By Heidi Hiatt
“So why didn’t you just leave?” The question hit a nerve somewhere near my third thoracic vertebra and sizzled in my right cheek like an antagonized hornet.
That question. I hate that question. I’m tired of that question. But I try to use that question to give people a crash course in the dynamics of domestic violence because they might end up saving the life of a victim. Everybody knows somebody.
When you’re in an abusive relationship, chances are you can’t just leave. You’ve heard me say it many times– the risk of homicide goes up 75 percent when you leave an abusive relationship. Your abuser might not want you anymore, and has tried to make you feel like the most vile, undesirable piece of filth on the planet, but let me tell you something– they still want control over you. Some will do anything to keep it. Anything.
There are some fantastic lists online that detail why victims of domestic violence stay, such as the LAPD’s Domestic Violence: Reasons Why Battered Victims Stay With the Batterers. I strongly suggest becoming familiar with this material because, if it hasn’t happened already, you’re going to catch wind of domestic violence close to you sometime and that person will need your help. Their life could depend on it.
All of the possible reasons a man or woman might stay in an abusive relationship won’t be listed here. I do want to expound on ten reasons victims don’t just leave. Please understand that reasons vary from victim to victim; one size doesn’t fit all.
1. The victim doesn’t understand that what they are experiencing is abuse.Growing up, I never realized that what was happening to my siblings and I was technically abuse. We didn’t know we could call 911, or tell an adult who could have involved the authorities. We thought it had to happen all the time or cause long-term physical injury. We knew that it was wrong, but we didn’t know we could have done something about it other than try to get family members to listen.
Recently I became aware of an incident in which the abuser told his daughter that if she sought help, nothing would happen because, “it’s not abuse unless it leaves a mark.” She is being conditioned to accept several types of abuse as normal and legal. This is what abusers do– they rationalize their behavior and remind you that it’s not as bad as you think it is or what you think it is. They often claim to be disciplining you, but their bursts of screaming rage, whether hands-on or hands-off, are ultimately meant to satisfy their own need for power and control.
Many of you are familiar with the Power and Control Wheel. Think of the wheel as a pie. Many people define domestic violence/abuse as physical violence. Abusers like you to believe that, because then they can raid your bank account, tear you down emotionally, sleep around, and threaten to slit your throat while you think there’s nothing you can do about it. Physical violence is just one piece of the pie. Get familiar with the other pieces so that you understand what’s going on. Domestic violence often starts in one part of the pie and moves to another, or gradually becomes the whole pie.
2. The victim doesn’t understand the cycle of violence.There are often three phases of domestic violence. Tension builds, the abuser explodes, and then the honeymoon phase sets in. Because of the honeymoon phase, a period in which the abuser may seem calm, apologetic, or remorseful, victims can be lulled into believing that life has gotten better and their abuser’s changed. But they must understand that the cycle will continue if not stopped, and that fragile appearance of peace is just the calm before the next storm.
Remember in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It when Ike Turner brought her presents after strangling and sexually assaulting her? That’s one manifestation of the honeymoon phase. It’s the time during which your abuser convinces you to stay because they don’t do it all the time, or the makeup sex was intense, or they went to counseling. Maybe they bought you a nice present, brought you flowers, or worked some overtime to pay some bills. You start to think that it’s not so bad and because it doesn’t happen all the time you’ll get through it.
Get off the fatal merry-go-round. Connect with a domestic violence advocate in secret, make a safety plan, and document what’s happening. If your abuser was serious about change he wouldn’t keep hurting you. Don’t let others convince you how dangerous he is or isn’t or whether or not he’ll escalate– you already know, deep down, that this is serious and it always repeats.
3. The abuser has brainwashed the victim into helplessness.You’re not hot anymore. You don’t dress sexy anymore. You’re not the svelte single digit size you were when you married him 15 years and three kids ago. You’re book smart, but you have no common sense. You could never survive on your own. You’ll have to leave the kids and pets behind if you go. No one will help you. No one will hire you. No one else would want an ugly, stupid ____ like you.
Millions, even billions, of victims hear these vicious jabs on a regular basis. This is everyday life in households across America and the world. After days and weeks and years of hearing how horrible you are, you start to believe the lies. The stress of constantly being told how inadequate you are doesn’t motivate you to eat heathier, go back to school, or work out, it makes it all worse.
Mental manipulation is like the sonic screwdriver in the abuser’s toolbox. They can bust it out anytime, anywhere, and use it to harm you, charm you, disarm you, or alarm you. Hear this: God made you a unique individual with a special purpose. You are beautiful to Him. Start listening to who He says you are and stop believing the lies that are pounded into your head mercilessly. You are worth so much more than this. You are not who your abuser says you are. Get help now.
4. The victim has conflicting emotions.You married them because you loved them, right? You still love them. It’s not the same as it was in the beginning, but you promised your life to this person. Because you love them, you want to make it work. They’re a selfish narcissist who terrorizes you and the kids half the time, but you know that good guy from your early days of dating is still in there somewhere.
You might have this argument with yourself many times while deciding what to do about an abusive situation. The thought of breaking that bond can be overwhelming when you love the person. As Sandra L. Brown often points out at her Institute for Relational Harm Reduction website, the feelings you have for a pathological personality (narcissist, sociopath, etc.) can be especially intense.
Ask yourself this: is it worth your life? Is there some unwritten rule that says if you love someone you’ll hang in there no matter what horrors they inflict on you, your kids, and your pets? God loves you more than anyone, and God doesn’t approve of you being terrorized, threatened, or beaten.
You might always have feelings, in some form, for that person. Or, like many of us who’ve gotten away from unhealthy relationships, you come to see the relationship realistically over time and realize that’s not what true love looks like. True love– a love that builds you up rather than draining you– could still be out there.
5. The victim has been convinced that their culture and/or religion does not allow them to move on.I wrestled with just such a theological argument for years. Some influences in my life had taught me that if you are divorced– no matter the reason– God will never, ever allow you to be married again. Even though I knew I had to get out, it seemed that I might have to live the rest of my life as a barren widow, practicing some sort of eternal faithfulness to someone who was already doing whatever they wanted.
“God hates divorce.” Yes He does. It’s in the Manufacturer’s Handbook. But God also hates evil and calls us to separate ourselves from it. Domestic violence isn’t a trivial trial incidental to marriage. It’s a sin. It’s wrong. It’s sick and selfish and sadistic. It allows the abuser to act as god rather than honoring the real God by honoring our spouse.
Unfortunately, the first place domestic violence victims go for help is often the last place they can find it– the church. This damning judgmental legalism you heard about in my Blaming the Victims post is pervasive in God’s house. Far too often, when victims speak to someone in the church about what’s happening to them, the first thing that happens is they’re counseled as to how THEY could make it better!
Pastors and priests need to understand that the first thing they should be concerned about when domestic violence comes up is the safety of the victims. The victim should not be guilted or burdened more than they already are. They shouldn’t be told to act more perky, make nicer dinners, or submit to their abuser more. They don’t need to be sat down with their abuser as if both of them need to humble themselves and make concessions. That’s aiding and abetting the abuse. What they do need is practical help from an advocate or agency who will consider their safety first and worry about the relationship later. Hook them up.
Domestic violence is wrong. Many aspects of it can result in criminal charges. I call on the church to stand united against it rather than taking the easy or uneducated out of making victims think they have to keep enduring it. That’s not Christian. That’s crazy.
6. The victim does not have enough resources to leave.This is a common problem. A victim may be financially dependent upon their abuser. Perhaps the victim doesn’t work, or makes less money, or is primarily responsible for the children. The thought of walking away with little or nothing keeps many trapped. They don’t know how they’ll survive. How do you eat? Where do you sleep? They might have heard that 40 percent of homeless women are homeless because of domestic violence (this is true in my area).
This last year, a group of coworkers got together to furnish an apartment and buy necessities for a woman and her children in this situation. They’d left the abuser with the clothes on their back and their toothbrushes. That’s it. Thankfully we live in a region where a lot of nonprofits, churches, and agencies will connect victims with resources to get them back on their feet. Many aren’t as blessed. But don’t assume there’s no way out– talk to an advocate or agency to find out what help might be available. And again, remember that it’s not worth your life.
7. The victim feels ashamed of or embarrassed by the abuse.Admitting that you’re a victim can be much more difficult than it sounds. A victim might think that speaking out or leaving screams failure. Disconnecting from a dangerous, toxic relationship is not a failure, but a victory. When you become free from the soul-sucking, potentially fatal chains that have held you down, you discover that there’s a whole world out there you were missing. Life blossoms with possibilities and you achieve things you never could have dreamed while someone else was drowning you.
You might process all sorts of confusing emotions while making it to safety, and your life might be peppered with negative people who treat you like you didn’t do enough. You know what? They need to work on their own issues, one of which is dissecting other people’s lives while ignoring the issues in their own. Hypocrites are hypercritical. Focus on the successes you have and that will come, not the coulda shoulda wouldas.
8. Fear.Plain and simple, fear is legitimate and justifiable in the context of abuse. We might be afraid of being murdered if we leave, which is why documentation and safety planning are so important. We might be afraid of what people will think. We could be afraid of the unknown. We could be afraid because we have no idea what to do next. The thought of being alone can be terrifying as well.
Ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker aptly stated, “Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.” As bestselling author Gavin de Becker says, fear is a gift, an instinct that can alert us to danger. So pay attention to that fear even when it doesn’t make sense. But also know that you can harness that fear to achieve positive change. Once you have overcome the fear that is holding you back by strategically leaving abuse behind you, who knows what you’ll achieve? You might, like me, find that where there was once fear there is now a passionate righteous anger that motivates you to help others.
9. The victim might be unsure that the police will believe or help them.I understand this well. That was a major hesitation and gamble for me. I had to report a cop to the cops. I was blessed with a police department and prosecution team who thoroughly understood what was going on. But years later, I’m still treated as a lying, vindictive attention seeker by some in the law enforcement community because I chose to stay alive. I remind myself that they don’t know, they’re quick to protect their own, and they have no idea how much sacrifice has been involved.
But this gut-wrenching dilemma is faced by victims of all walks of life in myriad locations. Will the cops believe me? I don’t have bruises right now. I didn’t start documenting this until the past year. No one else but me knows what he’s really like at home. He’ll just put on his Mr. Smooth persona if I call the police and convince them that I’m mental-emotional.
This is why domestic violence and sexual assault training is so important for first responders. They need to recognize red flags and take every allegation seriously. They need to document these incidents. Their agencies should require this of them so the treatment of domestic violence is not left up to their personal discretion. Despite the widely trumpeted myth that many women fabricate domestic violence allegations and sexual assault, studies show that the vast majority do not. Start by believing.
Victims, if what is being done to you is minimized or dismissed, keep trying. Contact a domestic violence hotline, a prosecutor, a local advocacy agency (like LifeWire in the Seattle area), someone who you can confide in. Have details ready and don’t downplay what the abuser’s doing. Don’t give up.
10. The victim doesn’t know where to start.Let’s solve that right now. Before you visit these websites, know how to swiftly delete your browsing history so that your abuser doesn’t know you were there. It’s advisable to use a computer the abuser can’t access outside of the home to view such information, like a library computer. Consider what information might be retained on your cell phone as well.
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Times Up! A Guide on How to Leave and Survive Abusive and Stalking Relationships
Document the Abuse – learn more about a valuable legal tool for victims called the Evidentiary Abuse Affidavit here
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Christian Mental Health & Family Hope Ministries
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
Start by Believing
National Network to End Domestic Violence
Love is Respect (National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, 1-866-331-9474)
Domestic Shelters – find a safe place near you
Stalking Resource Center
OutrageUs (stalking help)
If you’re in Washington State, here are additional resources, including for those in the greater Seattle area:
Crisis Clinic, 1-866-427-4747
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Christian Coalition For Safe Families
King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-562-6025
LifeWire, 24-hour help line 1-800-827-8840
New Beginnings, 24-hour help line 206-522-9472
The Hope Line, 206-432-8424 (help with a wide range of issues including domestic violence, human trafficking, housing, gangs, etc. as well as confidential prayer support)
In conclusion, next time you’re tempted to ask someone, “why don’t you leave?” or “why didn’t you leave?”, consider how that sounds. It sounds like you’re blaming them, which will only complicate things. Instead, as blogger Amy Thompson proposes in Language Matters When Engaging Survivors of Domestic Violence in Discussion, ask how they found the courage to leave. If they haven’t left yet, ask how you can help them. Even if you simply provide them with a hotline number, that could be their first step towards becoming a survivor rather than a victim.
You could literally save a life.
Read more on this topic, including tweets from survivors: #WhyIStayed
Take the first step, and your mind will mobilize all its forces to your aid. But the first essential is that you begin. –Robert Collier
Heidi Hiatt, MA recently graduated as a Forensic Psychologist. You can read more of her posts at her personal blog, Truth, Justice, and All-American Allergen-Free Apple Pie Straight Talk in a Crooked World