Why do women stay? Why don't they leave?
It's not uncommon to hear "Why do women stay in abusive relationships?" or "Why don't they leave?" These types of questions, although common, have a tendency - whether unintentional or not - to blame victims and to suggest they enjoy or thrive on being abused. If they didn't enjoy being ill-treated, they would leave, right? Obviously, if they choose to stay, they must have low self-esteem, right?
No. These attitudes are common myths about victims of domestic violence. The fact is that reasons for staying are far more complex than a blanket statement about a victim's character or strength of will.
In some cases, women may seem to "want" to be beaten. For those who come from dysfunctional families - families in which they were routinely beaten and emotionally abused as children - they know no other patterns of behavior and have learned to expect frequent incidents of violence. For such women, the anxiety of waiting for the next outburst of violence is often more stressful and agonizing than the violence itself. They hate not knowing when they will next be hit, kicked, punched, burned, bitten, or stabbed, and they would rather "get it over with" than not know when they will next be abused.
Often, it is dangerous for a woman to leave an abusive relationship. If her abuser is economically abusive and withholds all family money from her, leaving can lead to additional hardships. Leaving could mean living in fear of being stalked, fear of losing custody of any minor children (parental abduction is not uncommon), losing financial support, and experiencing harassment at work.
Do not underestimate the effects of domestic violence on its victims. Abused women experience isolation, shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. Women may not immediately leave an abusive relationship because:
- They fear their abusers will become more violent - perhaps fatal - stalking them if they leave.
- Friends and family may not support their decision to leave.
- They fear being a single parent with little money.
- There are periods of calm, nurturing and love between incidents of violence.
- They may be unaware of sources of advocacy and support.
- They may be unaware of shelters and other resources that offer safety and support.
The reasons women stay in abusive relationships typically fall into three categories:
Lack of resources:
- Most abused women have at least one minor child.
- Many abused women are not employed outside the home.
- Many abused women don't have property that is solely theirs.
- In many cases, abusers have cut off access to cash or bank accounts.
- Most abused women fear losing joint assets and custody of their children.
- Abused women fear a lower standard of living for themselves and their children.
Responses by services and authorities:
- Often, clergy and social workers are trained to "save the family" rather than to stop violence.
- Police often treat incidents of domestic violence as mere "disputes" rather than as serious crimes in which one person is physically assaulting another.
- Police may try to discourage women from pressing criminal charges.
- Attorneys are often reluctant to prosecute cases. Justices rarely assign the maximum sentence or fine possible.
- Restraining orders and peace bonds do little to prevent abusers from repeating their violent patterns of behavior. Sadly, there are too few shelters to keep women safe.
- Many women don't view divorce as a viable alternative.
- Many abused women don't accept the notion of single parenting. They believe a bad father (or in the case of a lesbian relationship, a bad partner) is better than none at all.
- Many women are conditioned to believe they are responsible for making their marriage or relationship work; that if the relationship fails, they have failed as women. Society has often taught these women that their worth is measured by their ability to get and keep a man.
- Many abused women feel isolated from their families and from society. Isolation is either the result of the abuser's possessiveness or jealousy, or it may be an attempt on the part of the victim to hide signs of abuse from the outside world. Either way, such isolation leads many victims to feel they have nowhere to turn.
- Many victims externalize or rationalize the reasons for their abuser's behavior, casting blame of circumstances such as stress, financial hardship, job stress, chemical dependency, etc.
- Between violent episodes, there are periods of calm during which the abuser is charming, nurturing, and caring. Those traits which initially attracted him/her to his/her victim resurface and the victim sees her abuser as a loving person, thereby reinforcing her decision to stay.
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