Why doesn’t she just leave? In my many years of gender based anti-violence work, I have heard this question a zillion times. Everyone asks it. Most of us assume if someone we love hits us we would just turn and walk out the door, never to engage this person again. But the reality is that domestic violence is so complex that it is difficult to comprehend, even when we have experienced it.
If you have ever watched the movie Sleeping with the Enemy, you can begin to identify actions that are clearly about the abuser’s behavior. Martin and Laura Burney are a handsome couple who appear very much in love, live in a gorgeous seaside home and seem to have everything. However, early on you begin to sense that perhaps all is not perfect. While in the bathroom drying her hands, Laura meticulously puts the hand towel back in place just so. In another scene, the Burney’s are attending a party and you see Laura, who is in conversation with someone, look across the room at Martin and immediately move to his side. His comments to her in further scenes make it clear – while never raising his voice – that he is fully in charge and she knows exactly what he requires simply by his looks. Until the very end of this movie there is no physical violence that occurs. So what is the barrier to leaving?
Fear. Fear of what is coming next. Fear of not stopping the violence. Fear of homelessness and hopelessness. Fear of not being believed. Fear of putting loved ones in danger. A victim of domestic violence fully comprehends that it is almost impossible to just walk out the door. It takes planning and resources. It takes external support of people and systems. And often it involves the belief that the partner causing harm really needs help and support and will stop being abusive.
Any person who decides that they have more rights than others that they are in relationship with are fully responsible for the behaviors they use to coerce, intimidate and threaten. These behaviors are purposeful and deliberate. The behaviors are meant to accomplish control of the other.
ICADV has created a graphic that illustrates the similarities between a soldier that has been in war and a victim of domestic violence. Some of the same thoughts on the infographic are: …I never knew when the next attack would be; …I found ways to cope with the violence; … I thought I would have options; I face new barriers to getting the help I need; …I can hardly remember the person I used to be. Both the soldier and the victim of domestic violence are struggling with the same things.
When a person has been subjected to emotional, financial, spiritual, and finally physical violence, they expend most of their energy and resources trying to figure out how to be safe and keep their other family members safe. What we don’t see are all the ways that victims of domestic violence try to stop the abuse and how often they cannot find support.
The question we always should ask is why doesn’t the person using abuse stop? Once we understand that is where the responsibility lies and that is where the behavior needs to change, we can accomplish a great deal toward ending domestic violence. While keeping victims safe, we must develop more effective means to work with those causing harm. And we must develop effective means to teach healthy relationship behaviors in order to prevent violence in the home from beginning.