“Why she stays … why she leaves”
An abusive relationship in which one is subjected to physical, mental, social, or spiritual violence or rejection has no place or justification within Christian parameters.
Domestic violence is not just a symptom that when fully researched and understood can be repaired or fixed. It is symptomatic of biological and psychological problems that affect those who are abused, those who abuse, and those who observe the situation as onlookers, such as children, parents, other family members, and friends.
Victims are usually asked: Why don’t you just leave if it’s that bad? Why are you putting up with his abuse? What did you do to make him act that way? Why don’t you just kick him out?
Such questions are asked by well-meaning people, many of whom have little or no idea of what it is like for a victim to feel totally worthless, guilty, ashamed, hopeless, and powerless. They do not understand how the whole process of abuse gradually degrades a victim little by little, piece by piece. Maybe some of the questions people need to ask are: What can I do to help a victim leave the abusive relationship? Why does the abuser do this? How can I help the survivor gain access to safety? Victims have many reasons to stay in an abusive relationship, and relatively few conditions necessary to help them leave.
Almost all battered women try to leave an abusive environment at some point. For those who leave, the violence may be just beginning. However, abusers escalate their violence when a woman tries to leave or shows signs of independence. The abuser may try to coerce her into reconciliation or retaliate for her perceived rejection or abandonment of him. Men who believe they own their female partners view their departure as an ultimate betrayal that justifies retaliation. Cohabiting with such abusers is highly dangerous, as violence usually increases in frequency and severity over time.
Those who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence believe that she should just leave. It is not that simple, though! Most women in violent relationships have two choices, and both of them are dangerous. Choice #1 is for her to stay. But battering is a pattern of behavior, and it doesn’t begin with a blow. It begins with a subtle look, an attitude, and a voice inflection. Because the abuser’s behavior is so calculated to keep her off balance, she treads more carefully and tries harder to abide by his wishes and please him. By the time he actually strikes her, more than likely she believes that she provoked the assault and deserved it. Choice #2 is for her to leave. But in this she risks losing even more of her self-esteem and even faces painful, terrifying, and humiliating abuse. She’ll be losing economic security for herself and her children, her position in her community and/or her church, and eventually the partner whom she loves despite his cruel behavior.
Why she stays
She stays because of fear. The number one reason for a victim not leaving an abusive environment or relationship is fear. The victim’s fears are not unfounded, given the fact that battered women are most at risk during leaving or after having left the relationship. She is fearful that the abuser will spread rumors and lies about her, and she feels trapped, helpless, and hopeless.
She stays because of lack of information/education. Some battered women stay because they are not given accurate information about battering. They are told by family, friends, and the batterer that alcohol or drugs are the cause for his behavior. They are told that the couple is codependent, and that if the wife could somehow help, then he would change. They attempt endlessly to modify their behavior, only to watch the violence escalate and find themselves blamed for not trying hard enough.
She stays because the psychological effects of abuse may make leaving difficult. The victim believes that she is nothing and does not deserve better. She feels confused and paralyzed, and she does not trust herself to make decisions. She has been so manipulated and brainwashed that she feels she is not able to manage without her abuser. She gets used to abuse, and she feels more comfortable with what she knows rather than what she could experience in an unknown world.
She stays because she loves him. People who have not experienced abuse may find this attitude difficult to understand. Our culture glorifies love. Popular songs and movies reinforce the idea that love is the most important thing in life, and people – especially women – should do anything for it. Women may love their abusers, and at the same time hate their violent and abusive actions. But they need to be reminded that they do not have to stop loving their abuser in order to leave. Some women have difficulty terminating the emotional connection they have with their abuser. The abused woman believes the abuser when he says he will never abuse her again. She believes him when he appears remorseful and promises to go to counseling or go to church. She feels that she will incur God’s wrath if she walks out on him and breaks her marriage vows. Because she views sex as intimacy, she decides that when he has sex with her and treats her well for a time, he really loves her. She therefore renews her love and commitment to him and looks forward to an abuse-free relationship.
She stays because of concerns for her children. The enormous responsibility of raising children alone can be overwhelming. She does not want to disrupt their lives. Often, the abuser may threaten to take the children away from her if she makes an attempt to leave and/or turn them against her. She believes that her children would blame and resent her if she leaves. She is told that her children need a father and that they need to be in a “real” family. Being a single parent is a strenuous experience under the best of circumstances, and for most women, conditions are often far from fair and the justice system is not always on her side when it comes to receiving either equal custodial access or full custody of their children from the court system.
She stays because she feels isolated. Isolation may be 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. Maybe the abuser won’t let her out of the house, or perhaps has threatened to hurt anyone she reaches out to for help, including her family. More than likely, she is not believed if the abuser is popular, charming, educated, religious, wealthy, handsome, or talented.
She stays because of her family background in abuse. Her father might have abused her mother, so she believes that abuse is part of being in a relationship. She rationalizes that getting hit isn’t the worst thing that can happen in a family. Since her parents stayed together in an abusive and violent relationship, she believes that she should do the same.
She stays because she believes the messages she hears from her abuser. Such messages include: You’re crazy and stupid. No one will believe you. You’re the one who’s sick; you need help. You’re hysterical. The police will never arrest me. If you leave, I’ll find you and kill you.I’ll kill your family.You’ll never be able to escape from me.
She stays because she has addictions that prevent her from taking action. Her abuser encourages or coerces her into using alcohol or drugs or watching pornography, but sabotages her recovery by preventing her from getting help. Some women consume alcohol or other drugs to numb the psychic, emotional, or physical pain caused by the violence. Some may take tranquilizers to calm their “nerves,” but few know or are told that minor tranquilizers can be seriously and quickly addictive. Such substance addiction makes victims less able to act on their own, and gives their abusers a handy tool for discrediting, blaming, shaming, and manipulating them.
She stays because of economic dependency. The economic reality for women, especially those with children, is often bleak. The abuser tends to control the money, including what she may earn. She may feel that it is better to take the abuse than to be on the streets.
She stays because of pressure from others. Our culture sends the message that a woman’s value depends on her being in a relationship. Women without partners tend to be devalued. Therefore, she believes that she needs him to give her credibility, self-worth, and motivation to survive. She feels that if she leaves she’ll be disgraced in her community or church and bring shame to her family. Even Scripture may be quoted to encourage her to stay in an abusive relationship.
Barriers to her leaving
Even when a woman wants to leave an abusive situation, she may find many barriers on her way out. Some of those major barriers are the criminal justice system, resource barriers, community, and religion.
The criminal justice system/legal issues. Police often treat incidents of domestic violence as mere “disputes” rather than as serious crimes in which one person is physically assaulting another, and hence they may try to discourage women from pressing criminal charges. Attorneys may also be reluctant to prosecute cases. In addition, restraining orders on the abusers do little to prevent them from repeating their violent patterns of behavior.
Resource barriers. A victim of abuse often finds her family ties and friendships strained, leaving her psychologically and economically dependent on her abusive partner. In addition, she may be unaware of advocacy and support resources available in the community. She may not be gainfully employed, may not have a home to stay in, may not have access to money, and may have children to care for. Without sufficient resources to stand on her own, and with an abusive husband taking advantage of her economic situation, she may find herself in a position that does not give her the freedom to leave the relationship.
Community/society barriers. In many cultures, women are often taught that their self-worth is measured by their ability to get and keep a man. When such is the situation, people often turn a deaf ear to marital violence and believe that what goes on behind closed doors is a private matter, and should stay behind those doors. Even in communities that have a friendly face toward women in need, their ability to help is limited, and there may be no alternative resources.
Religious/church barriers. This can be a formidable barrier for women who want to seek a way out of abusive situations. Some clergy and religious leaders who may be uninformed, uneducated, or inexperienced regarding the dynamics of domestic violence may use the argument that ending an abusive relationship and the resultant break-up of a marriage negatively impacts the image of the church. The abuse victim may be under pressure to succumb to such arguments. She may lose the support of traditional-minded family and church members, who believe she should endure all things in order to keep her family together. She may be told that if she believes and prays hard enough, God will give her the strength to endure.
Why she returns
It is not unusual for an abuse victim to leave for a while, and then return back to her spouse. Why does she return? Several reasons may be cited. She feels that her children need their father, and hopes that her future will be better, and that she will be needed and loved. She may have no confidence that she will get justice in the present civil or criminal justice system. She may be frightened by the circulating myths about shelters, that they are lesbian recruiting stations, staffed by lesbians, and a place where she will be attacked by lesbians or become one. Isolation from friends, family, and community support resources, fear of retaliation and loneliness, concern that her husband may be arrested or imprisoned, a false hope/belief that he will change, or cultural pressures to keep the family together at all costs are also reasons why an abuse victim chooses to return. A feeling of shame and guilt, a genuine desire to provide her children with a two-parent home, economic necessity, mounting legal costs, a belief that proper therapy may cure her husband’s behavior, issues of child custody, cost and fear of living alone, and difficulties in maintaining a good credit rating are some of the other reasons why abused women return to their husbands. In addition, societal myths (such as: She provoked the violence. She exaggerated the violence. She comes from a poor, uneducated, or minority background. Her partner has a problem controlling anger or stress. This will go away with treatment or in time.) play a role in making the abuse victim return to her partner.
Stages of leaving
Studies of abuse victims reveal seven stages that characterize an abused person’s journey out of that relationship.
Stage 1: Denial. The victim refuses to admit, even to herself, that she is being abused or that there is a problem in the relationship. She may call each incident an “accident.”
Stage 2: Rationalization. The abuse victim acknowledges the problem. She may offer excuses for her partner’s violence, casting blame on circumstances such as stress, financial hardship, job situation, chemical dependency, etc. When actual or perceived danger has passed, she fantasizes about the relationship and thinks or talks about how wonderful he is.
Stage 3: Self blame. The victim continues to contemplate her situation, but considers herself responsible for it. She believes that she deserves to be beaten or treated badly. She feels that something is wrong with her because she is unable to live up to her partner’s expectations. She believes that she needs to change her behavior in order for the abuse to end.
Stage 4: Education/insight. The victim no longer assumes responsibility for her partner’s abusive treatment. She begins to realize that no one “deserves” to be abused. However, she is still committed to the relationship. She is open to and/or researches information about abuse and tries to share her education/insight with him, hoping that he will change and stop abusing her. She still hopes to save the relationship.
Stage 5: Acceptance. The victim accepts the fact that she cannot stop the abuser’s violent behavior, she is not responsible for his behavior, and he will change only if he wants/decides to.
Stage 6: Determination/forgiveness. The victim decides she will no longer submit to the abuse and determines to get help so that she can live an abuse-free life. She forgives herself and her abuser, recognizing that in doing so she can move on.
Stage 7: Healing/empowerment. The victim seeks resources. She explores options. She makes positive choices to create an abuse-free life for herself and her family. She determines to stay on the path of recovery, while helping others in their journey of healing and empowerment. She appreciates and embraces her identity and potential in Christ.
A woman who makes the decision to leave her abusive relationship seeks to learn why she allowed the abuse, why she was predisposed to abuse, and how to end the abuse. Therefore, she has already placed herself outside the sphere of being a victim and into the realm of being a survivor and a thriver. Even though, at the beginning of the relationship, she may not want to end it because of her emotional attachment and/or commitment to it, her position tends to change as the progression of abuse intensifies.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to care for abuse victims. An abusive relationship in which one is subjected to physical, mental, social, or spiritual violence or rejection has no place or justification within Christian parameters. Indeed, one can argue that it is our Christian duty to reach out to abuse victims and help them find a “shelter in the time of storm.” Such victims are entitled to an abuse-free life, a future of hope, and the freedom to be themselves without fear or guilt.
Our work as Christians is that of righteousness and justice, right doing or acting in accordance with the divine and moral law. “The work of righteousness will be peace,” says the prophet, “and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever” (Isaiah 32:17, NKJV). If that peace is a Christian’s privilege and prerogative, we must recognize that all, including abuse victims, have a right to that privilege.
Mable C. Dunbar (Ph.D., LaSalle University) is president/CEO of Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is based on a presentation made at the END IT NOW summit, a conference on prevention of abuse against women, held May 2, 2014, at the headquarters of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA, under the sponsorship of the Department of Women’s Ministry.