One of the most frustrating things for people not personally involved in an abusive or battering relationship is trying to understand why a woman doesn’t leave. Far too often they judge domestic violence situations. They may ask, “If it’s that bad, why doesn’t she just leave?” They may say, “She must stay because she enjoys it.” And may say, “This could never happen to me. I wouldn’t allow it.”
The most important thing to keep in mind is that extreme emotional abuse is always present in domestic violence situations. On average, an abused woman will leave her partner several times. The reasons they return or stay in the relationship vary from woman to woman.
This is a topic I am all too familiar with in my previous marriage. My personal experience of spousal abuse may not make me an expert or authority on the subject, but I am someone who truly understands the difficult issues involved with leaving such a relationship. Carefully consider the following information, as it pertains to abused women in general, as well as the aspects that affected me personally. You may see yourself in this Emotional Dance of Domestic Abuse, or someone you know and care about. Educating yourself on these issues may help you save yourself or someone you love.
Some women who remain in abusive relationships may do so for “the sake of the children.” They may feel that an abusive husband and/or father is better than none at all. The abusive episodes they endure have greatly diminished their judgment, leaving them in a constant state of anxiety and fear. They question their ability and strength to live alone and care for their children. Also, the threat of a child custody battle, fear of losing their children and worry about the financial strains of raising children immobilize them.
Personally, I had tremendous fear that my then-husband would take our children to Mexico, where he is from, and I would either never see or hear from my children again, or the struggle that would ensue in trying to locate and return my children to me.
Abused women are usually threatened by their abusers if they try to leave. Continuous “fear” of what the abuser could or might do in retaliation may cause some women to stay even when she knows she should leave. (Refer to “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence.”) Statistically, abused women and their children are in the most danger when they try to escape the violence. This is referred to as “separation violence.”
Personally, I left my then-husband three separate times over the course of our fifteen year marriage. In his usual, no-nonsense manner, he informed me that if I were to leave, I would “lose the children.” How or why he believed I would lose the children was never made clear, but was only meant to intimidate me into staying. It worked, but only for awhile.
Violence often escalates when women leave or are in the process of leaving the relationship. News reports of murder/suicide involving estranged couples, or reports of a parent leaving the country with their children during separation or divorce proceedings, clearly shows the serious dangers involved therein.
Many abused women feel they have nowhere to go and “lack financial resources.” Frequently, they do not have the immediate financial resources necessary to leave, and fear they will be unable to provide for themselves and their children’s needs. Most women suffer dramatic financial loss, much more so than men, following divorce. Because of the emotional abuse endured, women may believe that they are not capable of surviving or succeeding on their own, perhaps due to limited job skills and income potential.
Personally, I was a stay-at-home wife and mother, with no form of income of my own, with little or no access to “his” money. Purchases made had to be cleared with him first, and without such clearance, I was physically locked out of the house with the warning to return the items I had bought (usually for our children) and to bring him back “his money.”
Abusers often attempt to “isolate” their partners from family and friends. Without a support system and outside validation, partners gradually become more and more vulnerable. In time, abusers are able to control their partner’s perceptions of the abuse and victims may begin to doubt their own sanity. Abusers inflict gradual, yet increasing, emotional abuse on their partners, often to the point where the victim comes to believe they are responsible and to blame for the abuse.
With my intense religious upbringing, I dutifully approached religious leaders as well as my own father in an attempt to get help. This, unfortunately, only made matters worse for me. Without carefully listening to me and what I had to say, even my own father, a church leader, told me in no uncertain terms to get my “butt back where I belong”, meaning with my abusive husband. The embarrassment within the church community was the furthest thing from my mind, as I was more concerned about what was surely going to happen once I got my butt back “home.”
Often, abused women feel committed to their partner’s “for better or worse.” Although unrealistic, they want the abuse to stop but the relationship to continue. They hope that “with enough love” the violence will stop, being attracted to their partner’s good side and the period during which there is no violence. However, research has shown that the abuse will not stop, and will likely escalate, without the help of others. Belief in Counseling for the Abuser, and the dream of a life without the violence, holds many women to the relationship.
Even though marrying very young, I took my marriage vows before God and witnesses very seriously. I never imagined that my marriage would become as it did. I was born and raised third-generation of this particular “faith”, wherein the only acceptable grounds for divorce was that of adultery that could be proved by “two or more witnesses”, according to church teaching. To get a divorce without clear proof of adultery, according to church teachings, required complete and total celibacy and no hope of ever remarrying. To remarry after a divorce with no clear proof of adultery, invariably and abruptly lead you to being excommunicated from the church entirely, wherein even your own family and close friends would have nothing to do with you.
The Process of Leaving Issues – Most abused women leave and return several times before permanently separating from their abusers. Separation from abusive partner’s takes time, because of strong emotional involvement and investment in the relationship, as well as a fierce desire that there be change. Every time a woman leaves, they gain more courage and strength, as well as valuable information pertaining to available resources and their own abilities. Because of the potential dangers involved in leaving, it is vital that they do so in the safest way possible, with knowledge of available resources and a plan.
I planned and prepared for leaving the marriage for six long months. I began working part-time a short distance from our home as an Office Manager for a dental office. My organization skills and ability to close patients’ outstanding balances, lead to my being taken on full-time and a nice raise. I opened a secret bank account and began saving every penny I could pinch towards my lawyer and court fees. Until I had the monies needed to file for divorce, I told no one. No one. The mental and emotional strength and validation I received while working and earning my own money, quickly diminished my fears of how I would care and provide for not only myself, but also my children. The person I was before the marriage was returning in full force, and I was quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Often times, women feel that no one will believe that their partner’s are capable of abuse, often referred to as Societal Denial. Outwardly, abusers are often friendly, popular, charming, successful and professionally confident. Treatment and behaviors towards the community and work place are very different from those with whom they live. They are highly skilled at keeping their controlling and abusive behavior behind closed doors.
I cannot emphasize enough the tenacious ability abusers have in covering up their true colors while in public. I would often hear, especially within the church, “Your husband is so nice”, or “You must be so proud of your husband having been recommended for a leadership role” within the church. If these ones only knew the strength it took for me not to scream out loud “Are you kidding me?!”
The Perpetual Cycle of Violence – Women may stay in abusive relationships because their partners promise “it will never happen again.” Abusive partners may check violent tendencies for a time. But, without professional intervention and help, this “honeymoon phase” of tenderness, apologies and even gift giving, will invariably end abruptly and violently once again.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard “it won’t happen again I promise”, I’d never have to work another day in my life. But sadly, even I fell for that one time after time. Until the last time.
Domestic abuse and violence shame and humiliate woman. When women live in a constant state of humiliation, they lose the ability and power to assert themselves and assess accurately what is going on in their own life. As a result, women who endure emotional and physical abuse live in a state of perpetual or intermittent denial in order to simply exist day to day.
Since gaining the emotional strength, and needed financial independence, I have lived up to the promise I made to myself as I walked out of the courtroom, that I will never, ever accept that way of life again.
Since my divorce in 1993, I no longer could accept the religion I was brought up in, for many reasons. Although leaving the religion on my own accord lead to the church decision to excommunicate me, therefore losing contact with my family and then-close friends, I am now truly happy and free of abuse. I remarried in 2003 to a wonderful, kind and loving man, who knows me to be a strong, outspoken woman, a force to be reckoned with.