A woman in a violent relationship has only two choices, and both of them are bad.
She can leave the batterer, thereby losing economic security for herself and her children, her position in her community and the partner whom she loves despite his cruel behavior. She may also lose the support of tradition-minded family and church members, who believe she should endure all things in order to keep her family together. And since battered women are in the greatest danger when they leave their batterer, she may be stalked, threatened, attacked and even murdered.
If she stays with her partner, she risks losing her children, who can be taken from her by well-meaning relatives or by the courts because she supposedly cannot or will not protect them; she risks losing even more of her self-esteem; she risks painful, terrifying, and humiliating abuse; and, ultimately, she risks losing her life.
And regardless of her choice, when she later tells her story, she will be met with the incredulous, contemptuous demand: “Why didn’t you just leave the first time he hit you?”
It all seems so simple, from the outside. He hits you, you leave. But battering doesn’t begin with a blow to the head, out of the blue. Battering begins with a look, an attitude, an inflection.
Would you leave your partner if he looked at you “funny?”
If he seemed angry for some unknown reason?
If he took control of the checkbook because “you just don’t do it right?”
Neither would a battered woman. And because his behavior is so calculated to keep her off balance, she treads more carefully, tries harder to abide by his wishes and to please him. By the time the batterer actually strikes her, she may already believe that she provoked the assault because she wasn’t good enough.
A battered woman leaves her partner an average of seven times before she breaks with him permanently. She doesn’t return because she is stupid or gullible or a masochist. She returns because she doesn’t want to just give up on someone she loves and has planned a future with. She returns because her children miss their daddy. She returns because she hopes that the future will be better. She returns because she hopes that she will be better.
And that is what is so hurtful about domestic violence. It could happen to any of us, under the wrong conditions, with the wrong partner. Women are so well-programmed to believe that our successes are due to luck and our failures are due to laziness or a lack of character. Add a violent, angry, manipulative man into the variables that determine self-esteem, and few of us would be able to emerge from such a relationship with our self-esteem intact. Even fewer of us would be able to just cut our losses and walk away.
Instead of asking, “Why don’t you just leave,” ask “Why doesn’t he stop beating her?”
Instead of vilifying a welfare mother, condemn the violent man who made her choose poverty for herself and her children over a painful, dangerous lifestyle. Instead of saying, “It’s none of my business,” call the police, and then be a support person for a woman who faces a terrifying future, either with or without the batterer.
A battered woman has only two choices. You have several. What will they be?
Program Director, Family Domestic Violence Services