October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. One of the questions I hear most often in talking about DV is why victims don’t just leave? If you’re in a bad situation, you get out of it, right? Leaving an abusive partner is common sense, as basic as coming in out of the rain.
Yet the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1.3 million women* are assaulted by an intimate partner every year [Ref]. An awful lot of those women will stay with their partners. Others will leave, but end up returning to the one who beat them. Why?
I asked the same question almost twenty years ago, when a dear friend showed up to school with a broken nose, courtesy of her boyfriend. She didn’t press charges. They stayed together for a long time after that. Why? How could she stay with someone who did that to her?
(Notice how the question puts the burden on her–how could she stay? How about we start putting the responsibility on the batterers?)
It’s easy to judge, and make no mistake, there’s an awful lot of judgement packed into that question. We ask why she doesn’t leave because we think a “healthy” or “normal” or “smart” person (i.e., someone like us) wouldn’t stay. What’s wrong with her that she does?
Start with the fact that batterers are very good at controlling their partners. They’ve spent years learning how. Physical violence is one tool in an entire toolbox of power and control.
Economic control is a popular one. If I have sole control over the finances, where are you going to go if you leave? How will you survive? Isolation is another. Most batterers learn to separate the victim from their friends and family, slowly cutting off those outside sources of support.
Add children into the picture, and it gets uglier. If you leave, will he punish your children? If you try to take the kids–if you take them away from their school, their friends, their father, and everything they know–will you be able to take care of them on your own, with no money or support?
Other techniques are more subtle. Emotional abuse chips away at the victim, slowly persuading her that nobody else would want her, that she should be grateful to be with the abuser. And he’s not abusive all the time. He’s a nice, friendly guy in public–nobody would believe he could hurt her, let alone kill her. Yet 1/3 of all female homicide victims are killed by their spouse or partner [Ref].
And women are most likely to be killed when they try to leave. It’s easy for me to say “Just leave him!” To someone in that situation, it’s literally a life or death choice.
How many of us have stayed in bad relationships even when we knew it was hurting us? How hard was it to finally sever those ties? For me, it took three years, and that was without a partner deliberately trying to control me. How much harder would it have been had I been seeing someone who had spent their life honing these tactics.
Oh, but we’d never let someone do that to us, right? We’re stronger than that. I’m sure most of the participants in the Milgram study thought they were strong too, that they would never let another person control them.
We ask why she doesn’t leave because we don’t understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship. If you truly want to be supportive, take the time to learn about power and control tactics. Debunk the myths about domestic violence. Learn what you can do to help someone who’s being abused.
And the next time someone asks “Why didn’t she just leave?”, maybe a better question would be, “Why don’t we do more to stop this kind of abuse in the first place?”
*It’s true that men are also victims of domestic abuse, and women can be abusive. I don’t want to minimize this, but since the vast majority of domestic violence is committed by men against women, I’m choosing to write about it that way.