Why Don't They Just Leave?

I recently attended a women’s leadership conference.  It had all of the things my inner introvert doesn’t quite love - dancing, actively meeting new people - you get it.  On a break, I had a woman say to me, “I’m really blunt and I just have a question.” You know, how people say ‘no offense’ right after saying something really offensive, as though that gives a free pass?  It was like that. She then proceeded to utter these words to me, “How do you handle that? Someone coming to you, after getting the sh*t beat out of them…. and not leaving?  I just couldn’t handle it.”

Hold on, sister.  We’re at a women’s leadership conference.  A place where we’re learning how it’s an absolute necessity to show compassion and uplift each other.  Her words sparked anger and sadness all at the same time. I could have accepted them had they been said with a genuine desire to understand.  But they were not. The tone, right down to each word uttered, was laced with so much blame and judgment. The question didn’t imply that the abuser shouldn’t abuse. Instead, it was that the victim should have just left. Why didn’t WE think of this?  We could have eradicated domestic violence by now!  

Ok, I have gotten my sass out of the way.  Sorry for that. I am not here to shame another woman, so no offense to her (did that work?).  While I was angry and upset, I did my best to respond. I shared how it’s so much more complicated.  I shared how it’s easy for all of us who are in loving relationships to say that we would absolutely leave if our partner ever hit us.  The truth is, we DO NOT KNOW what we would do unless we’re faced with exactly that.  I told her that leaving is often the most dangerous time for someone in a violent relationship.  Did you know, in Iowa, there have been 304 people killed in domestic violence murders from 1995 until now?  Did you also know that of those 304, 89 were leaving or known to have left the abuser?

Truthfully, I don’t know if I changed her mind, but I thought this would serve as a great opportunity to tell you exactly why it is not as easy as just leaving.  Because you may have thought that very same thing and that’s ok; I just hope it’s with a little more genuine desire to truly understand and without the blame (unless, of course, the blame is for the abusive partner because that’s where it belongs).  If all you have ever known is a loving, healthy relationship, you might not understand some things. So this is what I want to tell you.

When you’re told over and over that you’re crazy.  That no one would ever believe you. That no one else would ever love you as much as they do.  That everything mean and violent done to you is your fault, you start to believe it.

When your life has included atrocities committed against you by a person who is supposed to love and protect you, that becomes your context for normal.

When you’re told that you are a horrible parent, that you would never get custody of the kids, and that you can’t protect them when you’re not there, you believe that.  

When your partner kicks you so hard that your ribs break, you believe them when they say they will kill you if you ever leave.  

And if you do leave, and your partner pleads, begs and promises to change; you remember the good times.  You remember that the abuse wasn’t always there. You think maybe this time you can try harder to avoid the abuse (because this person has, after all, convinced you it’s your fault).  Maybe this time they will be different. Maybe you should try again because you’ve built a life together.

What I’ve shared here barely scratches the surface.  There are so many reasons why a person may choose to leave or stay.  That’s what the #WhyIStayed movement showed many of us. So many people banded together through a powerful hashtag, courageously sharing their reasons for staying.  That’s the thing - those reasons are theirs. It is their choice. They know their abuser better than anyone else - better than you, better than me. They deserve to make their own choices about leaving and/or staying. We need to be here to support them through each choice, whether they choose to leave, stay or go back.  We need to support them because they deserve that. They also deserve compassion.  Can we leave the victim blaming and judgment out of it?