Mental Health for the Whole Family
Working in the field of domestic violence, often I hear this question come up: Why does she stay?
A recent interaction pushed me to consider this idea more. Is it a choice? If so, why does staying in a violent relationship look like a better option than leaving? Getting my beliefs and values challenged is never fun, but I always appreciate the opportunity to grow and consider thoughts outside my comfort zone.
For more than five years, I’ve worked for a nonprofit that specializes in resources related to domestic violence, including offering an emergency shelter, advocacy and counseling. We further work with the perpetrators of domestic violence, facilitating groups that try to challenge the core beliefs that are attributed to their actions.
I’ve worked with many women (and a couple of men) who have been in relationships where violence was present. It’s tough to hear their stories. And if I’m being honest, it’s hard to hear the reasoning of why they choose to stay. I must set my personal beliefs aside to truly empathize with their situations. My beliefs don’t come from a place of judgment; rather, they come from a place of deep concern for my clients’ welfare. I want them to be OK. I want them to be safe. I want them to stay alive.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2022), leaving an abuser is the most dangerous moment for a victim of domestic violence. Why? Because the abuser loses the control they love to have over their victim. With that can come a maladaptive approach to getting what they want. And truly, the interactions don’t end just because the victim leaves. That’s when the stalking and harassment begin.
But the victim can get a protective order, right? Yes. But in the eyes of an abuser, that’s just a piece of paper. At this point, the phone calls from random numbers begin. Each time those get blocked, they find another number to call from. When they’ve run out of those options, the emails or social media messages start. Those get blocked. Then the blaming begins, and the perpetual promises like “I’ll never do it again.” Or “If you hadn’t ____ (fill in the blank)” to convince the victim it is somehow their fault. The victim receives endless threats—to take the children, to expose her most private stories, to kill her.
The abuse is unfathomable, which is why so many victims say the least of their problems was the physical abuse. It’s the gaslighting—mental and emotional abuse—that’s so hard. And the isolation. Before she knows it, he has isolated her from friends and family, convincing her that they’re not to be trusted. So, when I hear the question “Why doesn’t she leave?” my response is “Leave to go where?” She can go to a shelter, but the thought of trusting strangers could be terrifying.
I’ve always respected and admired my paternal grandmother, even though there was a significant language barrier between us, with her limited English and my childhood lack of Spanish. I think of her when I’m asked the icebreaker question “If you could have dinner with any four people, living or dead, who would they be?” I want to know how this woman with no education and nine children somehow found a way to leave her own abuser, the person who was supposed to protect and honor her and their children. How terrifying was that? How many years did she endure the abuse before she risked everything to find safety?
The truth is this: There is hope and there is a path to freedom from violence. But the other truth is that no situation is black-and-white. Judging the victim doesn’t help defeat domestic violence. Let’s stop judging victims and work on building more honorable men.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact FSS at fss-ama.org or 806-374-5433.