It is perhaps the most common topic raised by those who don’t understand domestic violence – why women stay in abusive relationships. I have even heard it said, “Well, she must like it, or else she’d just leave.” Really? Who enjoys being emotionally and verbally denigrated, abused and oftentimes battered or beaten? Women stay in abusive relationships, but none are there for the thrill of the fight. It’s certainly not because they feed off the adrenaline of self-protection. Victims remain for plenty of reasons, and few of them are positive ones.
When a woman is threatened with, “If you call the cops, I’ll kill you,” it causes an immediate dilemma for her. If she calls the cops and they don’t get her to safety, she’s dead. If she calls law enforcement and they arrest the perpetrator, he may be jailed for perhaps as much as 2-3 days, released on bond, hunt her down and try to finish the job he started. So, a victim of domestic violence learns to correlate intervention by law enforcement with increased danger. Calling 911 becomes less and less of an option.
Some women will finally make a bold decision to obtain an injunction or restraining order. Let’s face it. One reason why women stay in abusive relationships is because most figured out long ago that piece of paper called a “restraining order” will not stop a bullet or knife blade. It doesn’t make a very good weapon to ward off a fist or strangulation. Quite often, when the abuser is served with an injunction, it results in immeasurable anger, rage and threats. Women of abuse watch. They see what happens to the women who took a step against their perpetrator. They know the outcomes. They take all this into consideration before deciding whether or not it is worth taking the risk—the risk to attempt to leave the relationship.
Women stay in abusive relationships because they fear retribution if they try to leave. We hear, almost daily, news reports of estranged or even divorced domestic violence victims who were stalked, hunted down and killed by their former intimate partner. Women stay in abusive relationships because they are frightened of what their batterer is capable of doing if they even speak of departing. Leaving a toxic relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic/intimate partner violence. Women stay in abusive relationships because the fear of leaving is greater than the fear of staying. They sense there is a much greater danger if they try to go. “What if” washes over them like a tsunami. They begin to realize that removing themselves from the relationship could result in their own death, and perhaps that of their children. Women stay in abusive relationships to protect their babies. Yours truly certainly did. It was what kept me there far too many years.
Another reason women stay in abusive relationships is quite common, and a bit convoluted. I stayed because it was familiar. I knew how to do dysfunctional standing on my head with my hands tied behind my back. The thought of trying a normal life was preposterous, mainly because I wouldn’t have known “normal” if it walked right up to me. There were times I lost my grip on reality. I had been convinced, “This IS how normal people live. If you think it’s like the soap operas, you’re crazy.” So, crazy and dysfunctional became my “normal.” There, I knew best how to handle each day as it was handed to me. I learned how to hide a lot—my suspicions, my desire to leave, overdue bills, suicidal tendencies—victims get really good at hiding things. They are experts at keeping deep, dark, dirty secrets. It was about 20 years later, when I decided to have my memoirs published, the ugliness was disclosed. The closet was opened, and the skeletons danced all around. Friends and family approached me. “How did we not know?” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “How did you keep it hidden?” The last thing I wanted was for those closest to me to see me as weak, stupid and broken. I was ashamed, and guilt ridden, so I simply became another woman who wouldn’t leave.
Please, don’t judge the women who stay in abusive relationships. Unless and until you have walked a mile in those shoes, you will probably never understand the mentality, the fear
or the reasoning for not leaving. Those who best understand the women who stay in abusive relationships are us women who also stayed in an abusive relationship, if for a short time, a long time, for the kids, the finances, religious reasons . . . we get it.