Domestic Violence: If the Abuse Is so Bad, Why Do You Stay?

Thinkstock/Benjamin Howell / Why stay? That is the question most often asked of people who don't leave their abusers. There are myriad reasons.

“Lady, if it’s so bad, why don’t you leave?”

Said the police officer standing in my kitchen, summoned by me in response to an explosive situation in my home. He stared at me as I wept.

His partner was in the next room, having a friendly, animated discussion with my abuser about college football.

“Unless there’s a visible injury, it’s your word against his,” said one of the officers as he left.

So why indeed would I, and other abused women, stay? That is the million-dollar question now, isn’t it? Understandably, an outsider looking into an abuse victim’s life would wonder why she wouldn’t just get the hell out. Unless you are locked up and chained, the door’s open, right?

Maybe that’s why there has been so little sympathy and understanding for Janay Palmer, who was brutally punched in an elevator by then boyfriend NFL star Ray Rice. Her response to the incident? She married him.

And who can forget singer Rihanna’s black-and-blue relationship with Hip-Hop artist Chris Brown, whose 2009 assault on her became headline news? Fans were flabbergasted when they eventually got back together. They couldn’t understand why a beautiful, successful and talented star like Rihanna, who has her choice of eligible men, wouldn’t just kick Brown to the curb.

There are many, many reasons why victims of domestic abuse don’t leave. For me, it was a complicated entanglement of emotions: fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment, forgiveness, hope that things would get better and yes, even love.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, an outspoken advocate against domestic violence and author of Crazy Love (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), throws in one other possibility.

“I was a very typical victim because I knew nothing about domestic violence, its warning signs or patterns,” she wrote.

Neither did I. Growing up in a family where my parents fought regularly, I thought conflict between partners was normal. I had a high tolerance for dysfunction, I guess. He had grown up in a family where a big, strong man ruled the roost with anger and rage.

So maybe we were perfectly matched after all.

The Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis surveyed groups of women in its counseling program about why they had stayed in their abusive relationships. Here are some of the top answers the women gave:

• She may fear her partner’s actions if she leaves.

• The effects of abuse may make it difficult to leave.

• She may have concerns about her children.

• Her partner may make it difficult for her to leave or get help.

• Her personal history may have shaped her attitude toward abuse in relationships.

• She may be deeply attached to her partner and hoping for change.

• She was taught that it’s her job to maintain the relationship and support her partner, so she may feel guilty about leaving or feel she has failed.

• She may be economically dependent on her partner, or her partner may be economically dependent on her.

• Our culture sends the message that a woman’s value depends on her being in a relationship. Women without partners tend to be devalued.

To further complicate the situation, statistics do not favor women who leave an abusive situation. According to the Domestic Abuse Project, women are more likely to be victims of homicide when they separate from their husbands.

At the 2012 TedxRainier event, Steiner echoed that frightening fact.

“More than 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship, after she’s gotten out, because then the abuser has nothing left to lose,” she said.

Since the Ray Rice incident, victims of domestic violence have come out of the shadows, ending their silence through a Twitter campaign that has exploded online.

If you’re wondering why victims don’t just leave, read the honest truth on Twitter at #WhyIStayed. You can also read how some women, like me, found the courage to get out of an abusive relationship at #WhyILeft.

Indian Country Today Media Network wants to hear your stories, too. We are starting a hashtag campaign on Twitter to draw out Native responses to the #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft campaigns that ran on CNNback in September. Go to Twitter to share your own stories at #WhyThisNativeStayed and #WhyThisNativeLeft.

Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

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