Experts Say Abuse Victims Can't "Just Leave"–Here's Why and How to Help

Updated 05/13/19
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When it comes to domestic violence, sometimes the signs aren't so obvious. Whether it's physical or emotional or otherwise, when one person scares, hurts, or continually puts down the other person, it is not ok. We all deserve to feel safe, respected, and empowered in our relationships (with romantic partners, friends, family, our colleagues). That said, if anything below has happened to you or you resonate with the signs in some way, there are resources available to keep you safe and help you––or someone you know––navigate abusive situations.

How the Law Defines Abuse

According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, abuse is defined as "physically, sexually, or mentally injuring a person." However, the law also defines abuse at the state level.

Common Misconceptions About Domestic Violence

"Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior in which one exerts power and control over another individual," Katie Ray-Jones told in 2014. Ray-Jones is the president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH), and said that while domestic violence incidents have decreased over time and has become less socially acceptable, it still exists, despite common perception. And the decision to "just leave," is much more complicated than that. "They still see a glimpse of the person they fell in love with. It's very complex and it's very hard," explained Ray-Jones. 

Abuse comes in many forms, not just physical. It can also be emotional, psychological, verbal, and sexual. The thing is, an abuser may at first be personable and affectionate before slowly chipping away at your self-esteem and backing you into a corner, away from family and friends. That's what makes it so difficult to get away, or to "just call the police," according to experts.

"That sense of fear that no one could ever keep them safe, it's real. As a society, we tend to undermine or minimize what those concerns are — why not go to the police; they're in the best position to help you? Well, the police aren't living with you 24/7," Michelle Kaminsky, lawyer and chief of Brooklyn DA's office's Domestic Violence Bureau, told

Sings of Physical Abuse

Although not a definitive checklist, some signs of physical abuse include: An individual grabbing you by the arms and body and refusing to let you go, pulling your hair, harming you in a way that has left bruises or other physical marks, threatening to hurt you, take away or harm your children, destroying your belongings, throwing objects at you, or forcing you to have sex.

According to reporting by, reproductive abuse (like "tampering with your birth control or pressuring you to get pregnant") is also common––and cite that 1 in 3 women in abusive relationships have experienced this type of coercion.

Signs Of Emotional Abuse

Similarly, signs of emotional abuse might look like: An individual "teasing" or using sarcasm to constantly put you down or make you feel bad about yourself, belittling and trivializing you, your accomplishments, hopes and dreams, or doing and saying things that cause you to feel shame, embarrassment, and powerless. This may also include withholding sex to manipulate, punish, or control you.

If you feel victimized physically or emotionally (that goes for sexually, psychologically, and verbally too), or are unsure about the type of situation you're in, check in with yourself about the following: Do you sometimes feel scared of how your partner will act? Are you constantly making excuses to others for your partner's behavior? Do you believe that you can change your partner if only you changed something about yourself? Or, are you with your partner because you are afraid of what they would do if you broke up?


If you or someone you know are being abused, know that there is a wealth of resources to tap into. For example, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) offer an extensive resources page of organizations committed to preventing and addressing domestic violence. For example, there are organizations dedicated to the differently abled, teens, children, Indigenous communities, LGBT and gender non-conforming communities and more. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers resources to organizations addressing stalking, dating abuse, and provides a list of legal resources.

Experts like clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo recommends victims "reconnect with your friends and family" because support you can trust and count on is crucial. "Often abuse victims have been isolated or gaslighted into thinking they're crazy. But it's easy enough to reconnect," Neo told Greatist, who also advises practical steps to prepare for when you're ready to leave, including careful planning, and keeping yourself safe physically and mentally.

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