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Why Doesn’t She Leave?

Patrick Rothfuss is raffling a character name in his second book to raise money for Heifer International. Details on Pat’s blog.

Mermaid’s Madness discussion still going on over at my blog, and another on DAW’s LiveJournal.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. One of the questions I hear most often in talking about DV is why victims don’t just leave? If you’re in a bad situation, you get out of it, right? Leaving an abusive partner is common sense, as basic as coming in out of the rain.

Yet the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1.3 million women* are assaulted by an intimate partner every year [Ref].  An awful lot of those women will stay with their partners. Others will leave, but end up returning to the one who beat them. Why?

I asked the same question almost twenty years ago, when a dear friend showed up to school with a broken nose, courtesy of her boyfriend. She didn’t press charges. They stayed together for a long time after that. Why? How could she stay with someone who did that to her?

(Notice how the question puts the burden on her–how could she stay? How about we start putting the responsibility on the batterers?)

It’s easy to judge, and make no mistake, there’s an awful lot of judgement packed into that question. We ask why she doesn’t leave because we think a “healthy” or “normal” or “smart” person (i.e., someone like us) wouldn’t stay. What’s wrong with her that she does?

Start with the fact that batterers are very good at controlling their partners. They’ve spent years learning how. Physical violence is one tool in an entire toolbox of power and control.

Economic control is a popular one. If I have sole control over the finances, where are you going to go if you leave? How will you survive? Isolation is another. Most batterers learn to separate the victim from their friends and family, slowly cutting off those outside sources of support.

Add children into the picture, and it gets uglier. If you leave, will he punish your children? If you try to take the kids–if you take them away from their school, their friends, their father, and everything they know–will you be able to take care of them on your own, with no money or support?

Other techniques are more subtle. Emotional abuse chips away at the victim, slowly persuading her that nobody else would want her, that she should be grateful to be with the abuser. And he’s not abusive all the time. He’s a nice, friendly guy in public–nobody would believe he could hurt her, let alone kill her. Yet 1/3 of all female homicide victims are killed by their spouse or partner [Ref].

And women are most likely to be killed when they try to leave. It’s easy for me to say “Just leave him!” To someone in that situation, it’s literally a life or death choice.

How many of us have stayed in bad relationships even when we knew it was hurting us? How hard was it to finally sever those ties? For me, it took three years, and that was without a partner deliberately trying to control me. How much harder would it have been had I been seeing someone who had spent their life honing these tactics.

Oh, but we’d never let someone do that to us, right? We’re stronger than that. I’m sure most of the participants in the Milgram study thought they were strong too, that they would never let another person control them.

We ask why she doesn’t leave because we don’t understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship. If you truly want to be supportive, take the time to learn about power and control tactics. Debunk the myths about domestic violence. Learn what you can do to help someone who’s being abused.

And the next time someone asks “Why didn’t she just leave?”, maybe a better question would be, “Why don’t we do more to stop this kind of abuse in the first place?”

*It’s true that men are also victims of domestic abuse, and women can be abusive. I don’t want to minimize this, but since the vast majority of domestic violence is committed by men against women, I’m choosing to write about it that way.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
I'm very glad you were able to get away, that your life is better now, and that you're continuing to take care of your son.

There's a lot about society's response to DV that reminds me of the way we respond to sexual assault. In both cases, there's such a rush to judge the victim. Yet in both situations, you do what you have to do to survive. Nobody else who isn't in that situation has any right to second-guess or tell you what you should have done differently. You survived; that's what matters.
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)
Here in Minnesota, we recently had a case where the authorities all agree that the woman did everything right: leaving her husband, trying to get a restraining order, etc. And he killed her. The system failed her, he got into her house, and he killed her.

A friend of mine recently found out that when her mother first tried to leave her father, he hit her over the head with a large household object (I'm not specifying which because I don't want to out family details for someone who might not want them public). This head injury eventually made a substantial contribution to the friend's mother's premature death, years after she had managed to leave the abusive father.

They did "just leave." They did.
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
The average person asking the question just has no concept of how real the danger is. They don't get it, and it's frustrating as hell. How many people need to be crippled or killed before the rest of us start paying attention?
(no subject) - mrissa - Oct. 19th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)
The one big question I was asked, was "Why don't you leave?"

I was economically held hostage, and I was terrified that, after losing custody of my older daughters, I would never retain custody of the twins.

My friends stood by me, though. They didn't force me to leave, or pressure me about anything. They were there when I finally left. My one friend did caution me that if I went back, she wouldn't help any more, and I respect that.

But you're right, it's easy to ask why don't they leave.

The best advice I have for people who know of a DV situation, involving a friend/family member, is this:

Remind them, they have somewhere to go. Tell them, your door is open to them, and that they (and their children) are welcome to crash on your couch/in your spare room. If you don't have a place for them to stay, offer to drive them. Offer to hide their whereabouts, and help them through the governmental morass of food stamps, social services, finding a place to stay, daycare, and finding a job. Just... Be There. It sounds stupid, but really, it's the best thing a friend can do.
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this.

As I understand it, part of what gives the abuser such control is that he cuts you off from family, friends, and any other source of support. Letting the person know you're there for them, that they *do* have other people to turn to ... it doesn't sound stupid. It sounds powerful.
(no subject) - cat_mcdougall - Oct. 19th, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
Couple dynamics is a strange place. I found out, rather late*, that my paternal grandparents had lived apart for many years. They never divorced. My father was the youngest of three, all spaced ten years apart. I never asked what was going on there . . .

Anyway, our town has several "domestic violence" safe-houses, at least two with provision for children. I know about those because I designed them.

*Both paternal grandparents died before I was born. Our family does long generation spacing.
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
I almost posted about one of these aspects on my LJ yesterday: the economic aspect.

I have a lot of people come to me when they have friends in abusive relationships because I was in one for 13 years and then I escaped with my three kids. Now, my escape was very non-traditional because I was terrified of being hurt or killed and I was terrified of my kids getting hurt, too.

I used every last cent I had to rent an apartment out of town. I only had a part time job because my husband was controlling and...long story.

I threw my kids in the car one day while my husband was at work and LEFT. Moved out of state. I knew he wouldn't call the police because he'd already been reported for suspected sexual abuse twice.

He tried to find me. He didn't.

I moved back a year later. Those first few confrontations killed me. OMG, they killed me. Well, obviously, they didn't. I'm still here.

I never got a divorce so he couldn't have visitation rights. He wouldn't push it and I had to save my kids from him. At this point, I haven't seen him in over 10 years.

But, the point I was going to post is that, most single moms who leave abusive relationships probably don't ever recover economically if they don't remarry.

I'm an accountant. I work my butt off to support my family and try to get my kids into/through college.

It's. Never. Easy.

There's also NO emotional support network.

So, what I wish people would do is keep in mind that YES, women need to get away, but if you're one of those people encouraging them to leave, for God's sake, support them. Be there if they're having a hard time, need a hug, need a shoulder to cry on.

It's hard.

But, it's worth it.

(And, I struggle with the remnants of the emotional abuse every day. My oldest son, too. But, we're working on it.)

Sorry for the convoluted comment.
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
Perfectly eloquent and not convoluted in the slightest.
(no subject) - jimhines - Oct. 19th, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - queenoftheskies - Oct. 19th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lianemerciel - Oct. 19th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
I've always thought the question should be, "Why doesn't HE be the one to have to leave?"
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
It would be nice if we could fix our system to better put the responsibility where it belonged, wouldn't it?
(no subject) - barbarienne - Oct. 19th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Oct. 19th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
Scout's Progress is the story of a woman who has for years been under the thumb of an abusive brother, and how she begins to reclaim ownership of herself.

The most frequent. . .observation. . . we hear from readers who find this story unbelievable is: "Aelliana is too smart to allow herself to be abused."

Which is a really interesting bias.
Oct. 19th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)

Out of curiosity, how do you respond to such ... observations?
(no subject) - ex_rolanni - Oct. 19th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - professor - Oct. 19th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
Abuse is not always physical. I was married to a man for 20 years before he died. Three days after the funeral, my mother said to me, "At least the emotional abuse will stop now." From the inside of a relationship, you don't always realize just how bad it is.

I was luckier than many because I made more money than he did, so I didn't have economic problems when he died.
Oct. 19th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)
Yes. Abuse comes in a variety of forms. Emotional, physical, sexual ... in many cases, all of the above.
Oct. 19th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
My wife and I were both in horrible relationships the first time around, with different levels of violence. In my case, my ex would just kindasorta threaten to kill herself until I'd change my mind about leaving, and then got nasty when I finally cared little enough to let her follow through. With the Czarina, her ex was constantly and literally asking for the breaking point where he'd be justified in hitting her. Mine was just a bad relationship, even if she's still stalking me. In her case, though, the only reason why he didn't try was because she stands six inches taller than him and isn't afraid to use a tire iron in defense. This is why neither of us downplay how hard it is to leave an abusive relationship, especially if the abuse never gets past being passive-aggressive.
Oct. 19th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Great to see you talking about Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I actually had the chance to interview author Kathryn Fox whose books address this subject and she had some great advice for what readers can do and just more information on the subject. She has even joined with authors like Kathy Reichs, Linda Fairstein, and Robin Burcell for the "Give a Victim a Voice" campaign. Feel free to check out the interview on BookBanter.
Oct. 19th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
I spent twelve years in a cult, nine of them married and having babies. There was no physical abuse, but the psychological and emotional control was absolutely complete. It took years for me to get the courage to walk out. When I did, I had to leave my kids behind. I had only a high school education and I hadn't worked in nine years. My parents were dead and I had no other family. But a shelter took me in and helped me find work and a place to live. They put me in touch with legal aid and a totally amazing lawyer.

I got my kids, I went to college, and years later, I married the Best Husband in the World(TM).

It never would have happened without public support. Not just the shelter, but state support, too. Legal Aid, food stamps, state-supported day care - all of that was necessary. Women need help for a long time after they leave an abuser. They need a chance to succeed. As a society, we need to make sure they get that chance.
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
I'm very glad you were able to get out, and that you were eventually able to get your children as well. And I definitely agree with you on the need for society to first of all acknowledge it and second to support and help those trying to escape.
Oct. 19th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
Been there, done that
quoting: But, the point I was going to post is that, most single moms who leave abusive relationships probably don't ever recover economically if they don't remarry.


My first husband had forged my signature on various loans and checking accounts so in many ways, I was better off on my own even though my income was impossibly low and things looked pretty bleak for a long time.

Another problem is that it's sometimes hard to admit you're abused when it's not like what you see on television. He never hit me that hard. I never had to go to the hospital, etc. An occasional slap up the side of the head can be dismissed out of character or stress-related (and especially in today's financial climate).

It's not as cut and dried as it is on television and it always looks different from the inside.
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Been there, done that
Yes. We're taught that abusers are loud, angry, drunk, physically violent villains. It's clearcut, black and white, and you usually know within the first minute that he's a bad guy...
Oct. 19th, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)
*It’s true that men are also victims of domestic abuse, and women can be abusive. I don’t want to minimize this, but since the vast majority of domestic violence is committed by men against women, I’m choosing to write about it that way.

Thank you for putting it this way.

As to the rest... (...) Yeah. Too many things in my head at once.
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I rewrote that footnote at least three times, trying to get it right. Or at least righter than it was...
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Oct. 19th, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
She left and eventually started a happy life with someone else. When she was 8 months pregnant and planning to marry that someone else, her ex stormed her workplace and shot her dead. The baby didn't live either.

She had begged the courts repeatedly for a restraining order and had been refused on the grounds that they had been separated for some time, surely she exaggerated. Guys don't keep pursuing a woman who has left them over a year ago and is now pregnant by someone else. Surely she was simply being vindictive and trying to make life difficult for the ex.

On the news, it was reported as a "crime of passion". Because he "just couldn't live without her" (around to be his punching bag) she didn't deserve to live either, I guess.

Until we get over the "oh, she's just being vindictive" and the "crime of passion" mentality in our legal system and media, a lot of women will remain trapped between staying and being in an unsafe situation and leaving and being even less safe.
Oct. 19th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
Yes. The way we talk about--as well as the way we *don't* talk about--domestic violence is completely messed up. It's not a private family thing. It's not normal. It's not passion. It's not women getting hysterical or overreacting.

"Crime of passion" is a phrase that needs to be excised from the language, I think.
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Jim C. Hines


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