Recently, Penelope Trunk has written several blog posts about her current experience as a survivor of domestic violence. She has been in an abusive relationship with her husband, the “Farmer” — and in the comments, many individuals accused her of not leaving, and subjecting her children to further abuse. Penelope quotes an interesting comment from Jezebel in her most recent post:

“One incident, and YOU LEAVE. Violent people don’t get better without a lot of work, and it’s not *your* problem. Once someone raises a hand to you, you owe that person *nothing.* It’s likely that the violent behavior will escalate. Sometimes it is deliberate. Either way, YOU LEAVE.”

Such angry outbursts are common against survivors of domestic abuse (and sadly, by those who call themselves feminists); it is easy to accuse someone in a situation of abuse of endangering her children and not leaving. It is easy to tell someone to leave, no matter what. While it is true that according to research done, boys who witness abuse in the home are seven times more likely to batter once they grow older, the solution is rarely that simple for a woman who is being actively abused.

It is not necessarily the right advice to tell someone who is in a violent situation to LEAVE, NOW. It’s rarely that cut and dry, black and white. I’m not just talking about Penelope Trunk here, but more broadly, many abused women cannot leave because:

  • the alternative could be to end up homeless for women who are not making an income
  • women with children are worried about bearing the burden alone on a single income
  • despite the misconceptions, many women still do love their abusers, and want to fix the relationship or make it work, somehow (though without the abuse, obviously)
  • leaving is actually the most dangerous point in an abusive relationship; many women are seriously attacked or injured during the process of trying to leave the home
  • the divorce process is messy, confusing, very time consuming and extremely difficult, especially for women who cannot afford a lawyer or do not know how to navigate the courts
  • for women who are immigrants and new to the U.S., their immigration status may be tied to the abuser, they may not know how to drive, they might not know the language, and they may have no support network whatsoever in the nearby community
  • there are cultural taboos — for example, many South Asian women are afraid to divorce because their families will feel ashamed of having a divorced daughter and may not accept them back into the family; many women would rather stay married and suffer abuse than be known in the community as a divorced and “damaged” woman

That’s why many non-profits, shelters, support groups, and counselors trained in helping survivors of domestic violence take the approach of working to empower survivors by validating their experiences and supporting their choices. We do not tell women to LEAVE. We do not tell them what they should or should not do. Part of the theory of change is that survivors are in an imbalanced power relationship; their abuser is seeking to control or dominate them through physical force. We strive not to tell survivors what to do; we don’t want to create an imbalanced power dynamic, but instead, allow survivors to assert their own opinions and make their own choices. We want to restore power to the survivors to make the decisions they feel are best. We do not want to rob them of their agency.

Leaving simply isn’t a blanket solution, though it can be a good and healthy choice for many. Before a survivor does leave, though, he/she has to be sure they have a plan to stay safe and move on. Did you know that (Source):

  • In San Diego, a survey done by San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless found that 50% of homeless women are domestic violence victims (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004).
  • In Minnesota, one in every three homeless women was homeless due to domestic violence in 2003. 46% of homeless women said that they had previously stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004).

Yep, those are the cold, hard facts. Leaving may be a good, viable option for many survivors of abuse. But before we yell at a survivor to leave, let’s make sure to get our facts straight.

*Note: I acknowledge that many survivors of violence are men as well. However, the majority are still women, so I frequently use the word women in this post.