“Why doesn’t she just leave?”
How often do I get asked this question? Sometimes in my reply, I try to turn it around and ask, “Why do men keep abusing their partners?” I think that’s a valid question (and it’s a question SafeHaven is actively addressing through reformative programming – but that’s for another Op Ed piece!)
Most of the time, I use the question as an opportunity to teach a little bit about the dynamics of domestic violence. That domestic violence is about power and control – one person having power over another, and using that power to control them. Most domestic violence victims, long before the relationship is physically or sexually violent, suffer from something called “coercive control” by their partners. This is the way an offender dominates every single part of a victim’s life without ever needing this to move to something more violent. Author Rachel Louise Snyder describes this perfectly in her book No Visible Bruises, and she writes that, “The control runs the gamut…from their access to money, food, and transport to how they dress, clean, cook, or perform sexually.” She adds that activists call victims of coercive control “passive hostages in their own homes.” They are trapped.
Victims stay with their offenders for many, many reasons. I would argue that three reasons typically stand out – and are what we hear the most from those we are lucky enough to work with day after day. The first is this: they’re hedging their bets. The system is not set up to support domestic violence victims. Victims are often not believed, even when they do “everything right,” like calling the police for help. Often times the law and the system are on the side of the offender, so the victim knows that, at the end of the day, she might not be saved. She will be trapped with him, alone, again. So every outcry, every action step on the part of the victim is a calculation toward her own future safety. Victims do what is safest for them at the time.
The second big reason victims stay? Offenders are not abusive all of the time. He didn’t strangle her on the first date. What we’ve heard from survivors time and time again over the years is this: I don’t want my relationship to end, I just want the abuse to stop. And victims stay because they maintain hope that a healthy relationship is possible.
And finally, threats. When an offender says, “If you leave, I’ll kill you,” or, “If you leave, there will be consequences,” and makes other comments like these, those are not empty threats to a victim. They are very, very real. Chances are, he has acted on a threat in the past – and he only had to act on a single threat previously for every future threat to have it’s desired effect.
Along with the, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” line of thinking often comes other commentary – like, “She is so smart! What’s she doing with him?” or, “Her family says they’ll be there for her – why doesn’t she go to them?” Domestic violence is complex. It’s hard to imagine if you’ve been lucky enough to not have experienced it yourself. But what you should know is that leaving, above all else, is a process. It requires months and sometimes years to prepare and plan and determine what’s the safest way out.
Leaving is never a singular, spontaneous event. So when you’re wondering why she doesn’t just leave, you may want to consider that she’s already working on it.