"Emotional Wellness" column shows why a person in a violent situation has difficulty leaving and what steps to take.
In a previous column, I addressed many common misperceptions about domestic violence, and I’d like to summarize a few points and expound on the often unintentional victim-blaming that happens when people ask or not-so-subtly imply, “why doesn’t she just leave?”
First, to be clear: Abuse goes well beyond obvious physical actions to a range of controlling, harmful or manipulative behaviors:
• Name-calling, insulting, humiliating or continually criticizing partner;
• Telling partner who she or he can or can’t interact with online or in person;
• Constantly tracking where partner is or using partner’s phone, social media or GPS tracking to keep tabs on partner;
• Preventing partner from leaving (the room, car, house);
• Gaslighting (a pattern of highly-manipulative behavior which impacts one’s ability to trust own memory and judgment);
• Controlling how partner dresses or looks;
• Pressuring, coercing or forcing partner into sexual activity;
• Driving recklessly or dangerously with partner in the car;
• Damaging or destroying partner’s property (smashing phone, throwing objects);
• Threatening to hurt partner, children, other family members, friends or pets.
Unfortunately, the response from many people usually starts with “Why doesn’t she just leave?” and ends with “If it were me, I would….”
These responses demonstrate the lack of awareness about the complexities of domestic violence. Ask any survivor of abuse or any survivor advocate and they will easily rattle off a huge list of reasons, some of the most common I am paraphrasing here:
• I love him and know there’s so much more to him, the good in him.
• Everyone loves him, he’s so charming and plays the “good guy” perfectly so no one will believe me.
• I kept telling myself that if I could just keep him happy then it would stop.
• I love him and had hope every single time he sobbed to me remorsefully about the things he said or did to me, every time he promised to get help, every time he begged me to see beyond his imperfections, to give him another chance. None of us are perfect.
• My faith (pastor, church community) tells me I should work on my marriage (heed my vows for better or worse, forgive). I can’t give up.
• I no longer knew who I was. I had lost my friends. My family was tired of me making excuses for not seeing them. He had become my world and there didn’t seem to be a way out.
• He had access to all of my finances and would “punish” me at times by throwing out bills in my name so I had late payments, wiping my bank account clean, eventually my credit was ruined.
• I don’t trust the courts to recognize how hurtful he can be and I can’t bear the thought of my children being with him without me to protect them.
• He has threatened to kill me (my kids, our pets, my parents) if I ever leave.
• He tracks my every move as it is. I think I’m safer with him than breaking up with him. I will never be safe.
I can’t stress enough the danger element. If “just leave” takes into consideration the very real risk of increased harassment, stalking or death, then yes, a victim of abuse can “just leave.” However, many people don’t realize that attempting to leave can be the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship. When abusive relationships turns deadly, more times than not, the victim was in the process of, or had already taken steps to, end the relationship. Abusive behavior is a means of controlling one’s partner and by leaving, the victim is taking control back. Those who safely and permanently leave their abusive relationship often have made many past attempts and have needed to take great measures, safety planning, and time to do so.
If someone you love is in an abusive relationship, here are a few basic but very useful tips:
1. Approach from a place of concern and encouragement. Refrain from judgment, disbelief, criticism, “shoulds”, unsolicited advice or action.
2. Provide support by listening and encouraging them to make their own decisions.
3. Explicitly communicate that no one deserves or causes their abuse. We are each responsible for our actions and how we treat others.
4. Be patient, additional pressure is not helpful. Allow your loved one to set the pace.
5. Offer practical assistance such as help with the children, meals, a safe and quiet place to retreat to, etc.
6. Find and share resources on safety planning or offer local, phone, or online resources for when they want them.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the Delaware Domestic Violence Hotlines: (302) 762-6110 New Castle County and (302) 422-8058 Kent/Sussex Counties.
Dawn Schatz is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, certified Domestic Violence Specialist, and founder of Appoquinimink Counseling Service, now located at Wellbeing on Main in Middletown. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 898-1616.