Why abuse victims stay

Survivor explains fears, hurdles of leaving
By Sara Bruestle | Mar 04, 2015

The following article is the fifth in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on domestic violence. Called the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, the series aims to educate our readers while offering information – and hope – to those needing help.

Imagine that you are a married woman. Imagine that you’re a stay-at-home mom with four children. Imagine that your husband beats and belittles you.

Would you leave him?

Some of you may hypothetically say: “The minute he hit me, I’d be out of there!” Statistically, though, that’s not how it goes.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that, on average, women leave an abusive relationship five times – over a timeframe of eight years – before they leave their abuser forever.

Research shows that victims of domestic violence make repeated efforts to be safe and self-sufficient, but that there are numerous barriers that make leaving one of the hardest things they’ll ever do.

Many decide to stay because they fear their abuser will become more violent if they leave.

Each year, in up to 70 percent of reported homicides by abusers, the victim had left or was trying to leave.

“When someone leaves an abusive relationship, statistically that’s when they’re in the most danger,” said Karen McKeen, services deputy director for Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County. “That’s when most domestic violence murders happen; when she leaves.

“Often times, when they stay, there’s been some horrible threats: ‘If you leave, you’ll never see your children again’ or ‘If you leave, I’m going to kill myself.’

“If she leaves, her chances of being involved in a homicide where the spouse kills the partner and then kills themselves go way up.”

Or victims stay because they don’t have anywhere to go. Many communities don’t have enough affordable housing available. Shelters and transitional housing are also limited.

Every day, domestic violence programs in Washington have to turn down an average of 398 requests for shelter because there’s simply not enough room.

Some victims don’t leave because they don’t have a job. They can’t afford to take care of themselves and their children without their abuser’s income.

They worry, too, that because they can’t provide for their children, they won’t get custody of them, either.

“They stay because they don’t have any money,” McKeen said. “A woman may be trying to leave, but she has no support system, no resources, her abuser never let her work, she has no access to a checking account. Without money, she’s going to be homeless.”

Or maybe they stay because of religious reasons – they decide to stay in a marriage no matter what because they cannot – will not – get a divorce.

Many of them have tried to leave before, but their abuser found them.

There are also some victims who don’t want to leave – but they do want the violence to stop.

If we are to stop domestic violence, McKeen said, we need to rephrase our questions so we’re not asking why they don’t leave, but why they stay.

The former question is too judgmental, she said. It implies that victims are the reason for the domestic violence. She said there at least 50 reasons women decide to stay.

“These are not strangers; this is violence from intimate partners,” McKeen said. “They love this person, they’ve built a life with this person, they have children.

“It’s not quite as easy as it sounds to leave.”

Still, victims do.

Every day, men and women in Washington state find the support and resources they need so they can leave – for the last time.

A woman from Mukilteo, who agreed to anonymously share her story with The Beacon, stayed with her abuser for 20 years. She left him three times before she left him for good.

Her husband would verbally abuse her, calling her names and telling her she was the lesser sex.

He made her cook and clean to unachievable standards, and wait on him hand and foot. If he wasn’t satisfied, he would physically abuse her. He made her eat after him, and sleep on the floor.

He beat her as if it were routine. Sometimes the punishment would escalate: He pulled her hair, beat her with his shoes, and threw stuff at her head.

He also beat their two children. Like her, they would cover up for it. The three of them were fearful for reasons they didn’t understand.

“I should have left many times, but couldn’t bring myself to do it,” the woman said.

“It was the fear of not making it on your own, and the fear of the things ingrained in you by your abuser: that you’re stupid, horrible, and that it’s your fault if the family breaks up.”

If it wasn’t for the help she received from Domestic Violence Services, she admits that she might still be with her abuser.

“No one can tell you when is the right time to leave,” she said. “It has to be in you.”

Though she essentially had to start over, she didn’t lose custody of their two children. She went to college, started her career, got divorced and remarried to a man who is nothing like her first husband.

She has been free from her abuser for more than 15 years.

“I still look behind me, I still have some insecurities, but goodness to God,” the woman said, “I look back and think, ‘That’s not me.’

“Yes, I had to start over, but what a better life it is.

“I remember, one day in college, my professor asked how I was doing. I said, ‘This is the first time I haven’t had bruises on my body. I’m doing great.’”

In Snohomish County, Domestic Violence Services offers help to victims who want to leave, but don’t have the means to do it. They can get tips on how to make a safety plan, whether they decide to leave or stay.

“We’re here to help plan if they’re ready to leave,” McKeen said. “We’re also ready to help people who still have that hope alive, and they’re not quite ready to make that move.”

If you are in an abusive relationship and are looking for a way out, call the 24-hour Domestic Abuse Hotline at 425-25-ABUSE (2873). Calls are free and confidential.

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