RESOLVE: PART II
Domestic Violence: Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?
By Alli O’Malley
In 2008, I attended my first formal domestic violence training, which was titled, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” The training was lead by a smart and competent University at Buffalo Law School Professor who had worked with domestic violence victims and survivors for decades. Presentations were offered by seasoned advocates, social workers and psychiatrists, police officers, and people who worked with men who batter. I was optimistic. Surely this group of highly experienced and credentialed people would have the answer.
Much to my dismay, I left that day with more questions than answers. Five years later I’ve come to recognize that the root of this question — the reason we ask it — is the crux of the problem. We’re asking the wrong question.
Let’s break it down. The question, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” infers, intentionally or not, that an abused woman is choosing to be abused and that if she leaves the problem will be solved. This inference is victim-blaming. And sadly, domestic violence victims are all too accustomed to being blamed for their situation.
Blame is one of the most commonly used tactics of an abuser and it is highly effective. It plays on her emotions and over time it makes her feel responsible. Think for a moment how it would feel to hear your partner say things like, “If you weren’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have to yell at you,” or “If you weren’t so frigid, I wouldn’t have to watch porn.” When we ask, “why don’t you just leave?” we’re doing exactly what her abuser has always done, making her the problem and holding her responsible.
The other problem with this question is that it assumes that once she leaves the violence will end. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Before we look at what it takes for an abused woman to leave a violent or abusive partner, let’s consider what it takes for a woman to leave a relationship when there is no abuse. Anyone who has ever been divorced or ended a long term relationship knows how hard it can be to make the decision to leave; and then, how difficult it can be to untangle your affairs. Even if the partners agree to go their separate ways, there are a multitude of factors to consider and at some stage heightened emotions will inevitably blur an otherwise clear path. In other words, even in a healthy relationship, a woman can’t “just leave.”
Why then do we believe an abused woman can “just leave?” When an abused woman chooses to leave her partner, she knows that he will not make it easy. In fact, she may fear for her life or the lives of her children. Why? Because she’s most likely been told that if she leaves, he will [fill in the blank] kill her, kill her pet, kill himself, harm someone she cares about, or possibly worst of all, take or kill her children. As an outsider, you might think, that this is all the more reason to leave. You might think that such preposterous threats are empty; weak attempts to scare her into staying. But unfortunately, year after year, statistics confirm her fears.
A domestic violence victim is most likely to be killed or seriously harmed by their partner within the first 90-days of leaving. The act of leaving is an act of courage. She is exerting her power, often for the first time, and her partner will do almost anything to regain his control. If it’s the first time she’s left, he may try to win her back through vulnerability begging for her forgiveness, promising change, even going to counseling or joining a 12-step program. If that doesn’t work, he may buy her gifts like new clothes, jewelry, a much needed vacation, or a new car. He may go straight to scare tactics and threats, particularly if she has left before. Stalking is very common. He may show up unannounced at her workplace or in the supermarket, sometimes with discrete weapons that have appeared out of nowhere. He may vandalize her car or drive her off the road. He may harass her by sending hundreds of threatening text messages and voice mails each day. He may empty the bank accounts or max out joint credit cards, so she can’t establish her own credit. In the worst of all cases, the abuser may threaten or go so far as to harm or kill her pet or her children.
As you can see, leaving the relationship does not bring an end to the violence. In fact, as statistics suggest, leaving is a catalyst for more violence. The clients we see at Safe Journey, a program of RESOLVE, are often in the process of leaving their relationship or have successfully left. We support them as they begin to heal from their experience and rebuild their lives. Safety planning is conducted at every visit, because each woman continues to experience abuse from her former partner. In many cases the abuse is worse and she feels less able to protect herself, because when they were together she could better anticipate his behavior. Sometimes court issued orders of protection help; other times they make the situation worse. It is a truly frightening time.
When the couple has children, they often become pawns in a dangerous game. Communication about the children is used manipulatively; failure to pay child support or otherwise meet court specified agreements regarding the children causes tremendous stress. Transitions of custody can be particularly frightening for an abused woman, not only because she has to release her child to the man who abused her, but because in that brief interaction, she feels unsafe and vulnerable; even if the custody transition is handled through a third party, like a relative. Abusive partners will push the limits with children at every opportunity, keeping them late, taking them out of the allowed territory for visits without permission, refusing the mother contact with the kids during visits, interfering with medical care or at school, the list goes on and on.
Leaving a violent relationship takes every ounce of courage and strength the victim can summon. When she is contemplating leaving, she needs support and reassurance. She does not need to be judged for having lived with an abusive and violent partner. She does not need to be rescued either. So what is the right question? It’s simple, “What do you need?” Then listen; and as hard as it may be, follow her lead. By meeting domestic violence victims with compassion and empathy, we empower them to take the next step. Be an ally, affirm her and, most of all, be patient.
Alli O’Malley is a domestic violence survivor and passionate advocate for the cause; she is Executive Director of Resolve of Greater Rochester, Inc., and is currently serving as Chair of the Rochester/Monroe County Domestic Violence Consortium. She invites your feedback at email@example.com.