A version of this post was originally published at Fish Of Gold, but in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the fact that today is my abuser’s birthday, a date he would never let me forget, I’ve reworked it here. It might help those who have no experience with domestic abuse understand why it’s never as simple as “just leaving.”
“Why do they stay?” or “Why don’t they just leave?” are common questions in response to domestic violence from those who’ve never been touched by it. I should know; I used to think that way before it happened to me.
I can clearly remember saying to someone, “I’d never stay in an abusive relationship.” A decade later, I found myself with two black eyes, strangulation marks around my neck and more bruised and scraped skin than not, limping into a courtroom with copies of police reports to get a restraining order after eight years of abuse.
I’d like to address the ignorance in asking those questions. I don’t mean to imply that people who ask those questions are ignorant in the pejorative sense, but in the truly not understanding sense. Although, honestly, those questions are ignorant in the rude sense when said to someone who was lucky enough to survive domestic violence. Believe me, nobody has a clue unless you’ve experienced it.
These are just a few possible answers to those questions from my experience. Some victims might have different reasons, but these were mine.
Because abusers isolate us
My abuser told me I couldn’t survive on my own all the time and I believed it. He told me that, without him, I’d have no friends and no life. At the time, it was absolutely true. He was the conduit to all of our friends. He planned every detail of our lives. I didn’t even have most of our friends’ phone numbers (this was before the days of cell phones and internet), because he kept them from me. I could only socialize if he planned it, although, he spun it differently, as if he was doing me a favor by dealing with petty matters like friendship for me.
When I finally kicked him to the curb, I didn’t know who to call. I had no phone numbers, no way to get hold of anyone, and most importantly, no idea who my friends really were. I didn’t know who was on my side or who to trust.
Because abusers convince us that we are worthless
Over and over, subtly and not so subtly, abusers tell us that we are useless, stupid, spineless, clumsy, and absolutely worthless. Without them to guide us, we’d die on our own. We can’t cook. We have terrible taste in music, books and movies. Our ideas, beliefs and opinions are all wrong and stupid. We can’t even tie our shoes properly. They have no choice but to guide us in the right way. We’re more trouble than we’re worth, but they will deign to instruct us even though it will be a total pain.
That’s what abusers do. They manipulate us into thinking, not that they are verbally abusing us, but that they are doing us a favor. If you hear it enough, if you get scolded enough and beaten for not doing things correctly, you believe it. We really are useless. Thank god we have them to guide us in the right way.
For the last few years, I honestly thought it would be better if he killed me. I even wished for it instead of enduring more abuse.
Because, at least for a while, we think it will get better
We convince ourselves that it won’t always be this way. If only he could find a job, stop drinking, etc., the abuse will stop. If if if…
Admitting domestic violence means admitting that we are failures. We didn’t see the signs. We totally missed the red flags that were there all along the way. We got ourselves into this mess. We trusted someone we shouldn’t have. We gave our trust to another human being who completely abused that trust.
Admitting that it won’t get better means admitting that we can’t trust ourselves. How can we trust ourselves to find the right person to reach out to for help? How on earth can we trust anyone if we can’t even trust ourselves?
Because it means admitting that we’re liars
Domestic violence turns victims into liars. We lie to ourselves, thinking that it will get better. We lie to others about our visible bruises and black eyes. We lie to those closest to us, our family or coworkers: “It’s not as bad as all that. He’s really a good person deep down…”
Sometimes, as in my case, verbal abuse escalates into physical abuse. We find ourselves lying to cover it up. We wear scarves and long sleeves in summer and stage makeup. We invent excuses for scars and bruises. We lie so much to everyone we know that, if we want out, it means telling everyone that we’re liars. We cover it all up.
I told people that I tripped over the cat when he knocked out my tooth with his fist while I was driving and smashed my head into the car window. I made up an imaginary car accident towards the end; my injuries were that severe. I lied and said I was in a car accident to cover up what his fists did to me. How fucked up is that?
Because the truth is embarrassing
Abuse is gradual. We don’t begin relationships with abusers. If they started off that way, believe me, we’d definitely just leave, but they never do. It starts with a charming person who makes us feel valued. Over time, once they’re sure they’ve got us, it turns into verbal abuse in the form of nitpicking. Nothing we ever do is right or good enough. We’re so useless. We have nothing to offer. Our views are all wrong. We don’t know anything. We’re stupid, ugly, fat. No one loves us. We would be totally helpless without them.
I know it probably sounds strange, but abuse is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing telling people that you’re dominated, weak; that someone beats you up regularly and you just put up with it. It’s embarrassing that we fell for the trap. We’re embarrassed that we haven’t left. We’ve kept it inside, all to ourselves for so long, that breaking that silence and owning up to the truth is really difficult. Coming clean is really fucking hard. We have to admit it to ourselves before we can tell others.
Because people will not believe us
When we do decide to end it, for our own safety and the safety of those around us, we have to tell everyone the truth in case the abusers show up at our homes or workplaces. Domestic violence rips families apart. It forces people to pick sides. Surprisingly, a lot of people side with the abuser. A lot more than you would imagine.
Think about it for a minute. If you had to tell all of your friends, family and coworkers something incredibly personal and embarrassing, something that would make them look at you differently and judge you, something they might not even believe, how would you react? How would you tell everyone you know that you lied to them over and over? Would you want people to feel sorry for you? Would you want people to view you as weak, because even if they don’t mean to, they will? Would you want everyone walking on eggshells because they don’t know how to react to you or what to say? Would you want people asking you, “Why didn’t you just leave?” as if it could ever be answered simply?
My story was not believed, even though I showed my friends bruises and police reports. Out of a lifetime in a city, I ended up with three friends. Everyone else in my life sided with him. In the end, it comes down to the charming, manipulative sociopath’s word against yours, the admitted liar. I was betrayed by every single person I knew but three.
Because victims have no money
As part of victim manipulation, abusers typically take over the household finances. We can’t be trusted to do it right anyway. We’re useless. We better just give them the money and they’ll handle it.
At least, that’s how it went in my case. However, my abuser didn’t “handle it.” Instead, he stole all of my money and took out credit cards in my name that I didn’t even know about because he stole my mail. All told, he left me over $50,000 in debt when it was over.
Because they will kill us if we leave
At first, my abuser threatened to kill himself if I left, but towards the end, he threatened to kill me. “I will track you down and rip out your throat with my teeth if you ever leave me.” My abuser said that to me. I very clearly remember the “rip out your throat with my teeth” bit, because it created disturbing imagery in my psyche. I still have dreams where that happens from time to time. Damn my vivid imagination.
Because it means uprooting our entire lives
Domestic abuse is woven through every aspect of our lives from family to our jobs. It is not like just moving to a new apartment or getting a new job will solve the problem. It’s not about who gets the sofa; it’s about our entire lives, because every bit of them is touched by abuse. We have to carefully excise it from every single facet of our lives, sometimes, leaving nothing left.
So, you’ve decided to leave. Where are you going to go? You could call any number of domestic violence hotlines for help and they’ll set you up with at least a temporary place to stay, but what about long-term? Are you going to stay in the same city within harm’s reach, or are you going to flee and go into hiding?
Staying in the same area means living with a constant threat. It means continually being taunted and harassed by your abuser, but at least at home, you might have some support system from friends and family, if they believe your story, that is.
If you decide to run, it means leaving everything behind. It means moving to a new area where you know no one and have nothing to fall back on. If he follows you there, you are completely on your own with no one to turn to for help.
Great choices, right? Leaving is so easy. The end.
Since my abuser destroyed my support system anyway, I fled the state. I’m still in hiding some fifteen years later. He is still out there.
Because we really think we have no options
And perhaps we don’t. Depending on where we live and how much money we make, we really might not have any options at all.
When I decided to leave, a decision that took years to work up to, I called a domestic violence hotline on the sly from work with my heart pounding. I was told that I made too much money to receive help even though I had none, because he stole it all. I had no money, no friends, nowhere to go and I was refused help from every public resource available.
I was fortunate that, in the way the final chapter went down, I was able to kick him out of the house, not the other way around, but most victims are not so lucky. Most of us have to leave our homes.
It’s not like we can start packing and arrange to have some movers come. Leaving has to be done with the stealth of a ninja, which means abandoning practically everything we own.
Most victims, when they do decide to get out of an abusive situation, have to run from their homes like refugees, clinging to the few personal items they managed to grab when they fled in the middle of the night. For some, it’s not just themselves they have to worry about either; they have to think of their children.
Because the legal system sucks
The burden of proof is on us, the victims. We have to prove abuse, which isn’t easy. Again, it usually comes down to our word, the admitted liars, against the charming sociopaths.
Even if we can prove abuse and manage to get some arrest warrants, it’s very far from guaranteed that they’ll be arrested, tried and convicted. Even if they are put in prison, domestic violence doesn’t get a life sentence. One day, they will be released with a big grudge against the person who put them away.
The last time my abuser tried to kill me was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, a different jurisdiction a few miles away. After filing a police report in Cambridge along with two witnesses, I went home and he followed me there. The Boston police could not arrest him because the arrest warrant was in Cambridge, not Boston.
They could not arrest him for trying to break into his own house. They could not arrest him for yelling up to the window that he was going to kill me while the police were in my living room. Unless he actually tried to kill me in Boston, they could do nothing. I wanted to go outside to let him try, but the police wouldn’t let me. I hadn’t gotten a restraining order yet, because the courts that give them out are not open 24 hours. I got one the next morning. The best they could do was detain him for public drunkenness overnight, 12 hours at most.
I spent countless hours on the phone talking to credit card companies and reporting agencies trying to get all that debt erased. It never was, because it’s impossible to prove that you didn’t know something. How could you not know that you had credit cards in your name? He stole my mail. Sure, ma’am, likely story. Even now, my credit is fucked. Every so often, my debt file gets sold to another debt collector and it starts all over again.
I spent countless hours talking to detectives about filing charges that never did any good. In the end, I managed to get four warrants for his arrest: assault and battery (misdemeanor), property damage (felony), fraud (felony), and federal mail tampering (felony). Not one of those warrants was ever cashed in. He left the state and that was that. Most states in the US don’t extradite for anything other than murder and the statute of limitations have all expired now anyway. He is free and clear forever, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.
Because we will lose everything
I lost my hometown. I can never go back there; there’s nothing left of a lifetime’s worth of friendships anymore. I had to start all over from scratch.
I lost all of my valuable possessions; I found a brick in my camera bag instead of a camera. He sold all of my jewelry, some of which were family heirlooms. I lost all of my money and was left with a mountain of debt. I lost my personal information and still deal with identity theft even now.
I lost my job because I had to take so much time off to go to doctors, make phone calls and go to court. They didn’t give that as the reason for my dismissal; they claimed downsizing, even though I was the only one downsized and it was pretty obvious why.
I had nothing except an ever-present fear that he would find me and a new-found sense of freedom that I had no idea what to do with. Fifteen years later, I still have a baseball bat next to my bed. I still live in hiding with the fear that he will show up at my door someday.
I sincerely hope that this post dispelled some ignorance and helped you understand that it is never as simple as just leaving. The amount of courage it takes to act when you’ve been put down for so long is staggering.
The next time you are tempted to say those words, realize that it’s a form of victim shaming. You are placing the blame on the victim for not leaving, instead of where it belongs, on the abuser. Victims of domestic violence need help and support, not ill-informed judgment. Thanks for listening.
If you are in danger in the US, call 911 or reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.