Why do we stay?

A tough decision
  • UPD: 03-17-14
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Understanding why women stay in abusive relationships or remain silent... Do any of these questions sound familiar? "Why don't you leave if it's that bad?" or "How can you let this happen?" or "If I was you I wouldn't put up with that." or how about the king of asinine questions... " Why don't you just kick him out? "

By asking those questions or making those statements, friends and family members are re-victimizing us. Not having been abused, they have absolutely no idea what it's like to feel totally worthless and ashamed.

Their self-esteem has not been stomped into the floor. They have not been punched, stabbed, slapped, kicked, humiliated and degraded. They do not understand how the whole process of abuse gradually deteriorates soul and self... piece by piece.

Only those of us who are being abused can understand why we've stayed. We have a million reasons why we can't stay and million reasons why we can't leave.

Why battered women don't leave
  • Fear: The number one reason for not leaving is fear. Our fears are not unfounded given the fact that battered women are most at risk during leaving or after having left an abusive relationship. It is very important that our expression of fear not be minimized.

    If a decision to leave has been made, a safety plan must be put in place if you have reason to be afraid for your life. Don't take any chances if your partner threatened to kill you. When you're dead.. you're dead... that's it.
  • Lack of Resources: Since one of the major components of abuse is isolation, we often lack a support system. Our family ties and friendships have been destroyed, leaving us psychologically and financially dependent on our abusive partner.
  • Lack of Finances and Economic Reality: The economic reality for women [particularly those with children] is often a bleak one. Perhaps economic dependence on the abuser is a very real reason for remaining in the relationship. Public assistance programs have been drastically reduced and those that remain provide inadequate benefits.
  • Children: Being a single parent is a strenuous experience under the best of circumstances, and for most women, conditions are often far from fair and just when it comes to receiving either equal custodial access or full custody of their children from the court system.

    The enormous responsibility of raising children alone can be overwhelming. Often, our abuser may threaten to take the children away from us if we make attempts to leave.
  • Feelings of Guilt: Sometimes we may believe that our partner is "sick" and/or needs our help; the idea of leaving can thus produce feelings of guilt.
  • Promises of Reform: Our abuser promises it will never happen again; we want to believe this is true.
  • Sex-role Conditioning: Most women are still taught to be the family care-giver and care-taker. To leave is to abandon them and therefore admit failure.
  • Religious Beliefs and Values: Religious beliefs reinforce the commitment to marriage. Many faiths hold that the wife is responsible for the welfare of her family. This may be a powerful reason for staying in a destructive relationship.
  • Societal Disbelief Concerning Battered Women: Many people turn a "deaf ear" to marital violence and believe that what goes on behind closed doors is a "private matter."

    The observance of a burglary, child abuse, or even cruelty to animals in the neighbourhood might quickly be reported; whereas, an assault on a wife or significant other may not and often is not reported.
  • Love for Spouse: Most people enter a relationship for love, and that emotion does not simply disappear easily or in the face of difficulty. After a battering, our abuser is often extremely penitent.

    Because our self-esteem is so low following the incident, the apologies and promises of reform are often perceived as the end of the abuse.
Defining Battered Women's Syndrome

An except from DivorceNet: To understand battered women's syndrome, one must first understand how someone becomes a "battered woman". According to Dr. Lenore E. Walker, the nation's most prominent expert on battered women, a woman must experience at least two complete battering cycles before she can be labeled a "battered woman".

The cycle has three distinct phases. First is the tension-building phase, followed by the explosion or acute battering incident, culminating in a calm, loving respite - often referred to as the honeymoon phase. Walker, L., The Battered Person (1979).

It is also important to understand why battered women stay in abusive relationships. The Court in People v. Aris, 215 Cal App 3d 1194, 264 Cal Rptr 167, 178 (1989) stated that "battered women tend to stay in abusive relationships for a number of reasons."

Among those reasons:

  • women are still positively reinforced during the honeymoon phase
  • women tend to be the peacekeepers in relationships
  • the ones responsible for making the marriage work
  • adverse economic consequences
  • it is more dangerous to leave than to stay
  • prior threats by batterer to kill self, or children; or to abscond with children
  • lost self-esteem
  • no psychological energy to leave - resulting in a learned helplessness or psychological paralysis.

"Battered woman syndrome describes a pattern of psychological and behavioral symptoms found in women living in battering relationships." People v. Romero, 13 Cal Rptr 2d 332, 336 (Cal App 2d Dist. 1992); See Walker, L., The Battered Person Syndrome (1984) p. 95-97.

There are four general characteristics of the syndrome:

1. The woman believes that the violence was her fault.
2. The woman has an inability to place the responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
3. The woman fears for her life and/or her children's lives.
4. The woman has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.

Working Through Battered Women's Syndrome

Many battered women, having been systematically abused by our partners, perceive that there is no way out of our relationship. Many of us believe that if we stay, he will eventually kill us and that if we leave, he will track us down and kill us. We feel trapped and helpless.

Some battered women, believing there are no options to escape the abuse, may kill their abuser.

1] Denial: The woman refuses to admit - even to herself - that she has been beaten or that there is a "problem" in her marriage. She may call each incident an "accident". She offers excuses for her partner's violence and each time firmly believes it will never happen again.

2] Guilt: She now acknowledges there is a problem, but considers herself responsible for it. She "deserves" to be beaten or treated badly, she feels, because she has defects in her character and is not living up to her partner's expectations.

3] Enlightenment: The woman no longer assumes responsibility for her partner's abusive treatment, recognizing that no one "deserves" to be beaten. She is still committed to her relationship, though, and stays with her partner, hoping they can work things out.

4] Responsibility: Accepting the fact that her partner will not, or cannot, stop their violent behavior, the battered woman decides she will no longer submit to it and starts a new life.

deny, Deny, DENY! - a self-destructive coping mechanism
  • The victim deserves whatever abuse he receives.
  • Victims provoke their abusers.
  • Battered men are masochistic.
  • Abuse doesn't happen to nice people.
  • It could never happen to me.
  • Deny or minimize the abuse.
  • Constantly blame themselves.
  • Have very low self esteem, which makes them even more vulnerable to their abusers.
  • Have unexplained physical injuries, or the explanation seems implausible.
  • Show symptoms of depression or anxiety.
  • Display decreased concentration or sleeplessness and fatigue.
  • Burn themselves out trying to please the needs of his spouse or family, while neglecting his needs.
  • Cling to the promise that their abusers will change.
  • Believe that if they stay long enough, they will be able to rescue the situation.
  • See themselves as husbands and fathers who should be nurturing and forgiving of their partner.
Denial is an extremely ill and/or battered state of mind and can be tremendously difficult to break.

Denial keeps abuse victims locked inside abusive situations and relationships for long periods of time.
Why doesn't she just leave?

[ NOTE: This article is directed toward the people who have not walked in the shoes of an abused woman. ]

A woman in a violent relationship has only two choices, and both of them are bad.

She can leave the batterer, thereby losing economic security for herself and her children, her position in her community, and the partner whom she loves despite his cruel behavior.

She may also lose the support of traditional-minded family and church members, who believe she should endure all things in order to keep her family together. And since battered women are in the greatest danger when they leave their batterer, she may be stalked, threatened, attacked, and even murdered.

If she stays with her partner, she risks losing her children, who can be taken from her by well-meaning relatives or by the courts because she supposedly cannot or will not protect them; she risks losing even more of her self esteem; she risks painful, terrifying, and humiliating abuse; and, ultimately, she risks losing her life.

And regardless of her choice, when she later tells her story, she will be met with the incredulous, contemptuous demand: "Why didn't you just leave the first time he hit you?"

It all seems so simple, from the outside. He hits you, you leave. But battering doesn't begin with a blow to the head, out of the blue. Battering begins with a look, an attitude, an inflection.

  • Would you leave your partner if he looked at you "funny?"
  • If he seemed angry for some unknown reason?
  • If he took control of the checkbook because  "you just don't do it right?"

Neither would a battered woman. And because his behavior is so calculated to keep her off balance, she treads more carefully, tries harder to abide by his wishes and to please him. By the time the batterer actually strikes her, she may already believe that she provoked the assault because she wasn't good enough.

An average of seven times

A battered woman leaves her partner an average of seven times before she breaks with him permanently. She doesn't return because she is stupid or gullible or a masochist. She returns because she doesn't want to just give up on someone she loves and has planned a future with.

She returns because her children miss their daddy. She returns because she hopes that the future will be better. She returns because she hopes that she will be better.

And that is what is so hurtful about domestic violence. It could happen to any of us, under the wrong conditions, with the wrong partner.

Women are so well-programmed to believe that our successes are due to luck and our failures are due to laziness or a lack of character. Add a violent, angry, manipulative man into the variables that determine self-esteem, and few of us would be able to emerge from such a relationship with our self-esteem intact. Even fewer of us would be able to just cut our losses and walk away.

Instead of asking "Why don't you just leave," ask "Why doesn't he stop beating her?"

Instead of vilifying a welfare mother, condemn the violent man who made her choose poverty for herself and her children over a painful, dangerous lifestyle. Instead of saying, "it's none of my business, " call the police, and then be a support person for a woman who faces a terrifying future, either with or without the batterer.

A battered woman has only two choices. You have several. What will they be?

[ "Why Doesn't She Just Leave?" was written by Karen Nelson Grundy, a free-lance writer and an Executive Assistant at First Step, Inc., located in Wichita Falls. ]

See also:


A random selection of posts from our site:

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Codependency & abuse » - Are you currently involved in an abusive relationship? Do you seem to have a pattern of finding yourself in one abusive relationship after the other? Codependency is definitely an avenue worthy of your attention ...

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