Question Submitted by K.M.
With the increase in popularity of the show “Maid” on Netflix, the conversations surrounding domestic violence have been a topic in many living rooms. For those of you who have not watched it yet, I won’t spoil it for you. It is worth watching. However, whether you have seen it or not, intimate partner violence is something that is occurring at an outstanding rate. My province in particular has the negative statistic of being one of the country’s highest rates of murder-suicides linked to intimate partner violence. And yet, KM, like most individuals, asked the question that came up from watching this show, or the news, or talking to a friend in a relationship that is toxic; “Why doesn’t she leave?”
Well, that is a loaded question. Let’s start with an explanation and some facts first. Intimate Partner Violence (or IPV) is more complex than a lot of people realize. According to the World Health Organization, IPV is one of the most common forms of violence against women and includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviours by an intimate partner. It does occur among same sex couples, as well as female to male abuse, but in general, it is a problem that impacts women at a much higher rate than other individuals. In Canada specifically, Statistics Canada states that 44% of women or 6.2 million women 15 years and older reported some kind of psychological, physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Think about that. 6.2 million women in Canada alone. That is more than the entire population of British Columbia!
Now, although these stats inform us of how prominent IPV is, it is still a very secretive problem. Women involved in these relationships under report and the people around them tend to turn away or not say anything. The adage “what happens behind closed doors is none of my business” is extensively prominent when it comes to IPV and no one is really talking about it as open as we should. I guarantee that we all know someone who has been in a toxic relationship. Some of us may have attempted to talk to them about it and some of us have looked the other way. Regardless of how you react to the situation, the question of “why doesn’t she leave” is not only being asked by KM.
There are a variety of reasons that someone will not leave an abusive relationship and I will discuss some below, but this list is definitely not exhaustive. Also, keep in mind that what may look like inaction to an outsider looking in is more than that. Most abused women are not passive individuals like you assume they are. They will often adopt strategies to maximize their safety and that of their children and pets. Now, the most common and obvious reason for not leaving an abusive relationship is fear of retaliation. The risk to an individual leaving an abusive relationship actually becomes higher once they leave putting them at risk for both significant harm and death. The abuser will not only threaten the partner but may threaten her family, her children or even her pets. These threats can make the person feel stuck because as much as they know they are unsafe in the situation; they will want to keep their loved ones safe more.
The second reason women may stay in a violent relationship is financial. As seen in the show “Maid”, the abuser decided to take away her car, leaving with her with no form of transportation and no way of escaping. She didn’t have the money to buy or get a new one. Even if the woman is working outside of the home, she may find herself working at a lesser wage than her partner or he may take any income she does receive. We all know that couple that “shares” their bank accounts but she always seems to be needing to ask for money to do things for herself. This reason is one of the hardest of all. She knows she needs to leave and has finally made the decision to leave him but where is she going to go? If she has been able to save up a little bit of money, which is an accomplishment in itself, she cannot find a place to live. There are no apartments she can afford, or he has the only vehicle for the household. Money makes the world go round. As much as we don’t want to think that way, it DOES take money for the person, especially one who may have children, to be able to afford to leave.
It also takes money to keep your children. Those women who have children find themselves staying in a relationship because they are worried that they may not get custody of their children if they leave. Not only does it require financial means to go through a custody battle, the abuser has spent years convincing the individual that she is unworthy, creating a sense of insecurity that may lead her unable to believe she deserves her kids. And then there is the basic shitty occurrences that happen during a custody battle. She may not only have to justify why she is has left the relationship but then has to justify why she is a good mom and should keep her kids. That is a challenge that may feel overwhelming and when the children may be the only light in your life, you do not want to risk losing them.
Finally, the reason that most people find hardest to understand, is that the woman has love and hope that their partner will change. Now, a man who abuses his partner does so for a variety of reasons and that may be a post all on its own, but the relationship never starts out that way. A woman does not wake up one day and find herself in a toxic relationship. It takes time and starts slowly and by the time she realizes she is unsafe or being abused, she has already fallen in love. The man, at one point, was kind, sweet, sexy and loving. There were all the usual things that occur in a new relationship and she found herself swept up in the romance. That may sound cliché, but its true. And then, there is the hope. Hope that he will change. Hope that things will get better. Hope that things are not as bad as they seem and maybe you are being unfair. People do change and there are men who get help and counselling who go on to have healthy and lasting relationships. However, that is not the norm. So, for a lot of these women, he doesn’t change. He doesn’t make better choices and in a lot of circumstances, things will escalate. And the hope that we all want is that she gets out before they do.
And generally she does. Despite all the barriers I listed above, women will eventually leave their partners; although after multiple attempts and years of violence. So, as their friend or their loved one, what can you do? In a World Health Organization multi-country study, 19-51% of women who had ever been physically abused by their partner had left home at least one night, and 8-21% had left two to five times. Keep that in mind. It can take someone up to 5 times to leave an abusive partner for good. 5 TIMES. So be patient. Be understanding and try to remember that there are a multitude (not just the few I named) of reasons that someone cannot leave. So while you are waiting, do these five main things.
- Research. Research more information on Intimate Partner Violence. Know more about it so you can be more supportive. Research local agencies in your area that you can utilize for more information, or to give to the woman in case she gets to a point where she is ready to leave. DO NOT leave these resources with her without her permission as it can add to her risk.
- Listen. To their concerns. To their happiness. To their need for support and whatever that may look like for them. It may not look like what you expect, but for right now, that is okay. If you give them the space to listen, you also give them the space to come to you in the future if and when they are ready to leave.
- Voice your concerns. Explain to them the unhealthy behaviours you are noticing without being preachy. Stay as positive as you can and don’t bash the partner. Instead, offer them potential conversations in the future and ways you can support them if needed. Remember that these conversations may occur once, twice or ongoing while she figures things out.
- Don’t place blame. Period.
- Let her make her own decision. Regardless of how you feel, what you think, or how worried you are; it is not your choice. It was not your choice for her to get into the relationship, so it is also not your choice to get her out of it. In order for her to be successful, let HER do it. Not only will it make it more meaningful but it will be her first step in taking back her identity and ability to do things for herself. She will need that.
“At any given moment you have the power to say this is not how the story is going to end.”– Christine Mason Miller