Patterns of violence

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.

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9 Responses to Patterns of violence

  1. Kyle Albert says:

    Really great post, thanks for writing :D

  2. almostclever says:

    Not to mention, when a woman leaves her abuser it is absolutely the most danger her life will be in.  I think it is hard for the general public to understand what it is like to live with a terrorist, “just leave” is an easy thing for someone to say who does not live in fear of their life or the lives of their children.

    I had a client with a husband who shot her in the face when she tried to run..  Now live with that constant threat of terror in your life and then tell me “just leave.” 

    It is not like we have excellent laws that protect domestic violence victims either.  When they leave, the best they can do is get a restraining order, the man has to physically hurt them in order for him to get locked up.. Imagine that, knowing people cannot really do anything for you unless you are physically hurt, and more than that -you have to be able to show that evidence in court. 

    If a woman has no physical evidence or documentation (and most don’t) of the abuse, a lawyer is not going to want to take it to court – so the abuser is free, and he can emotionally, financially, and mentally; control, coerce, manipulate and abuse. 

    It is scary as hell for a woman to leave because she knows she will be the only one looking out for herself.  So do you live under the abuse where you can learn to anticipate it and have some control over your life, or do you leave and spark the terrorist who stalks, harasses, and is out for revenge? 

    Women who leave are fucking amazing, especially against those odds – and women who stay are survivors working with what they have in order to keep themselves as safe as possible. They need as much support and inspiration from us that we can give, not the weight of judgement for something we couldn’t possibly understand unless we have lived it in our own lives.

    • Akhila says:

      Yeah, exactly. When a woman leaves the abuser it is the most dangerous time of the entire relationship – the abuser could begin stalking/harassing or terrorizing the survivor. 

      I completely agree, the laws really need to change. It is so difficult to get a protection order too. You have to actually be hit or hurt to get that order in the very recent past- it’s not enough to show evidence of past abuse. It’s so frustrating. 

      Great points, as always. Thanks for your perspective.

  3. Roxanne says:

    Akhila, thank you for highlighting the vulnerability and volatility surrounding leaving domestic violence situations. I still believe the woman should leave, but that is a more viable plan when the woman has a support network and a way of securing her safety and livelihood (and that of her family, in many cases). There’s another issue at play here: The last thing survivors of domestic violence need is judgment. They are already experiencing the pain, contradictions, and incredible emotional attrition inherent in these situations. Social judgment only exacerbates these women’s dilemmas and position. 

    • Akhila says:

      Very good point – we don’t pass judgment on women in violent situations because again, to do so robs them of their agency to make a decision they feel is best for *them*. The situation is already difficult and we should empower women to take charge of their lives in the way they feel is best for them, and I think this is the philosophy many nonprofits that support domestic violence survivors take, as well.

  4. Lost says:

    Everyone thinks its easy. No thinking necessary….just go. What about those of us 3000 miles away from friends our family. What of our animals we cannot run with our stay in shelters with, our find a motel that wil allow them. When you run for your life, do you have the time to grab your dog, your cats your keys and your purse? No. and to leave without them puts them in danger. Make the decision to run and you jeopardize everything you know. I’m in this position now. I have no money you set up life for myself elsewhere. I know no one here, I hardly know the roads! I spent last night in a motel…$165 for a cheap dirty area motel. Who could keep that up for long? The areas groups I have called do not want to advise me unless I file a report. Having him arrested isn’t in my best interests either. When you are in the middle of it, scared, heartbroken, exhausted and in physical pain….you just dont know what to do! I’m not an unintelligent woman. I’m just a woman pushed beyond her limits and with no support. I never thought i would be in this situation…ever. I’m in shock. My life has literally just fallen apart under my feet. Do not judge the women who find themselves here. Believe me, if we had known beforehand where we would be, we wouldn’t have gone down this road

  5. [...] post was inspired in part by an article that the beautiful Roxanne tweeted the other day (read it here) and also by the fact that Ethan (real name changed) just turned 7 and he’s still the sweetest, [...]

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