Part II: The Challenges of Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles exploring intimate partner violence in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. On Oct. 12, we examined the effects of intimate partner violence on mental health.

The most obvious way to improve and support the mental health of domestic violence victims is to get them out of their abusive relationships. If only it were that simple, though. Even when victims do finally decide to escape their unhealthy partnerships, significant hurdles often remain.

“Even when someone chooses to leave a relationship, they may be forced to stay because shelters do not have space or cannot accommodate their needs, such as translation or facilities for special needs children,” Adwoa Akhu, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York, said in an e-mail.

Authorities and even family and friends may doubt the stories of abuse victims, chalking them up to mental instability or illness.

“Abusers capitalize on this perception, and will often use the victim’s mental health status to convince her and others that she is imagining, exaggerating, or causing the violence,” said Lynn Fairweather, author of Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding and Escaping Abusive Relationships, in an e-mail.

Shannon Bruce, director of a battered women support program in Minnesota called Horses Helping Humans, said by e-mail that mental health issues can make women more vulnerable to domestic violence. These include having a poor self-concept, being isolated and lacking a strong support system, depression, and being financially dependent, she said.

Women who end up in abusive relationships may not experience all, or any, of those issues before entering their relationships, but they are common after the relationships are established. When multiple such issues arise, leaving becomes all the more challenging. This is especially because a lack of identity and social support, and the presence of depression, can make it extremely difficult to become financially independent, compelling many women to stay with their abusers as a survival strategy.

If family and friends keep tabs on each other and communicate consistently, abusive relationships are more likely to be exposed and ended.

“Abuse happens because it is kept secret,” Bruce said. “Abusers know they must isolate their victims to control them. The victim hides the abuse out of shame and the fear that if it were known the relationship would never be permitted to continue. That’s hard for people to understand (that the victim may want the relationship to continue), but there is something called traumatic bonding that occurs in many of these situations that creates a very real dependence on the abuser.”

For women who are experiencing mental health issues due to domestic violence, Fairweather suggests seeking a therapist or therapy group that specializes in such issues. Also, reading books and articles about domestic violence and mental health can help victims recognize the seriousness of their situations. People can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE for additional resources.

“Whether it’s a counselor or a trusted friend, it’s critical that victims talk about their abuse to someone supportive so they can process their experiences and minimize the possibility that they will become involved with another abusive partner in the future,” Fairweather said.

Akhu said support groups can be beneficial for survivors because they might feel less stigmatized and isolated around people who have been in similar situations.

“Victims of domestic violence often benefit from individual psychotherapy with a therapist that can help them understand the dynamics of intimate partner abuse, recognize healthy relationships, and address the specific psychological symptoms they are experiencing,” Akhu said.

Gary Direnfeld, a social worker, said by e-mail that therapists can help domestic violence victims understand what they are experiencing and develop an exit strategy.

“When the abused is no longer under the spell of the abuser and hopefully is in a safe place to examine her life and situation, she can then begin to develop a more independent self,” he said. “Further, as she is empowered and begins to feel safe, she can then begin testing her assertiveness skills and begin developing a boundary to protect herself from the inappropriate intrusions of others.”

While most victims of domestic violence are women, Akhu said it’s important to remember that men also are targeted. About one-fourth of victims are males, who face their own set of challenges in combating the issue—such as stigma and fewer resources to turn to, she said.

Even when physical abuse is limited to adults, domestic violence also scars children. Young people who are exposed to abusive relationships may be more likely to be abusive as adults, Direnfeld said, and benefit greatly from education and healthy relationship environments.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hank

    October 19th, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    There are challenges to leaving any relationship when you have been fully invested in making it work. I can be even more stressful and difficult if it has been one that has been abusive na done partner has been made to live in fear of another. What if the one who is leaving decides to come back, then will the bausive partner retaliate in some way that could cause even more harm? There is also the fear of failure and leaving something behind that you may have worked for a very long time to preserve. These things are hard when the relationship has been basically healthy. Add abuse to the mix and you are looking at a choice that leaves you with even more difficulty to somehow leave behind.

  • streetman

    October 20th, 2012 at 5:06 AM

    One of the things that someone who has lived through abuse has to deal with that others may not is the fear of leaving. They could be leaving everything that they know behind, and sometimes that is the scariets thing at all.

    I have known people who have gotten so wrapped up in those relationships that they have no idea of who they are anymore without that other person. That right there should have clued them in that there was something not quite healthy about that relationship but rarely do they see that.

  • Raina

    October 20th, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    You must realize that most of the time when women leave a man like this they are fighting for their lives and their children’s lives in a way that most of us have never had to do. Many of them feel very isolated from their family due to the long standing choices that they have made in this relationship and in a sense truly have no one to turn to for help and no where to go. Also their finances are often so tied up in this one person that money also is such an issue that escape feels nearly impossible. It is very hard to extricate yourself from something that has taken you years to get tangled up in and yet you need such a fast escape.

  • adrian

    October 20th, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    never thought it could be so complex for a victim.always thought they are helping the abuser by staying the victim and that they were usually people that were fools in love.but seems like the entire episode of an abuse can change their thinking and keep them trapped.this illusion needs to be done away first and foremost, with in any therapy if you ask me. then the further journey would be a lot easier because the abuse wil then be put to an end.

  • Susey

    October 22nd, 2012 at 4:35 AM

    Until you have been in a relationship like this it is easy to sit back and just imply that you should leave, but it is not that easy. You could be afraid that he will follow and do harm to you or the children. He could wipe out the bank accounts, anything to inflict damage on you. But most of all it is not always easy to leave someone you love, and in many cases these are women who do, for some reason love these men, and it could feel like their lives are being ripped out from beneath them.

  • Rita S

    October 22nd, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    lots of difficulties and challenges for any relationship
    questions will always be there, wanting to know if you are making the right decisions

  • Vee Ree Bee

    October 22nd, 2012 at 9:05 PM

    Aha moment after 19 years of marriage. Its been unhealthy…like on life support for the last 3 years. He’s constantly angry, belittling , demeaning and disrepecting me. To add to that mix…he’s unfaithful too. I’m a strong woman. I won’t accept it and I stand up to him which means we have a combustible relationship. I will not be dominated by this man or any man. I love him and pray that he will acknowledge and pursuit counseling. I will break the generational cycle of emotional abuse in this family. It ends with our child graduating high school shortly. I am free to me and excited about the next chapter in my life!

  • T.Johansson

    October 23rd, 2012 at 7:50 AM

    It certainly baffles my mind to see how abuse victims hold the abuser so dear to them and actually want to continue in the abusive relationships.Cheers to Vee Ree Bee here because that is the kind of determination and strength that we need to see from abuse victims because by staying with the abuser and putting up with the abuse they are only making themselves prone to further abuse in the future.That certainly need to be put an end to.

  • Elyssa

    November 11th, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    …And now I.m trying to stay away after breaking up as he’s still pursuing me. We both invested alot in our relshp but he even still curses at me in my dreams. It was too painfully often in real time when I was with him. Its just confusing when your partner or former partner is trying to basely reduce you then less than a half a week later trying to reel you back in. Point is mainly however if I.d deep down felt I could have communicated with him we wouldn.t have had our final rupture. There was an element of control in the relshp that made me feel I could not oject to anything that troubled or upset, even concerned me.

  • Robert

    December 28th, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    I am a male that grew up in a family violence environment and was exposed during childhood and adulthood to both physical and psychological violence. I am now in my thirties and I’m happily married with a child of my own, but have been isolated by the abuser who still remain connected to my life as i am renting on of his properties. With the support of my wife I have managed to educate myself in the area of social sciences and have the financial means to break all patterns of abuse and purchase my own house. However the fear of failure that i was conditioned to throughout my childhood and adult hood is making it extremity difficult to break these final ties and move on with my life. I can sincerely empathise with people trying to leave abusive relationships as you grief is often disenfranchised and people tend to think it is you rather than the abuser, but with education, good psychosocial counseling, support (of some kind) and determination it is possible to move on. I just hope i feel better once i have finalised these last steps, which i am sure i will.

  • Z

    May 6th, 2014 at 10:36 PM

    My bf is extremely mean to me and my son. I’m scared and alone. I want to leave but he controls the money. I don’t know what to do or who to talk to. He doesn’t physically abuses me but emotionally. I’ve hit rock bottom.

  • The Team

    May 7th, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Z. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at and additional information about what to do in a crisis at

    Warm regards,
    The Team

  • mind finally right

    August 21st, 2014 at 6:34 AM

    I have my mind set to leave. I just don’t know how to go about it without sacraficing my beloved pet. My bf controls every aspect of my life down to the money I’m allowed to carry(never more than $3). He doesn’t know that when the minutes are gone on my phone I still have internet access. But he does threaten to break it when anyone calls it. How do I get out from under him without him knowing ahead of time?

  • The Team

    August 21st, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Mind Finally Right. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at and additional information about what to do in a crisis at

    Warm regards,
    The Team

  • jessika

    August 26th, 2014 at 9:36 PM

    I was in a 7 Yr relationship with a verbally, emotionally and pshysically abusive man. I left three months ago but am having a very hard time letting go of the emotional trama. i am left feeling like I will never prosper in career and my self esteem is non exsistant. I feel hopeless and lost. I’m scared I will never trust another man in my life time and have horrific night mares and anxiety. Is there help for people like me??? Is there hope….I feel so ugly worthless amd useless…like. no one would want me. I don’t know what to do and I sick of crying.

  • The Team

    August 27th, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    If you would like to consult with mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage,, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here:

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

  • jessika

    August 27th, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    Thanks very very much

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