Why don’t they just leave: Examining 8 barriers that exist for survivors

September 17, 2021

If you take one look at Celeste Wright’s life, it’s easy to feel envious.  

She has a house overlooking the ocean. She has a stunning husband. She has adorable twin boys. She’s had a successful career that she can step away from, while still having financial success. 

It’s the dream life. 

At least, that’s how it appears. 

Welcome to Monterey, Calif., a predominantly white, upper-class quaint beach town. It’s where Celeste calls home, and it’s the location of the first two seasons of “Big Little Lies.” 

The HBO show features a who’s-who cast of actors, including Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, Zoë Kravitz, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Kathryn Newton, and Nicole Kidman, who portrays Celeste. 

The show, based on the book of the same title, features drama, twists, turns, comedy, and friends putting their differences to the side to cover up a death. 

But at the root of the show is Celeste’s abusive relationship with Perry Wright, played by Skarsgård. 

For all that the show does well, it highlights the dynamics of domestic abuse as well as any TV program out there. 

For much of the first season, we see – and hear – in graphic nature the abuse that Celeste goes through in her relationship with Perry. 

When seeing – and hearing – this, it’s easy to ask the question that we hear in the movement all the time: 

Why doesn’t she just leave? 

On the surface, it seems like a simple question with a simple solution. 

If you’re being abused, leave. 

Well, as simple as it sounds, and as innocent as it seems, there are multiple barriers in place that prevent survivors of all backgrounds and socio-economic statuses from leaving. 

Safety 

Statistically speaking, we know that leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a survivor. Abusers will often go to extremes to prevent their partner from leaving, and one study found that in interviews with men who have killed their partners that threats of separation or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that lead to the murder.  

When someone leaves, that’s when we see stalking and escalating attempts to control the survivor.  

“That’s what these relationships are about. They are about controlling people,” said Michelle Cooper, Technical Assistance (TA) and Education Manager at PCADV. “We focus on lethality, but beyond that, it’s those other control tactics that make people feel helpless and hopeless. If someone leaves, their partner may not threaten to kill them, but they may threaten self-harm, may stalk them at work, or harm the survivor if they return home to get personal belongings. 

“That’s when dangerous and oftentimes, unfortunately, lethal control tactics take place.” 

We see that through the eyes of Celeste, too. To fast forward in the show, Celeste decides to leave in the last episode, and she has a plan in place for her and her first-grade sons.  

When her husband, Perry, finds out that she is leaving, he amplifies his threats and his physical violence toward Celeste. 

Economic Barriers 

For Celeste, a retired lawyer, the financial issues don’t appear to be a barrier on the surface, but if she were to leave Perry, she’d no longer have his financial support and would need to find an apartment.  

It’s still a barrier for someone of Celeste’s status, and in a real-life situation, those financial barriers come into play daily. 

“An abusive partner might say, ‘I’ll take you to court and make sure you’re bankrupt and can’t see the kids,’” Cooper said. “They might cut off financial support or ruin their partner’s credit on purpose making it even more difficult for the survivor to become economically stable.” 

Financial abuse occurs in 99 percent of domestic violence cases, and it’s often cited by survivors of abuse as the main reason they stayed with or returned to an abusive partner.  

According to the CDC, the lifetime economic cost of domestic violence over a survivor’s lifetime was $103,767 for women and $23,414 for men. 

Housing 

Finding safe housing is a major barrier for survivors, and it has a direct correlation with the economic barrier that we discussed above.  

Another direct correlation is the number of homeless women who are survivors of some form of abuse. Domestic violence and assault are significant contributing factors to homelessness. According to a 2014 study, 92 percent of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse in their lives, while 63 percent were victims of domestic violence. 

“Abusers might choose to ruin someone’s credit or prevent them from becoming financially independent, and homelessness can be a direct result of that economic isolation,” Cooper explained. “If you have bad or no credit, it can be difficult to find housing. If you have limited rental history, if the abuser’s name is on a previous mortgage or lease, or if you have no credit history to show you are a good candidate for a rental agreement, it’s hard.” 

Let’s say that those issues don’t arise. And let’s look beyond Celeste’s example here for a minute.  

Making assumptions about a survivor’s ability to easily find and rent an apartment is classist. It’s easy to say that housing is freely available to everyone, but it might not be. Finding safe and affordable housing can be time-consuming and challenging for anyone, and even more so for survivors attempting to leave an escalating abusive situation. Housing options meant to support low-income individuals often have lengthy waitlists and may require survivors to relocate far away from their preferred location. Relocation has the potential to impact their employment, childcare, and ability to remain connected to a supportive community.  

A recent report by Bloomberg shows that the national average rent in multi-family buildings is $1,539 as of August 2021. This indicates an unprecedented 10.3 percent increase from August 2020 to August 2021 and marks the first double-digit rise in the history of the dataset. 

Finding safe housing is hard. Finding any housing is hard. Ideally, you want to plan ahead, but even then, with the rising costs of rent across the country, it’s not always a viable approach. 

In the show, Celeste has the financial means to afford both an apartment and a therapist who helps her with a detailed safety plan…and she has access to these resources independently. She can fully furnish the apartment and has the free time available to get it ready for her and her children to move in seamlessly while Perry is not around. While achievable for someone like Celeste in the show, these are rarely options for real-life survivors attempting to leave an abusive relationship. This is one of the many reasons why connecting survivors with a local domestic violence program is so important. 

Feelings 

“It’s not like you go on a first date with someone and they insult you and make you feel like crap,” Cooper says. 

And that’s where the feelings come to play.  

Before abusive behavior occurs, there’s a foundation laid down that does not include abusive tactics. There’s an emotional connection that’s built so that when a partner exhibits abusive behavior, the survivor still views them through the lens of that connection. They remember who the person they met was and sometimes, still is. 

We see it throughout the show with Perry and Celeste, starting with the first episode. Celeste is at home with the boys, and Perry comes out on the back patio to shoot Nerf guns with them. The feelings of love and adoration for Perry – as a father and as a partner – are captured perfectly through Kidman’s acting. 

When there’s an incident at school where a student struck another student, Perry demands their children not associate with that specific child. When Celeste tries to reason with Perry that not everything is yet known about the incident at school, we see Perry become physical with her. 

It’s a common theme throughout the show. Celeste experiences abusive and violent behavior, but afterward, Perry apologizes and reminds her of the person with whom she fell in love. 

In a scene with her therapist, Celeste is asked, directly, if Perry ever hurts the children. 

“God, no. He would never hurt the children,” she says. “He’s a wonderful father. He’s the best. I couldn’t think of a better one, really. It’s one of the reasons … why I don’t leave him. There are other reasons. I’m madly in love with him. He adores me. He treats me like a goddess. He’s a great father. We have great sex. We make each other laugh. There’s violence, yes. It’s an issue and why we came in. But all marriages are complicated.” 

Communities 

By leaving the abusive relationship, a survivor often must leave these facets of their life, too, which can be hard. 

The community barrier doesn’t just include the survivor’s actual physical surroundings, but also the social community around which the relationship has been built. 

On a larger scale, that community can include mutual friends, faith-based organizations, parent/teacher groups, business associates, and other social circles. 

In the show, Celeste enjoys the privileges that come from her socio-economic status, community, and friends.  By leaving Perry, she must accept that she may not have the same access to those resources if she leaves. This is a choice many survivors must make. If they have worked with their partner to achieve financial goals or recognition within their communities it can be difficult to choose to give that up.  

What’s more, it is the internal community that was created with a partner. By leaving, survivors may worry about both their reputations being ruined.  

“Survivors may not want to be responsible for someone’s downfall and may understand that that downfall will be likely be focused on them, not the person who committed acts of violence and abuse,” Cooper says. 

In the second season of the show, we meet Mary Louise Wright – portrayed by Meryl Streep – who is Perry’s mother.  

Mary Louise enters the picture to help care for the children but refuses to believe that her son is capable of being an abuser, and files for full custody of the children by claiming that Celeste is unfit to take care of them. 

In another scene with Celeste and her therapist, the therapist brings up Celeste leaving. 

“When this violence occurs, have you ever been afraid that you might die,” asked the therapist. 

“Never,” says Celeste, as the show flashes back to her in a graphic physical incident with Perry. “I thought of leaving him many times. But then I think about what we have, and we have a lot.” 

Minimizing Tactics 

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. PCADV, along with the National Network to End Domestic Violence and other state coalitions, are promoting the theme #Every1KnowsSome1. Because it’s true, according to the data.  

One in four women and one in seven men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. 

But when reading that, there’s a picture that comes to mind. 

It tends to be a picture of Physical violence. 

What if we substitute the word abuse instead of violence? Does that offer a clearer picture?  

Before someone can recognize abusive behavior, they need to know what abuse is. 

And when it comes to Celeste or any number of actual survivors out there, the behavior can be minimized because the abuse that they incurred wasn’t physical in nature.  

“Survivors may view their experience as not so bad, and could always be worse, based on what they see on the news and in headlines,” Cooper said. “It’s important for us to help everyone understand the reality of abuse. Physical violence is certainly an aspect of abusive behavior that is prevalent and dangerous, but there are many other tactics that abusers employ that justify the need for supportive services.” 

In addition to perceptions of what “counts” as domestic violence, abusers will often employ tactics designed to minimize the abuse and shift the blame. They manipulate the survivor into thinking the abuse was the survivor’s fault or gaslight them into questioning the severity of the abuse and, sometimes, if it even happened. 

Public Perception  

Abusers are portrayed publicly as being monsters. If they abuse their partner, then they must be a terrible person. 

But partners who abuse can be good parents, good co-workers, and pillars of society.  

Looking at Perry’s mother as an example, people who know and interact with an abuser may often side with them, because they haven’t seen that person be abusive or harmful to others. This is a common tactic used by abusers to make sure that a survivor’s credibility is questioned should they speak out about the abusive relationship or attempt to leave. 

We saw it throughout the show with Perry. He’s viewed as a positive member of his community. Celeste calls him a good father and he’s viewed this way by others throughout the show. 

The fact is, you can be an abusive person and still love your children, maintain employment, and be a functional and even contributing member of the community. Abusers use different tactics in all types of ways to maintain power and control, and most occur behind closed doors where no one else can see and doesn’t hurt the abuser’s public persona. The more an abusive partner presents themself in this way, the more challenging it can be for a survivor to gain community support. In some cases, they may even begin to doubt their own perception and assume they are “wrong” for feeling like they are in danger 

These instances are common, and they come in a variety of ways. 

In August 2021, Jonah Keri, a noteworthy sports journalist and author in Montreal, plead guilty to domestic assault charges stemming from July 2018 to January 2019.  

When Keri’s abuse first became known in the summer of 2019, his former colleagues were “shocked” at the revelations, claiming that this type of behavior wasn’t something they’ve ever witnessed from him before. 

But, like the character Perry, the real-life Jonah used this tactic with his colleagues and friends. 

The Impact on Children 

There’s a graphic scene toward the end of the first season where Celeste was on the bathroom floor, suffering physical abuse from her partner, and through the vents, the children were able to hear what was taking place.  

That scene took a real-life toll on Kidman. 

“I remember lying on the floor in the last episode… having just been really thrown around. I just lay on the floor. I couldn’t get up. I didn’t want to get up,” Kidman said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “I just felt completely humiliated and devasted. And angry inside.” 

In the show, we can see that Perry’s abusive behavior impacts the children, even though both he and Celeste make every effort to hide the abuse from them. They hear the fighting and show the conflicting emotions and behavior often seen in children who grow up in abusive households.  

Survivors with children have a difficult choice to make. They must decide which will impact their children more, growing up in a household where they may be exposed to abusive behavior and tactics, or taking them away from a parent who is otherwise supportive and caring. Ideally, once the relationship has ended custody can be arranged and children will still be able to have a supportive relationship with both parents, but in Celeste’s case, we see Perry escalate in abusive tactics such as threats and stalking once she has left the relationship.   

For many survivors, this is all too common.  

It’s important to remember that while “Big Little Lies” presents a glamorized portrayal of the barriers survivors face,  in real life these barriers are far from glamorous. They affect those living with partner abuse every day., Survivors who are questioning when – and if – they should leave, don’t always have access to the resources that could make those barriers easier to overcome.  

Celeste’s character embodies the impact domestic violence can have on someone with almost every privilege imaginable. Despite those privileges, we can see how difficult it is for her to leave Perry and regain her safety and independence. Let’s consider the barriers and challenges Celeste might face if she was not wealthy, or if she was a woman of color, or from another country and undocumented. 

How would our perspective change if Celeste were the abusive partner and Perry was the one seeking support? The truth is domestic violence doesn’t discriminate…it affects every single corner of our society, and those with marginalized identities face even more obstacles.

So next time you think, “why don’t they just leave,” remember that as simple as the question sounds, the answer has many layers, and the survivor faces many barriers.  

Though leaving an abusive relationship is daunting, victims are not alone. Advocates at Pennsylvania’s local domestic violence programs can help with safety planning, legal advocacy, housing assistance, and other barriers that survivors face. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, help is available: Find Help – PCADV