I have lived through domestic violence. I grew up in a home where it was a daily occurrence. I was subjected to the attentions of a man who should have known better. Against my better judgment, I still found myself following down the statistical path and married a man whom after convincing me to move away from family and friends finally was allowed to fully express his need to control me and eventually my daughter.
Throughout all the abuses of my life, I kept hearing the same question: “Why didn’t you just leave?” This is a question that has bugged me because it has no answer that makes other people happy. If a woman doesn’t leave, then it’s assumed it’s not really as bad as she says it is. Or worse, that she somehow is less of a person for not standing up and protecting herself or her children. If a woman retaliates against her abuser instead of leaving, she is often “villainized” as over-reacting and has to explain to a disbelieving jury how, over time the abuse she endured came back out in one massive storm. The laws are set up in such a way, that she will be the one behind bars while in most cases, her abuser walks free. Rare are the cases that she actually kills him and saves other women and children from his abusive ways.
When discussing Domestic Violence, it’s easy for people who’ve never experienced it to think that leaving is as easy as just walking out the door; turning away; hanging up a phone. It’s easy to take the emotional attachment out of a relationship and treat it like acquaintances meeting on the street. Of course you wouldn’t let a stranger beat or demean you. But Domestic Violence relationships start off just like any other romantic relationship. Happy. Sweet. Loving. It’s only over time that they progress to something more sinister. They last because the abuser has built a web, like a spider that makes it difficult to extricate oneself from the influence. Abusers are charismatic in public and easily win the affection of friends and family. But in private they slowly begin taking more and more control either through force or most often playing on the emotional investment of the victim. Eventually, we begin to convince ourselves that maybe we aren’t doing everything just right. If we tried just a little bit harder like he suggests, then he’d be happy, too. The desire to keep everyone happy overrides the common sense to just give up and walk out before it gets too dangerous to leave. So many women and children die every year because of a conditioned emotional investment that I liken to a deadly Florence Nightingale Effect. We care for someone. We envision them happy and satisfied with life. We try to help them get there. We invest our lives to do so. Unfortunately in this situation, “the patient” is not suffering a broken leg that can be healed. In the case of Domestic Violence, the patient is looking for control. His “happiness” is only defined by his ability to subjugate, destroy and overpower.
But yet still people ask “Why don’t you JUST leave?” Maybe a 15-year-old can JUST leave, depending on how crazy the “boy” is she was involved with. But most grown women can’t JUST leave. We have to explain ourselves. If we say abuse, people try to convince us it didn’t happen, or we were just imagining it. Or worse, “It couldn’t really be THAT bad.” Then we are called out to explain why we THINK it was abuse and not just normal relationship ups and downs. After all, no one is perfect. And if the abuse happens in a marriage, it’s even harder to JUST leave. People want you to “work it out.” Or tell you to just “try harder.” Again, “It can’t really be THAT bad.”
As I was trying to extricate myself from a long relationship and marriage, I was often asked “Why didn’t it start earlier?” The funny thing about that question is, the answer. IT DID START EARLIER. But I was already invested and conditioned. The very fact that I left my home, my friends, my family, a great job and gave up my joys of flying and dancing every week to move to a place I never wanted to live and had no connections is a big indication that the abuse had begun much earlier. It just grew over time and eventually with my death-defying pregnancy became too much to bear.
But still yet, I get asked the question, “Why didn’t you JUST leave, sooner?” The truth is, once I recognized the situation, I still didn’t want to admit it to myself. I was a strong, seemingly independent woman. I was educated and had achieved some amazing things in my life. I had already escaped a dangerous situation when I left the home at 17. Could this really be happening, again? To me? It was only once I realized the man I married didn’t exist, did I begin to take control of my life again. But again, I didn’t JUST leave. I had to be careful. More careful than many would have been able to be, and more careful than some thought I needed to be.
But through all of that, I still hear, “Why didn’t you JUST leave?” This is the WRONG question. As a witness to violent abuses growing up and as a survivor of violent abuses as both a child and an adult, I find this question offensive and demeaning. It’s not the right question to ask.
Domestic Violence is a real phenomenon and it’s growing exponentially. It is not a problem of one demographic but crosses all generations, ethnic groups and economic classes. Even women are becoming the aggressors now.
Domestic Violence is not something we can just ignore or put on the victim anymore. The question “Why didn’t you JUST leave?” does just that. It assumes the victim is in control and has the power, ability and resources to JUST leave. It lets the aggressor off the hook. It lets him walk around free proclaiming his innocence. Because if it really were “that bad” he’d be in jail, right?
The RIGHT question that should be asked is “Why didn’t he JUST STOP?!” He’s the one in control. He’s the one who made the decision to push it just a little further. He’s the one who decided to do in private what he would never do in public. Why didn’t he JUST STOP? Just like in a deadly plane or car accident, the pilot or driver in command is the focus of the problem that needs to be fixed. Until we can start focusing on that question, Domestic Violence will continue to be an epidemic. It’s time to change the question and put the responsibility of change where it belongs; on the abusers.
If you need immediate assistance, dial 911.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
For more information and to find local support organizations visit the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.