“Why don’t you just leave?”
When it comes to domestic violence and dating violence, we tend to focus on why anyone would willingly stay in an abusive relationship. After all, no one would stay with someone who hurts them, right?
The truth is, on average, it takes a victim seven attempts at leaving an abusive relationship before they leave for good. It takes a lot of courage to leave, yet most people don’t realize that the decision to leave is one of the most dangerous times for a victim of abuse.
For Native Americans, the impacts of domestic violence and dating violence are severe, affecting one in two women and one in three men, according to the National Institute of Justice. Most Native people have experienced violence in their lifetime, and one-third of the population has faced violence in the past year.
No matter the reason for the abuse, domestic violence and dating violence are not our traditional ways. Like colonization, domestic violence and dating violence are about power and control, where one partner uses repeated abusive actions to maintain power over their loved one. So, why not leave?
Here are some reasons why our friends or relatives might stay:
Fear of what could happen keeps may keep a relative in an abusive relationship. Fears for family, children or pets often plays a role, especially if an abuser has threatened loved ones in the past. Unfortunately, being a ‘victim’ also carries an unfair stigma, instilling fears of being identified or retaliated against for speaking out.
Many survivors of domestic violence or dating violence don’t report abuse out of fear or distrust of local authorities, or because they don’t think reporting will do anything to help or change the situation. In many cases, silence can feel like the safest option.
Many survivors who stay in abusive relationships love their partner and may feel like if they just “stick it out,” their partner will change. They may hope that the relationship will return to happier times and decide to stay, rather than end the relationship completely.
Family and Community
When children are involved, some survivors may try to maintain harmony within the family by staying in an abusive relationship. They may feel pressure to raise their children with both parents together or fear losing their children if their partner threatens to take or harm the children if they were to leave.
Leaving could also mean standing up to an abuser with power in the community or a prominent family, stoking fears that everyone will take the abuser’s side. Some people might fear leaving their tribal community—one’s family and culture—in order to escape the abuse, which may be too much to bear.
Denial or Shame
It’s not always easy to admit that you’re being abused, and your friend or relative may worry that their loved ones will judge them. Victim-blaming and shaming—where survivors of violence are blamed for the crimes committed against them—is another issue. Asking questions like “Were you drinking?” or “Did you talk back?” are unfair and critical, making it difficult for people to reach out.
No Money or Resources
Not having money or resources in order to leave often keeps victims in abusive relationships. Even if they were to leave, a survivor may think they have nowhere to go or anyone to turn to for help. While shelters provide support for escaping abuse, access to Native-centered or tribal resources aren’t always available.
Being in abusive relationship often leads to doubts of self-worth. Abusive partners often manipulate and criticize their partner to shake their confidence or destroy connections to those who support and love them. Your friend or relative may blame themselves for the abuse or believe that they somehow deserve it.
Tips for Supporting A Loved One
It can be hard to watch a friend or relative suffer at the hands of someone they love. Now that we know some reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships, we can better understand why leaving is not as easy as it seems. It is critical to stand by your loved one, no matter what.
Remember, your loved one—the person experiencing the abuse—is the expert when it comes to their safety and survival, despite your best intentions. So, how can you help?
● Believe their experience. If a friend or relative confides in you that they are being abused, listen and take the situation seriously. Be patient and take time to listen. Avoid judgments. Allow them to tell you as much or as little as they want to share. Storytelling plays an important role in Native communities, so allow time for this process.
● Understand that your loved one did not intend to love someone who hurts them. It’s not always easy to tell if a relationship will become abusive. While there are red flags to watch for, abusive behavior can appear at any time in a relationship. No matter if you think they should have known better, your loved one is not to blame for the abuse.
● Trust in their resilience. Remember—it may take several attempts for your friend or relative to leave if they choose to do so. What you can do is show that you love, care and stand by them, no matter what. Whichever way they choose to seek help, the next steps are always their choice, which is critical to rebuilding their self-esteem and personal sovereignty.
● Offer helpful resources. It’s okay to offer helpful resources, but always allow your loved one to decide what they need. Some tribes have domestic violence programs and advocates that support survivors in various ways including assistance with navigating the legal system, transportation or safe housing options, or with filing a protection order.
● Find healing for yourself. It can be hard to know what to say or do when a loved one is being abused. In this case, it may be helpful to speak with someone to help you cope. The StrongHearts Native Helpline – 1-844-7NATIVE – can assist in finding resources and help you navigate difficult conversations together. Traditional healing such as smudging, talking circles or ceremonies can also help clear the mind, body and spirit.
There are many reasons why your friend or relative might stay with an abusive partner. You can be a good relative by supporting them in making their own decisions and acknowledging that leaving is not an easy decision to make.
Where to Get Help
Concerned a loved one might be in an abusive relationship? Support and resources are available through the StrongHearts Native Helpline – 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483) – open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. CST. After hours callers have the option of connecting with the National Domestic Violence Hotline or to call back the next business day. All calls remain anonymous and confidential. Domestic violence and dating violence are not our traditional ways, and neither is ever okay.
Mallory Black, Diné, is the Communications Manager for the StrongHearts Native Helpline, a confidential and anonymous helpline for Native Americans affected by domestic violence. If you or a loved one is in an abusive relationship, support is available at 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483), open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. CST. Advocates offer peer-to-peer support and referrals to culturally-appropriate resources for domestic violence. After hours calls may choose to connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and all calls remain anonymous and confidential.