based on whether or not they had had a secure base.

He categorised attachment styles into:

  • Secure – autonomous
  • Avoidant – dismissing
  • Anxious – preoccupied
  • Disorganised – unresolved

For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable childhood, creating what Bowlby would have called a secure base from which to explore the world, we will have established a secure attachment style. This means we have internalised a positive self-view, have healthy levels of self-esteem and self-worth, and are able to self-regulate our emotions as well as having had role models that demonstrate healthy relationship patterns. However, if the parenting is not successful – through neglect or abuse of the parenting role – then the child will develop an unhealthy attachment style which will affect both their personality formation and future adult relationships.

In practical terms, this means that dysfunctional coping strategies are in place when individuals are faced with challenging experiences. These maladapted internalised coping strategies will have been learned in childhood to maintain ‘attachment’ to a neglectful or abusive care giver, and are then carried through into adulthood. This means that for both men and women, we see an increase in the link between childhood trauma and domestic violence.

However, there is a gendered difference, with men presenting as predominantly the perpetrator as opposed to women who predominantly present as the victim.

According to the 2018 report Jumping through hoops: How are coordinated responses to multiple disadvantage meeting the needs of women, women who were survivors of childhood abuse were four times more likely to experience sexual assault after the age of 16 than male survivors (43 per cent compared with 11 per cent), while more than half (57 per cent) of women who were survivors of child abuse experienced domestic abuse as an adult, compared with 41 per cent of men.

So someone would stay in a relationship that is harmful because she’s internalised a dysfunctional working model – she will try to maintain that relationship because the biological attachment system drives her to, as a form of protection. The system has been given faulty information, which will keep the woman in the relationship – or repeating it – until she can find a way to change the faulty system. This is where working in a trauma-informed way supports change. By helping the woman to recognise the repetitive patterns and low self-worth through talk therapy, trauma-informed practice and empowerment, we can support women experiencing domestic violence to make positive changes to this system so that they might free themselves from cycles of abuse.

Janie Pamment is women’s support navigator and counselling coordinator at Turning Tides