We are asked this question in countless settings where we speak about domestic violence and educate people about the realities of victims’ lives. And the answers are varied.
I must admit that when I began at Renewal House, I had the same perspective. Why wouldn’t someone leave when it is clearly an unhealthy and abusive relationship? And what I have come to realize is that people have numerous reasons for staying – and, in many cases, why staying is actually the best option they can figure out for themselves and for their children.
Now don’t get me wrong – we do not advocate that people stay in abusive relationships. However, each individual must make the decision to leave when he/she is ready. Statistics show that people in violent relationships leave an average of seven times before they permanently leave.
People stay for many reasons: love, lack of money, security, disability, divorce not allowed in their culture/faith tradition, a belief it is best for the children, immigration status, hope that it will get better, a belief that they deserve the abuse…and the list goes on and on.
In fact, the most dangerous period for a victim – when there is the highest risk of homicide – is when they leave. Often, the victim can feel that because he/she has left the abusive relationship, all should be well. However, this sense of safety can prove to be deadly. A victim may go live with friends or family, while continuing to go to work and live his/her life as usual. It is at these times that the abuser has lost control of the situation/person, feels most vulnerable, and may lash out. At times, victims can forget about the danger – and, if not connected to supportive services for victims of domestic violence, this can be further exacerbated by the notion that once one has left, he or she is safe.
Sometimes, then, staying is a decision that can make sense for the moment.
When I first began working at Renewal House, a woman called me and asked if she could come in and talk with me about how to “get rid of my husband and get custody of my child back.” She came in and she told me her story of abuse and violence, pain and brokenness. She had a lot of paperwork from police calls and court meetings. She pulled them all out and asked, “What can you do to make all of this better for me?” I looked at her and explained that, unfortunately, I could not do anything to make it better. I could point her to resources, tell her about some legal options, and get her connected to others who could support her, but it would take her “drive” to get all of this done.
At that moment I felt both helpless and strangely triumphant. It is true that there is a great deal of pain in the lives of the people we work with at Renewal House. It is difficult to see that pain each day. But taking care of the situation for them actually does no good. It does take a lot of work to heal and move on from an abusive relationship. There is so much to give attention to, and so much that is emotionally draining. And yet, that is all a part of the healing process.
Sometimes, we aren’t ready to leave. We haven’t finished yet. There is something more to take care of and/or resolve. But when someone does leave, she/he must face all of the work it will take to make the necessary changes in their life to truly move from violence and abuse to wholeness and joy.