Whenever we hear of a domestic violence situation we ask why she puts up with it. By far the most common question asked about violence in relationships is: ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’.
We respond this way out of a gut feeling, a revulsion and hope all twisted up into one emotion: we want the woman to just walk away. We want, on that gut level, for that to be possible. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. And when ‘why do you stay?’ is the first thing we ask, we end up putting the blame on her. We don’t ask ‘how does he get away with it?’ or even ‘what can I do to help?‘, though that might be what we mean. Culturally, defensively, out of sheer denial of how complicated the issue is, we ask the wrong questions.
“Why doesn’t she leave?” implies that the victim is stupid, defective, damaged, or weak. It puts the responsibility for change solely on her shoulders. It shames her for choosing an abusive man. It minimizes the very real threats and fears a woman faces in an abusive situation. And it makes a myth: we think of abused women as broken, cowed, slump shouldered victims who slink back to their partners again and again. The truth is, most women DO leave.
In truth, 75% of emergency room visits related to partner violence occur during or after separation: violence escalates when she leaves. She is probably very aware of this, and aware of the danger. She is probably aware that – in many situations – it is safer for her to stay for the time being.
We need to trust the woman’s own judgement and sense of timing. Notice that I said ‘for the time being’. Again, most women DO leave their abusive partners. One out of three women experience violence in an intimate relationship. This does not mean that one out of three men are abusive. It does mean that a very small minority of men are abusive, and they are able to hurt one woman after another. It means that abused women leave the relationship, and he moves on to another victim.
Women face a number of barriers to leaving, and we should never minimize the danger she faces. Women die when they try to leave. Other women lose their children, or have to relocate and lose a job, their friendships and community, or face significant pressure to stay from family and friends. Choosing to leave a relationship always carries loss, loneliness, and grief. In an abusive situation, it can also mean physical danger, loss of social status, financial security, employment, and other significant or important relationships (to church, family, neighborhood, mutual friends).
Although each woman has a unique situation, abuse often takes on similar tactics and the barriers to leaving are therefore often commonplace. However, the abuse itself isolates the victim and she often feels she is alone in her experience. Abusers also blame the victim and/or tell her she is exaggerating, imagining, or distorting the truth. She is chronically denied the truth of her experience, and after time she may doubt herself. Learning how common some of these experiences are might be helpful in breaking out of the cycle and isolation.
Learning some of the common barriers can also show people outside the relationship how complex and threatening the situation really is. It’s never as simple as ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ Once we understand some of the barriers, we can start to appreciate her intuition and support her choices; we can ask her what she most needs from us at any given time, rather than assuming we already know. It is vital to remember that
Fear is an important factor
women want the violence to end, not the relationship
most abused women have been told they will be hurt or killed if they leave, that he will hurt himself if she leaves, and/or that no one will believe her or the abuse is her fault: she may have come to believe this on some level.
Counteracting these messages is important. Family and friends can help a victim with the messages:
Abuse is never ok
nothing you do or don’t do causes his behavior
his behavior is a choice
no one, including you, deserves abuse
abuse is wrong, all the time
you are not alone
I believe you
I support your decisions
Women in abusive relationships may fear reprisals or punishment if they seek help. They have probably experienced an escalation in the abuse when they try to change, confront, or leave the abuser: it’s usually safest to try to please, de-escalate, or placate the abuser. She may have been threatened, and she has no reason not to believe those threats (I’ll kill you/myself/the kids/the pet. I’ll find you. You’ll be sorry. Do you know what I’d do? You don’t dare…)
She may fear being found. Most women do have to attempt to leave a partner FIVE times. This may have less to do with her will power or self-respect than it has to do with his co-erciveness and the resources available to her. Most women will first try to leave to friends and/or family: abusers usually know where this is. Abusers are commonly known to make things difficult for a woman with her friends and family by telling lies, withholding her access, expressing jealousy of time spent away, demeaning friends and family, blaming friends and family, or causing scenes to embarrass or humiliate her. Women have also been found by their social security numbers, through the children’s school, by following friends, waiting at work, or placing warrants out for their arrest. Many women have had to leave their homes, communities, employers, and support systems behind without a trace in order to successfully evade stalking.
She may fear destruction to her belongings or home.
She may fear harm to her reputation, career, or studies.
She may fear for the safety of children, family, or pets.
She may fear for his safety. Abusers often threaten suicide, explicitly or implicitly (I can’t live without you). Abusers also put the responsibility for their own well being in their partners hands: if he feels depressed, gets drunk, loses a job, gets angry, it’s ‘her fault’.
She may fear court or police involvement. No one wants to deal with these issues. If the abuser is seen as a powerful person (ie wealthy, influential, popular, well known, smarter or more powerful than her) this can be exacerbated. Women often fear his resentment and community opinion – as well as the reflection such an involvement might have on her future. If a woman has any immigration issues, fear of authorities is legitimate and has often been manipulated by the abuser. Women of color or lower socio-economic status have valid reasons to believe the courts and/or social services and/or police will bring harm or discrimination or unfairness to the situation. Women (often correctly) feel that police, courts, or others “won’t understand” and may make matters worse.
MESSAGES OF ABUSE
Women are often encouraged by social messages, community, and the abuser, to believe:
His violence is temporary. Not that his abuse is a chosen behavior, but that it’s a result of stress, an argument, intoxication, difficult life situations, etc. Abusers usually promise to change. Abusers are not abusive all the time; most women will wonder if the abuse might not become a thing of the past.
With loyalty and love, she can make him change.
His promise to ‘never let it happen again’.
There will be more good times.
If she can help her partner through his pain, difficulties, or past experiences, he will change.
He’s had a hard life.
He needs me.
Many men are violent. It’s to be expected. I’d never find any better.
She may deny or minimize the abuse. She may believe him when he blames her, denies, minimizes, or excuses the abuse.
Abusers often control or limit a woman’s financial resources. She may also have been dissuaded from working outside the home, pressured to drop her career advancement or education, and encouraged to let him control finances even if she is the breadwinner. Women are isolated in abuse – even if she has outside employment or opportunities, she faces issues of communication, understanding, discrimination, more frequent absenteeism and poor job performance; depression, stress and fatigue are common results of abuse and impair a woman’s earning capacity.
Fear of poverty keeps many women in abusive situations.
Women often have few sources of income and or assets within safe control: he can follow credit cards, bank reports, etc.
Women with children face the stigma and added financial risk of raising children alone.
Women often face returning to the workforce after long periods of unemployment.
Religion often focuses on mutual responsibility and will encourage women to ‘forgive’ or look for her ‘part’ in violence.
Religion often looks down on divorce.
Religion often sends messages of enduring suffering as a virtue, and marriage as a sacred duty.
Family may disapprove of divorce or offer little support. Conversely, they may have tried to help and grown frustrated, resulting in isolation, judgement, or criticism of the victim.
Family may contribute to messages of blame, enduring suffering, and the need to ‘stand by your man’
Women face stigma as single mothers, divorcees, and abuse victims
LACK OF RESOURCES/COMMUNITY SUPPORT
Unaware of services available to battered women.
Lack of adequate child care.
Negative experiences with service providers.
Lack of affordable housing.
Isolated from community services.
No support from family and friends.
CONCERN FOR CHILDREN
Abuser may charge her with ‘kidnapping’ or sue for custody.
Abuser may abduct or abuse the children.
Questions whether she can care for and support children on her own.
Fears losing custody of her children.
Believes children need a father.
When we say ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ we imply that we know what another needs: that the best solution is for her to leave, immediately. However, the reality of the situation (and our culture) often means that a woman CAN’T ‘just leave’. The danger is real. The threats are frightening. And the hope for what comes after (where will I go? What will I do? What will happen?) are often stacked against her. Remember, most women will leave. Remember: it might be safest for her to stay for the time being. Until a woman can come up with a safety plan that addresses all of her barriers, attempting to leave or change the relationship may increase the danger.