Domestic violence: Why does she stay?
Debra Deems, LISW-S, MSW
Licensed Independent Social Worker
The damage from domestic violence can be much deeper and more severe than visible physical symptoms such as bruises. Those unfamiliar with the situation might ask themselves, "Why does she stay?"
Domestic violence, according to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, is a "pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners." For decades statistics have consistently shown that women of all kinds suffer from domestic violence more often and more severely than men. This is not to say that men are not abused, and those who are might stay with their partners for some of the same reasons.
One can probably imagine some of the fundamental reasons. She might not have a job, a car or the money needed to move out or get away. She wonders how she will pay for housing, utilities, supplies, attorney fees, court fees, custody battles, psychological evaluations and more.
Friends, family and the domestic violence shelter can only help so much. Shelters are frequently full, overcrowded or have waiting lists, limits or strict rules. Friends and family often are unable to take on the extra financial and emotional burdens for very long. They might also fear for their own safety.
A victim might be advised by legal counsel to stay in her home with her children to protect her interests, thus risking her family's safety. If she leaves with her children, she might risk the abuser getting custody because she cannot provide a stable home. If she leaves without them she might be accused of abandoning her children.
A woman might report the abuse to police. But the Ohio Revised Code only includes physical abuse or threats in its definition of domestic violence, and there are no guaranteed outcomes. The abuser might not be held accountable. If he is arrested, he can be out of jail in a few hours. He might become even more violent or manipulative. Abusers often retaliate by claiming they've been abused. He might even harm himself. She might fear going to jail for defending herself, or for false accusations. If someone else has reported the abuse, she might deny it for fear she will be abused more.
We must also consider the victim's life experience. Childhood abuse will influence her reaction to current abuse. She might suffer from depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. She might have turned to alcohol or drugs to cope with trauma. Medications might impair her ability to perceive danger and react to it.
Abuse creates many complex barriers. The victim's memory might be impaired if she has had head trauma, a lack of sleep or a stress-related illness. She might suffer from a lack of energy or emotional resources, or she might experience terror. A defense mechanism to terror is denial and minimization of the danger or "numbing."
She has probably been isolated from family and friends, and maybe her job. The abuser might convince her that friends and family do not care for her or use her. Some might actually stop supporting her because they don't understand why she stays. Her abuser might tell her she laughs too loud or eats too much, or he might accuse her of having an affair. For years she has been brainwashed to think she cannot survive on her own, no one else would want her or the abuse is her fault.
She has suffered humiliation, degradation, blackmail, trivial demands, threats, emotional distance, demonstrations of power, complaints, blaming, criticism, pushing, shoving, hitting, spitting, hair pulling and more. The occasional moments of love and attention fuel the hope he will change back to the person she once knew. The abuser is good at changing his personality. Others might not be aware how dangerous he is, but the victim knows; she knows him better than anyone.
Leaving is a process that takes time. The victim might actually feel safer staying because she knows where he is and what he is doing. She fears he will act on threats from the past that he will hurt or kill people close to her, kidnap the children, call children services or the police, or tell friends, family or coworkers. The abuser might be well known, wealthy or influential. If they have children together she might not be able to get away from him completely and he might continue to abuse her even after she leaves. It takes time to plan a safe escape. The victim's behavior must be strategic. She has learned survival based behavior. Although outsiders might be puzzled, we must help the victim to see the skills and strengths she has used in an unsafe setting and teach her to use these to live in a safer place.
It is difficult to know how we would respond if someone we loved hurt us. If you know a victim of domestic violence, support her and understand why she stays.
For more information turn to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network at www.odvn.org.