It’s never really bothered me when people ask “dumb” questions about deployments or military life.
“Can you visit him in Afghanistan?” or “do you miss him?”, have never riled me up. I just see it as simple curiosity and a lack of knowledge about the topic.
But lately, when my friends and family talk to me about my work, I do find myself getting riled up when people ask “why don’t domestic violence victims just leave?” and “if a man put his hands on me I would be gone”
I know that those comments come from a lack of knowledge and experience as well, but they rile me up because in an unintentional way, they are putting down victims. They are saying victims should have made a different choice, and that the person making the statements would have the confidence/self worth to do the right thing and leave, and clearly these victims don’t if they aren’t leaving. And maybe they don’t really want to leave, otherwise they would have left already.
So I just wanted to do a little psycho-education about domestic violence as part of my Domestic Violence Awareness Month series, and explain a bit why victims may stay in abusive relationships.
I think it’s easier for people to understand concrete reasons, such as financial dependence and lack of knowledge about services available. Both of those are reasons why women stay, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Financial dependence can play a huge role. Especially if a couple has children, the woman has been a stay-at-home-mom who has no job skills, she has no family or friends to help her, no access to the bank account nor the money to hire a good divorce lawyer to fight for child support and alimony. She may feel like she has no other option than to stay and feel that leaving and financially supporting herself and her 1/2/3/4+ children is an impossible feat.
These are the women that I work normally work with, those who come to social service agencies and DV shelters because they have decided to leave but don’t have the financial means to support themselves.
Imagine having multiple children, no job skills or work experience, and having to support your family on your own with only welfare and social services to help you until you get a job. A job that may not even pay for the cost of child care and housing. Imagine what you would put up with to keep giving your children the lifestyle you want them to have.
Which brings us to another reason women stay, children. It may be the desire to keep their family together; the belief that the children need their father. Even if he is abusive to her, at least he is a good father. She may also feel like she cannot get a divorce, that because of her cultural or religious beliefs she will be looked down upon or not supported by her family by ending the marriage. There can also be the fear of losing their children. If she leaves the relationships and cannot support the children financially, she may fear that the abuser will get custody.
Children can also be a motivation to leave, if the abuser is hurting the children or they are scared of him, many women will leave then, even when they have been putting up with abuse towards themselves for years.
Another barrier to leaving is isolation and lack of support from friends and family. Abusers often isolate their victims. It may begin by a comment of “I don’t think you friends liked me”, and later down the road you find that you no longer have friends, because he has gradually isolated you. A woman may feel she no longer has friends or family to turn to once she finally realizes how abusive the man really is. She may in turn feel afraid or ashamed to reach out to her family, people who may have tried to warn her in the beginning when she couldn’t see how the behaviors were abusive.
For relationships that have become physically violent, there may also be the fear keeping a woman from leaving. Fear of physical retaliation if she tries to leave. Fear of making him more angry. This fear is not irrational, the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she leaves.
However, what society doesn’t often see, are the psychological/emotional reasons women stay. These reasons are harder to understand then children, isolation, fear or financial dependent, because they aren’t so concrete. It’s like trying to understand what depression feels like when you’ve never been depressed.
So let me try to describe what being in a DV relationships feels like.
One thing to understand is that abuse doesn’t begin all at once. It’s a slow gradual build up. I would hope that every women would run the other way if a man hit her on the first date, but that isn’t what happens in these relationships.
These abusers are charming, they woo and work their way into your life. Before you know it, you are in a committed relationship, a marriage, having his children, etc. And suddenly, the things that may have seemed sweet and loving at first (his jealousy and possessiveness of you), have turned into attacks of rage. “why are you wearing that to work? Are you trying to impress some guy at work? You are such a slut”.
What started out as insults has turned into verbal threats, which then turn into small physical attacks like holding your arm to hard or shoving, which then turn into hitting or choking.
And once a woman finally realize that what is happening is abuse, she may instead blame herself for the abuse, rather than the abuser. These abusers are experts at making you think that it is the victims fault. “I yelled at you because you wore a low shirt and I know you are trying to get attention from other men. If you didn’t dress like a slut I wouldn’t have to hurt you”. These constant comments work their way into a woman’s mind, and soon she is blaming herself for the abuse and trying to fix it.
They may think, “if I just cook a better dinner, don’t piss him off, nag him less, etc. etc….he won’t be abusive”. Abusers often feed into this. As I stated in my own story, my ex would often tell me I was “so difficult to please” and that I was the reason why he would get so upset and throw things. And I believed him. A confidant, smart woman who grew up in a supportive and loving family. I was not what society often pictures as the “typical” victim.
Another thing to realize, in addition to the slow build up of abuse and victim blaming, is that these men are not abusive all of the time. There is a cycle, and for most cases, there is a honeymoon period that draws women back in. There is a hope every time that it was the last time. Every honeymoon phase draws you back in because things are good again. He is sweet. He is apologizing. He is saying that he will never hurt you again.
This often connects to a hope for change. The hope that if YOU (since you are clearly the problem), just do “better”, than he will change. You can help him and heal him. I remember feeling that way. Telling myself that I was going to be the girl who would stick by him and help him. I would be the one to help him change. If I just loved him enough, supported him enough, was a good enough girlfriend, etc. etc.
But eventually the realization comes that nothing will ever be “enough”. This abuse has nothing to do with the victim, and everything to do with the abuser.
If you made it to the end of this: THANK YOU!
I know it was long, but every time I tired to cut something I felt like I didn’t want to, because it would take away from the story, from the message and the feeling. You can’t know what sometime feels like unless you’ve experienced it yourself, but you can understand better if it is described to you in the right way. My hope was to describe these emotions, feelings and stories into something that people can begin to understand. And with that understanding come compassion and support.
Next week is my final post in this series where I will talk about what YOU can do to help a woman who is in a DV situation.