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'It's not as simple as walking away': Crisis worker on why people stay in abusive relationships


Following last week's horrific shooting rampage in Sault Ste. Marie, a northern Ontario crisis worker wants people to understand why survivors often stay in abusive relationships and how people can help loved ones.

Intimate partner violence occurs between people who had a romantic connection at one point, but as the events in the Sault showed, the effects can be felt throughout the community.

Norma Elliot of Women in Crisis Algoma said it is not talked about enough.


There are many reasons why people stay in abusive relationships: love, fear, shame, lack of resources, children and the fact that abuse becomes normalized abuse are some.

Elliot said for someone experiencing physical, sexual, emotional and/or financial abuse, it is not as simple as just walking away.

"I have heard people say 'Well, if that happened to me once, I'm out, I'm done.' But when you have months, years, invested in a relationship, (the abuse) doesn't usually happen right at the onset," she said.

Abuse can escalate from verbal to physical over time, with the abuser apologizing and often placing the blame on the victim rather than taking accountability for their behaviour.

That can damage their partner's self-esteem and self-worth, making it harder for them to seek help or feel like they deserve it.

"'You know if you hadn't of said that, if you hadn't of done that, then I wouldn't have yelled and I won't do it again. But you have to know, that when you do that, that makes me mad,' Elliot said some abusers say when shifting the blame to their partner.

"It starts putting the onus on her to do everything 'right' so that he doesn't get mad or he doesn't get upset."

"No matter the circumstances, survivors deserve to be supported in their decision-making and empowered to reclaim control over their own lives," the National Domestic Violence Hotline says on its website.


Because violence is a part of every day life – TV, movies, video games, etc. -- sometimes it's hard for survivors to identify malignant behaviour as abuse.

"Yeah, but he didn't hit me," Elliot said she has heard from clients at the shelter.

"'When he threw the glass, he didn't hit me, it landed on the wall' … but it was still in an act of violence, physical violence. Had you maybe not moved or had his aim been better, you would have ended up you know being hurt."

People will often compare their experiences to what they witnessed or experienced in childhood.

"'You know what, he's not near as bad as my dad was to my mom … my dad, would physically beat my mom, he doesn't beat me,'" survivors have told Elliot and her staff.

"'He swears and calls me names and puts me down and things but he doesn't hit me.' So they start comparing it to what they're aware of. So they, too, minimize the behaviour."


Family members of victims can sometimes make things worse.

Expressing concern for a loved one can have unintended consequences and can put survivors in the difficult position of defending their abuser or feeling responsible for "making a bad choice."

Elliot said it's vital to carefully phrase your concerns and to not pass judgment when reaching out to someone suffering abuse.

"When a woman comes into the shelter, we understand that she shows a tremendous amount of strength and courage walking through that front door, just reaching out for help," she said.

Instead of talking negatively about the abusive partner and telling the survivor what to do, crisis workers choose to focus on the survivor's feelings and support their needs.

Elliot said you can start a conversation with a loved one by saying, "I'm really concerned about you, you look very tired."

Here are some non-judgemental questions you can ask:

  • How are things?
  • What's happening at home?
  • Are things still a little rough?
  • What are some of the behaviours that have you concerned?
  • Are you scared for yourself and/or your children?
  • What can we do to support you?
  • How can we help you?

People experiencing abuse will often choose to withdraw from friends and family if it creates tension with their partner.

"The contact with family decreases and the family becomes frustrated because they're seeing things happening and they're trying to get them to understand you need to get out," Elliot said.

When loved ones make comments like "he's this, he's that, he's doing this … it doesn't help. She just withdraws and stays away," she said.

"Instead of leaving, because now they're embarrassed, how do they go somewhere and admit this is what I've been living in and for how long?"

And when someone starts to think about leaving or their behaviour starts to change that may indicate that they are leaving, that's when the physical abuse may start.

Some examples of physical violence in an intimate partner relationship that are concerning are throwing things, punching a wall beside their partner or kicking an object across the room.

When the abuser thinks they are losing power or control, physical violence often increases.

"No matter the reason, leaving any relationship can be difficult; doing so in an abusive situation can feel impossible without the right access to support," the National Domestic Violence Hotline said on its website.


The women's shelter director said people should speak up more often when they hear an off-colour comment or "joke" minimizing violent or disrespectful behaviour toward a significant other.

"We don't call people on it," Elliot said.

Holding each other accountable is important to changing the attitude toward intimate partner violence.

Instead of thinking, "I'm sure that he was just kidding or he didn't mean to," she said people can address the situation by saying things like, "I'm really not comfortable with that, I don't use those words, I don't talk to my partner like that, I can't condone that."

"I always said that a joke is something that both people find funny", Elliot said.

"If someone's not laughing, it's not a joke. And the way we treat people is not a joke. We want our kids having role models of people treating each other with respect and knowing what that means."  


Confidential and free support is available for people experiencing violence. In an emergency, call 911. Top Stories

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