“Why do they stay?” or “Why don’t they just leave?” are common questions in response to hearing about 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, and more bruised and scraped skin than not, limping into a courtroom to get a restraining order after eight years of abuse.
I just heard “why don’t they just leave?” uttered last night. Someone was discussing their pregnant sister in a bad situation and a man standing nearby said it. Not that men aren’t capable of understanding, or in fact, becoming victims themselves, but in my experience, they’re more likely to voice their ignorance in the form of those questions than women. Women say it, too, but they’re more likely to sympathize, even though they haven’t any idea what they’re sympathizing about. Believe me, nobody has a clue until you’ve been through it.
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, really, those questions are ignorant in the rude sense when said to someone who was lucky enough to survive domestic violence.
These are just a few possible answers to those questions from my experience. Some victims might have different reasons, but these were mine.
Because the abuser convinces us that we cannot survive on our own
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 was only allowed to socialize if he planned it, although, I didn’t think of it that way then. 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. One of the few numbers I knew was the number of a girl who was just an acquaintance. She turned out to be my best friend. We moved to California together and we’re still best friends some fifteen years later.
Because the abuser convinces us that we are worthless
Over and over, subtly and not so subtly, the abuser tells you that you are useless, stupid, spineless, clumsy, and absolutely worthless. Without him to guide you, you’d die on your own. You can’t even tie your shoes properly. You’re a terrible cook. You have terrible taste in music, books and movies. Your ideas, beliefs and opinions are all wrong and stupid. He has no choice but to guide you in the right way. You’re more trouble than you’re worth, but I will deign to instruct you in the right way even though it will be a total pain.
That’s what abusers do. They manipulate you into thinking, not that they are verbally abusing you, but that they are doing you a favor. If you hear it enough, if you get scolded enough and beaten for not doing things correctly, you believe it. You really are useless. Thank god you have him to guide you in the right way.
For the last few years, I honestly thought it would be better if he killed me.
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 you are a failure. You didn’t see the signs. You totally missed the red flags that were there all along the way. You are the one who got yourself into this mess. You trusted someone you shouldn’t have. You gave your trust to another human being who completely abused that trust.
Admitting that it won’t get better means admitting that you can’t trust yourself. You can’t be trusted to pick decent people, so you wall yourself up inside. How can you trust yourself to find the right person to reach out to for help? How on earth can you trust anyone if you can’t even trust yourself?
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…”
Victims become liars. We cover it all up. We wear scarves and long sleeves and stage makeup. We find excuses for blemishes on our skin. You lie long enough to everyone you know that, if you want out, it means telling everyone that you’re a liar.
I told everyone that I tripped over the cat when he knocked out my tooth with his fist. 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 it’s really fucking hard to tell the truth about abuse
Abuse is gradual. You don’t begin a relationship with an abuser. If they started off that way, believe me, we’d definitely just leave, but it never does. It starts with a charming person who makes you feel valued. Over time, once they’re sure they’ve got us, it turns into verbal abuse in the form of nitpicking. Nothing you ever do is right or good enough. You’re so useless. You have nothing to offer. Your views are all wrong. You don’t know anything. You’re stupid, ugly, fat. No one loves you. You would be totally helpless without him.
Sometimes, as in my case, verbal abuse escalates into physical abuse. You find yourself lying to cover it up, because abuse is embarrassing. We’ve kept it inside, all to ourselves for so long, that breaking that silence is nearly impossible. When you decide to end it, for your own safety and the safety of those around you, you have to tell everyone the truth lest anyone let him into you apartment building or in case he shows up at work.
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, how would you react? How do 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–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?
Coming clean is really fucking hard.
Because victims have no money
As part of victim manipulation, abusers typically take over the household finances. You can’t be trusted to do it right anyway. You’re useless. You better just give me the money and I’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 about $50,000 in debt when it was over.
Because they will kill us if we leave
Or threaten to kill themselves. 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 our entire lives are touched by abuse. You have to carefully excise it from every single facet of your life, sometimes, leaving nothing left.
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? Are you going to flee the state and go into hiding to avoid him?
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 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.
I fled the state. I’m still in hiding some fifteen years later, living with the perpetual fear that he will find me.
Because we really think we have no options
And perhaps we don’t. Depending on where you live and how much money you make, you 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 for help even though I had none because he stole it all. I called another and got the same story. I had no money, 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 that lucky.
It’s not like you 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 you own. Most victims, when they do decide to get out of the abuse, end up having to leave 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 last time he tried to kill me was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts. 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, all of five miles away.
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.
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.
The best I was able to do was put a little note in my file that no creditors would ever read. 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
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 think. I ended up with three friends. They were the best friends a girl could have, but everyone else in my life sided with him. My story was not believed, even though I showed them bruises and police reports. 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.
I lost all of my valuable possessions; I found a brick in my camera bag instead of a camera. My jewelry box, which I rarely looked in, was full of costume jewelry. He sold all of my jewelry out from under me, 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 matters 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 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 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.
I hope that answers your questions as to why we don’t just leave. I sincerely hope that this post dispelled some ignorance and helped you understand that it is never as simple as “just leaving.” The next time you are tempted to say those words to someone who has been in an abusive relationship, just give them a sincere hug and bite your tongue.