“Why didn’t you just leave?” is the most asked question when I speak. It’s hard for people who maintain their own power and can do as they please to understand someone who believes - no - knows they no longer have that power. It’s been taken away from them.
I lived in a violent relationship for almost 20 years. I stayed for many of the same reasons that women return to their abusers.
First, because I loved him -- who I thought he was. He didn’t show up for the first date and slap me across the face. If he had, I would have called the police, had him arrested, stood up in court, pointed him out and said, “He did it.”
Instead, he showed up as a charismatic, thoughtful, romantic, kind, and loving man who was interested in me - what I thought and how I felt. He professed to want the same things out of life that I did. He was everything I wanted in a partner. How could I not fall in love with him?
I didn’t understand at the time that his interest in knowing all about me was his way to learn my vulnerabilities so he could later use them against me. And his desire to know how I thought, was only so he could twist my thinking to his will.
I fell in love with his false persona -my first impression of him. Later, I couldn’t help but think that if he could be that way once, he could be that way always.
Also, I stayed because he’d shared his pain with me, how no one but his mother ever stood up for him. How previous partners betrayed him, weren’t there for him, and misunderstood him. I wanted to be the one who stood steadfastly beside him. I wanted to heal him, save him. Then he’d be so grateful, he’d love me forever and treat me like a queen. That didn’t happen.
Physical abuse started early in our marriage. About the 4th time he slapped me around, he hit me so hard he popped my ear drum. At that stage in our relationship, I was still strong enough to tell him if he continued to hit me, I’d have to leave. He said, “I thought you loved me.” I said, “I do love you. But if you continue to hit me, I will have to leave.” His reply was, “Then you don’t love me.” My people-pleasing heart said to me, “Tell him you love him. Tell him you’ll never leave.” But my gut said, “Shut up! Don’t take it back.” I listened to my gut and set a boundary that day. I didn’t know it at the time because he’d swaggered over any line I’d ever drawn
After that, he quit hitting me but ratcheted up the verbal abuse and did borderline physical abuse, grabbing and shoving me, pinning me against the wall, screaming in my face that I was a stupid worthless women who couldn’t do anything right. The Stockholm Syndrome set in. Like kidnapped victims, over time I began to side with my captor and believe what he said about me. He destroyed my self-esteem.
Yet, I stayed because he set himself up as all powerful. I believed he could fool the legal system. He threatened that if I tried to leave he’d get custody of the kids and I’d never see them again. He had shady friends who he told me would lie for him in court and say I was an unfit mother.
Finally I stayed because he had a .357 magnum. He never threatened me with it, he didn’t have to. I knew it was there, loaded in his top drawer.
Toward the end of our marriage, he slammed me into the wall and pinned me with his arm across my throat, pressing in until I saw spots in front my eyes. He said, “You gonna leave me now.” That’s when I realized that he wasn’t hitting me because he didn’t want me to leave. So, now, if I say I wanted a divorce, what was going to keep him from beating me or getting out the gun and using it? I didn’t know.
Fear holds us or draw us back into the relationship. Victims have bad and worse choices. She leaves, he kills her (and possibly the children.) She stays, he brutalizes her and kills her.
We are a hopeful bunch. But, maybe it’s because we know he, and only he, holds the power to change the situation. So all we have is hope that he will change.
We go back because:
- We think we can handle the situation. We can fix things. We can tough it out.
- Our partner promises to change- Go into treatment/stop the drugs or other risky behavior.
- Our partner swears that he loves us and can’t live without us - he’ll kill himself if we don’t come back.
- He puts on that wonderful persona telling us-
- We have history, are you going to throw that all away?
- The kids need me. I’ll die if you take them away from me.
- I thought you loved me.
- We believe that this time our partner means it.
A professor, Amy Bonomi, from Ohio tracked 17 jailed abusers’ phone calls to victims and learned that the batterers were not threatening the women as expected. Instead, after the initial arguments over the phone, the batterers began using sophisticated emotional appeals designed to minimize their actions and gain the sympathy of the victims. The abusers managed to seal the couple’s bond of love, uniting them, then position them against “the others” who don’t understand their love. Making the legal system the enemy. From there, batterers manipulated the victim into dropping the charges or lying in court. (See: Social Science & Medicine online.)
“Practical” reasons victims stay:
- May not identify herself as a victim of abuse.
- Embarrassed to have anyone know.
- Family pressures her to return.
- Doesn’t know what resources are out there to help, she’s been isolated.
- Doesn’t want to ruin his career. If her partner loses his job, she and children lose their support. What good is it to put them in jail?
- Doesn’t have access to any money. Partner controlled it. She doesn’t know how to handle money. How will she and her children survive in the world?
- Can’t afford an attorney or may be assigned an attorney that doesn’t understand DV (very frustrating to work with a victim if you don’t understand the victim’s perception of the relationship.)
- Could be evicted from her apartment if the domestic violence goes public, or there is no place she can afford to live. Apartment owners don’t want people with a history of DV.
- For the children. Children will lose opportunities, activities, friends, change schools.
- Has a child with special needs and if she leaves the medical coverage ends.
- Cannot afford child care. Her partner may be the one who cares for the children while she works.
- Afraid to leave pets behind.
- May be a addicted to drugs and her partner is her dealer.
- Fears the unknown.
When a survivor leaves, she is expected to make life changing decisions. As a person who has never been allowed to make a decision, or if she did she was severely punished and told it was a wrong decision, it’s overwhelming and terrifying.
Survivors have to deal with:
- SAFETY, for kids and self.
- Negotiating the legal system they can’t afford, don’t understand and were taught not to trust -
- Terrified to testify in court in front of her abuser. If she breaks the Don’t Tell edict, he will kill her.
- She’s going into court a terrified, hysterical, emotional wreak. He’s going to walk into court, cool, calm, and lie about who she is and what she’s done. He’ll seem very credible.
- Being murdered
- She KNOWS -There is no place that she can hide that her abuser won’t find her. Every time the media reports a domestic violence related murder, calls to women’s shelters go down because an abuser tells his victim, “See, that’s what will happen to you.” Reinforcing his power position.
- Fear for her children’s safety while visiting with abuser. Children have been murdered to punish the victim.
- Stalking - relentlessly stalked.
- Everywhere the victims goes, the abuser shows up, follows them or leaves an indication that he’s invaded her personal space.
- Incessant phone calls all day and night. If she has a no contact order against her abuser, the abuser gets his friends or family members to call, or calls her anyway. The victim knows if she turns off her phone or doesn’t answer, he’ll come over and pound on her door or break it down and attack her -- restraining order or no restraining order.
- Abuser disrupts her work. He shows up or calls the victim at work, causing her to lose her job. Then interferes with her finding another job. He shows up at her interview or calls the company telling lies about her.
- Continually drags victims to court over petty issues in order to drain victim’s finances, energy, and time off work.
- Partner threatens to release embarrassing information about the victim. “Out” him/her if they’re same-sex partners. Threaten to report her if she is an undocumented person.
- Abusers may go away then return after many years to stalk the victim and re-assault or murder her.
In addition survivors are struggling with:
- Divorce proceedings and requirements- more time off from work
- Family court/child custody/visitation- He could get custody. Abusive men are more likely to fight for full custody and are as apt to get it as non-abusive dads.
- Child protection investigation- she could lose the kids.
- Kids emotional and physical needs.
- Her own grief and pain.
No surprise, victims give up and return. They want to stop the relentless hounding. They feel hopeless and helpless.