Every now and then I get a little reality check, a little comeuppance. See, for me, one of the best parts of getting older is that it's given me increasing control over who I get to (or have to) spend time with. And generally, I guess I spend time with people who have a certain level of empathy or at the very least understanding. Plus, I never read the comments on online forums. That helps immensely.
But after the video of the "minor physical altercation" (as described by his attorney) in which 212-pound NFL running back Ray Rice punched his fiance in the face so hard he then had to drag her unconscious body out of an elevator, I made the mistake of reading some comments. One theme cropped up. In the words of one particularly pithy idiot, "Staying is the same as asking for more."
Now, I assumed everyone knew this, but let me set the record straight for those of you who aren't familiar with how partner violence works: Abusive relationships don't start with a KO in the elevator.
In fact, I am willing to bet that ZERO potential abusers pick their girlfriends by first punching them in the face, and then saying, "Hey baby, wanna be my bitch?" Because, you see, that makes no sense. And despite what internet commentators everywhere seem to think, the answer to "Why did she stay?" always, ALWAYS, makes sense--at least within the world created by the abuser.
When you see a batterer choke his partner, or beat her while driving and threatening to kill her, or give her a concussion while their children watch in terror, or kill her, you are only seeing this one visible symptom of an ongoing and pervasive problem. In the same way that lava is the eruption of a volcano a long time in the making, physical violence is often the eruption of long, slow burn.
A batterer doesn't start with violence, he typically starts with charm. A boyfriend that ends up hitting his girlfriend probably started out as a boyfriend who flattered her, and bought her gifts, and treated her well.
So by the time the worms turns, there are many, many reasons "why she stays." Here, in no particular order, are six:
1. Fear of more violence - Abuse is about power and control. And nothing incites an abuser to action faster than the threat of losing that power and control. Women are often at even greater risk of harm if they try to leave.
2. Lack of resources - Abusers often systematically restrict their victims' access to money, cars, and people. The practical barriers to leaving can seem insurmountable, and at the very least require time to overcome--during which the abuse itself is likely to escalate. "Leaving" is actually "fleeing," and that further complicates simple things like having clothes, money, and a safe place to stay.
3. Kids - While many women who have escaped abusive relationships say it was fear for their kids' safety that ultimately gave them the courage to leave, many abusers exert control by threatening the kids. I personally know one woman whose husband dangled their toddler off a fire escape when she tried to leave, another whose ex-husband threatened to have her deported but keep their American-born child, and a third who was actually ordered to pay child support to her husband who got custody of their children after being charged with drugging and raping both his wife and the nanny. Just sayin'.
4. Isolation - Abusers isolate victims from friends, family, and anyone else who might provide a sympathetic ear. Some abusers compound the matter by having their own network of friends or family who then watch over the victim. They check cell phones, emails, and browser history. Go look at the "emergency exit" button on this domestic violence resource website, just for a perspective check.
5. Psychological abuse typically precedes physical abuse, and the effects of this abuse are impossible to overstate. Psychological abuse convinces victims that they are worthless and "deserve" the abuse, that the perpetrator is actually the victim (the classic "why do you make me hit you?" and its variants), and that the victim has no where to turn and that no one would believe them anyway. By the time you actually see symptoms of abuse, much more damage has already been done.
6. Religion or culture can be powerful impediments to seeking help. Years ago, a dear friend of mine was in a violently abusive marriage. She stayed, she said, because the Bible said, "What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." I told her she needed to be more worried about man putting her in a body bag. If I have one religious belief, it is this: You can either believe that God is Love, or you can believe that God prefers domestic violence to divorce. Not both. Also, ask yourself: Did God really join you to your partner? If you could have had a heart-to-heart with Jesus before you got married, do you still think he would've given you the go-ahead on that one? If you believe your faith requires you to "submit" to abuse, please consider re-examining that faith through a lens of divine love and "reject false choices".
In short, she doesn't leave because she believes she has no place to go, no way to get there, no money for the bus fare, no one to help her, and no chance of making it out.
We need to change the conversation. The question isn't "Why does she stay?" It's "How do we help her leave?"