By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Part of the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence involves the blame that victims face for supposedly making a free choice to stay in an abusive relationship. This blame can come from many directions, including the abuser, friends and family members, professionals from whom victims reach out to for help, and cultural stereotypes. More evidence of this blame can be found in the countless articles written on the subject on “Why do people stay in abusive relationships?” For examples, check out the some of the following from Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Women’s Web, and the Richland Source.
These articles are important for helping people understand that the decision to remain in an abusive relationship is complex, and in many cases, it may feel like the safest decision for a victim at that time. It’s important for everyone to stand that leaving an abusive relationship isn’t an easy process, and in fact leaving may be more dangerous than staying, at least in the short term.
It’s important that we ask other questions, too, especially to help eradicate the stigma that surrounds intimate partner violence. Recently, Allison and I worked with a colleague, Paulina Flasch, to ask a different question. We were interested in learning when and why people actually DO leave abusive relationships. To learn about the decisions that lead people to decide to leave, we drew upon the stories of 123 survivors of past abusive relationships, all of whom had been out of any abusive relationships for at least two years.*
In our study, we learned about turning points, which are defined as the critical incidents or series of incidents that prompted survivors to begin the process of leaving their relationships. It’s important to note that these turning points didn’t always lead immediately to the end of the relationship--the planning and implementation of that process can take some time, especially if there’s a safety plan in place and the survivor needed time to build up the resources to be able to leave, once and for all.
This research resulted in the identification of six specific types of turning points that prompted survivors to begin moving toward leaving their abusive relationships. A brief description of each one, along with a quote from a survivor that illustrates each turning point, it provided below:
1. Facing the threat of severe violence
For some survivors, turning points happened when they realized they faced the risk of extremely severe violence, potentially even death. As one survivor said, “The turning point for me was waking up with a bruise on my neck, and even though at the time, I did not remember what happened, I knew then that my husband had tried to kill me.”
2. Changing their perspective about the relationship, abuse, and/or their partner
Some people experienced turning points when they had changes in the way they viewed their relationships or their partners. These changes then led them to new realizations about the nature of their relationships, and these cognitive changes led to behavioral changes. One participant who experienced this type of turning point said, “He had isolated me from my friends, but one day, I went out with them anyway and was shocked at how nicely everyone treated me and that made me realize how cruel he was to me.”
3. Learning about the dynamics of abuse
Turning points also may happen as survivors learn about the dynamics of abuse, which can then help them to see their own relationships as abusive and unsafe. For example, consider the following statement from a survivor who participated in our research: “I also have a friend who works as a crime scene investigator, and she helped me understand the pattern of escalation that my partner was following and the risks I faced by staying in the relationship.”
4. Experiencing an intervention from external sources or consequences
Some survivors experienced turning points when other people or external consequences helped them realize that the abuse was wrong, such as if their abuser was arrested. Another example of this type of turning point can be seen in the following participant quote: “‘‘The second biggest influence was my Christian counselor who told me that it was okay for me to divorce. For me, I needed social support and affirmation from members of the Christian community that seeking a divorce was okay and that God didn’t want me to futilely suffer.’
5. Realizing the impact of the violence on children
For some survivors, turning points arise when they realize the negative ways their children are being impacted by the abuse. As one survivor in our study said, “‘‘The turning point for me was when I had my first child. It wasn’t enough for me to leave when he was abusive to me, but after my daughter was born, I felt like he was disrespecting her too and I would not stand for that.’’
6. The relationship being terminated by the abuser or some other cause
Finally, in some cases, turning points occurred when their abusive partners ended their relationships or there was some other external reason that the relationship ended, such as their partner dying. For example, one survivor said, ‘‘My turning point was when my ex-boyfriend left me for another woman.” Although this last category of turning points may seem more passive on the part of the survivor, in that it was their abuser that took action to end the relationship or some other external cause ended the relationship, it’s important to highlight the survivors’ agency after the relationships ended, in that they did not return to that or any other abusive relationship after the relationship ended.
There were a small number of additional participants in our research who shared that there wasn’t a specific turning point that they could identify. In most of these cases, participants described more of a long-term process of deciding to end the relationship, rather than any identifiable turning points.
Why are these turning points important to understand? For one, they challenge the question of why people stay in abusive relationships. That question implies that people stay forever and don’t leave. What we heard from the survivors in our research was very much in contrast to that assumption. Often, people in abusive relationships do realize their relationships are unsafe and would like for the relationships to end, or at least for the violence to stop, but it just may take time for enough evidence to arise before the person makes the ultimate decision to end the relationship. And, even after that decision has been made, they may not leave immediately, especially if their safety is at risk if they do so.
This information about turning points also highlights that different factors impact people differently within an abusive relationship. For some people, deciding to end an abusive relationship begins as an internal cognitive shift in how they think about the relationship, and then behavioral changes follow. For others, external consequences--such as intervention from law enforcement--start the process. Still others may be more impacted by how the abuse affects their children, and this can be especially true of they originally were staying in the relationship because they thought that keeping the relationship intact would be the best arrangement for the children. The process of deciding to leave an abusive relationship looks different for every person, and it’s important for people to support survivors in their own unique process.
The most important takeaway from these turning points, however, is simply the reminder that they provide that people DO leave abusive relationships. All of the participants in our research--over 500 survivors by now!--had been out of any abusive relationships for a significant period of time, and this fact alone challenges the common stereotype that people are destined to repeat patterns of victimization.
As we continue our focus this month on the theme of No Stigma/Only Triumph, let’s honor the courage and strength involved in survivors’ experiences of these turning points. It is no easy task to leave an abusive relationship, and survivors’ willingness to step bravely into these turning points and begin moving toward safety is a testament to their ability to triumph over abuse.
Murray, C. E., Crowe, A., & Flasch, P. (2015). Turning points: Critical incidents prompting survivors to begin the process of terminating abusive relationships. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 23, 228-238. DOI: 10.1177/1066480715573705 (Note: All quotes found in this blog post also can be found in this research article, along with other quotes and more detailed descriptions of the turning points discussed here.)