Why didn’t you leave? I would have left a long time ago. Don’t you want what’s best for you and your children? Why did you stay?
Almost anyone who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship hears some form of these words in their lifetime. What might not be understood by those outside of the relationship are that there are so many complicated factors that play into this. A better way to ask the question, why do women stay in abusive relationships, might be what keeps women in abusive relationships? The first question sounds accusatory and produces feelings of guilt and shame. It makes women feel defensive, embarrassed, stupid, and wrong. The last thing we want to do as someone outside the relationship is push her further into isolation. The second question can be answered more readily by women in the relationship. It acknowledges the fact that there are things beyond their control that play in the decision to stay.
When asked this question here are some of the responses we hear. There is a fear of the abusive partner and his ability to retaliate. Staying with him provides security. He may be the only source of income for the family. If she leaves she will have no money, nowhere to go. So she has to ask herself is it better to stay or to be homeless? “Better the devil you know…” He may have threatened her, her children, or her friends and family. The most dangerous time is when she’s leaving and she is more likely to be killed. There may be pressure from her community, culture and/or family to stay. Sometimes women who leave are blamed, shunned, or disowned. She may want to keep the family together. He may not be a bad father to the children.
No one is all bad all the time. Many abusers are quite charming and friendly at first. What we know about abuse is that it happens in cycles. There is a period of “making up” where he promises to change. And she loves him so she wants to believe him. Most of the time she doesn’t want the relationship to end, she wants the abuse to end.
It is never just one of these reasons. It is 2 or 3 combined, and it is more likely all of them. There are infinite more factors that keep women in abusive relationships, because while we can see general trends in these relationships each situation is different. Each women and each man has a different story. The most common reasons that keep women in abusive relationships are low self-esteem/poor self-concept, economic deprivation, witnessing violence as a child, and wanting to keep the family together for the sake of the children.
So the questions why didn’t you leave, or why did you stay, are not questions that encompass the complexity of the relationship and abuse she’s experienced. Instead we should be asking why is he abusive? Why doesn’t he stop?
Why do men abuse women?
As an anti domestic violence movement we pushed hard for a woman’s right to leave the relationship. What we are discovering now is that the pendulum has swung too far. She has the right to stay in the relationship as well. I know that sounds a little weird but this is a movement about empowering women. It is not empowering to fail. It is not empowering to leave before she is ready because everyone else is telling her it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it really is safer to stay. She knows how to keep herself safe and was been doing so long before she reached out to anyone. So again, the question should not be about her, but him.
What is he doing to keep her in that relationship? Why is he abusing her? How is the larger culture teaching him that it is okay to be violent toward women?