(CNN) -- The solution to ending an abusive relationship seems simple: Walk out the door.
But for an abused woman, leaving can be a confusing process, complex at every step, said a newly published article in an University of Illinois journal.
Co-author and graduate student Lyndal Khaw told CNN that abused women actually go through a five-step process of leaving that involves denial, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.
And the transition from one step to another is hardly seamless, Khaw said.
"Some women can skip stages, some repeat a cycle of going back and forth to other steps and others go through the motions -- going from one stage to another", she said.
In their study, Khaw and co-author Jennifer Hardesty, an assistant professor of human and community development, applied their model to 25 abused women. The report was published recently in the Journal of Family Theory and Review.
Khaw said that moving from step to step can put a strain on those who are being supportive to an abused woman because they can have a hard time understanding why she returns or refuses to leave.
Hardesty said that physically leaving a relationship entails more than a woman's decision to embrace change and prioritizing her own safety. The abuser can affect her decisions, as can children, who can motivate her to return to the relationship, Hardesty said.
Even though a woman may return to the abuser at some point, practitioners and women themselves need to understand that every time the woman disengages she gains additional resources and support, Hardesty said.
"So next time she is contemplating and preparing she'll be stronger and perhaps more likely to stay out of that relationship," she said.
Khaw said service providers, family members and other sources of support need to recognize the stages of what can be a lengthy -- and risky -- process.
"When trying to leave, abusers may get more violent," Khaw said.
Recognition of the five-step process can be helpful to abused women, Hardesty said.
"Not all women are ready to leave, but recognizing it's a process can be empowering," she said.
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