Why doesn’t she just leave? When people learn that we work in a domestic violence shelter, that’s one of the questions they almost always ask. It makes sense. If someone were abusive to you, why in the world would you stick around? And if you did stick around, wouldn’t you just be asking for more abuse?
Life is rarely that simple, and you don’t have to work with victims of domestic violence for very long to realize how complicated that seemingly simple question can be. But if we’re going to overcome domestic abuse, it’s important to listen to the answers. That’s why there’s been a social media effort built around the #whyistayed hashtag.
Every day, our crisis line brings calls from women who are in abusive situations. The degree of danger varies, and many women aren’t ready to ask for a place in a women’s shelter or even an escape. They’re torn and are looking for guidance. As we talk with them, we try to get a sense of what’s keeping them in their situations so we can help them find the courage to move to safety.
Sometimes, it’s a belief that they can “fix” their abuser. It’s a hope that love is a strong enough force to overcome abuse and move their abusive relationship to something happier. But that isn’t going to happen. Abuse and violence won’t be cured by love and affection.
Often, women blame themselves. “If I didn’t do this” or “if I only worked harder to make him happy” they say, not yet realizing that they’re not the cause, because there simply is no excuse or reason that justifies abusive behavior toward another person.
Many women stay because they don’t have the resources to flee. They have no money of their own, or they lack a car. Domestic violence is about control, and it’s not unusual for abusers to take complete control of family finances. Often, they’ll work hard to separate women from their friends and family, so the women can’t reach out to others who care about them. Abusers may even move the family to another state to put potentially helpful friends and relatives out of reach. So a woman who walks out the door has nothing. If she can’t go to a place like Sheltering Wings, where can she go? Where would you go if you had only the clothes you were wearing?
One of the biggest reasons women stay is one of the most heart-wrenching: they want to protect their children. They can’t leave them behind, and they worry about providing for the kids if they take them away. They don’t want to deny their children a father. Some even put up with physical abuse so their partner won’t turn his anger on the kids. Their love for their children is so strong that they sacrifice their emotional well-being and put their own lives at risk.
It isn’t our place to sit in judgment of these women, or to second-guess their reasons. What we provide is information, advice, and resources. We let them know about the children’s services and children’s programs we offer. We help them find ways to overcome the emotional and financial roadblocks that force them to stay. And, even though so many stay, 70% of abused women eventually end their abusive relationships with violent partners. Our ultimate goal is to help them live safely and independently, whether the route there leads through our shelter or other community resources.
The next time you hear of a woman who is living in an abusive situation, don’t question her courage or her intelligence by asking why she stays. Ask yourself what you can do to help her leave. Becoming knowledgeable about the realities of domestic abuse is a good first step.