By Barbara Gilin
When we hear about victims physically abused by a partner, many of us say, "I would never stay with someone who abused me." However, until we walk in the shoes of those who are in relationships marked by violence, it is very difficult to understand the circumstances of a relationship with an abusive partner.
But remaining aware and trying to understand is important during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, especially after the recent stories out of the NFL. Whether such stories are part of the daily headlines or not, we know that 39 percent of female homicides were committed by an intimate partner in 2010.
After 35 years of counseling survivors of intimate partner violence, I have learned some of the reasons women decide to stay with their partners. Almost every survivor I have seen says she is "not your typical battered woman," usually because she fears the judgment of those who believe there are quick and easy answers to her problem. Many survivors have also said that they "would never stay" with an abusive partner. But they do. So when someone reveals that she is in an abusive relationship, it is critically important to try to be nonjudgmental and understand the reasons why she has stayed.
Many women assume responsibility for their partners' mistreatment of them, a belief that causes them to isolate from friends, family, and others. In the words of one survivor, she did not want others to see her husband as a "total bad guy" because she still saw him as "someone who has many good parts." She, like many others, alternated between emotions - knowing that what he was doing was not her fault and, at other times, believing that she "must have done something wrong" for him to treat her that way. By the time many survivors seek help, they acknowledge that their partners' negative beliefs about them outweigh anyone else's positive beliefs.
Explanations of why survivors of abuse have such difficulty leaving their relationships often fall into one of three categories: love, hope, and fear.
In spite of physical and emotional abuse, many survivors truly do love their partners and do not want to hurt them by leaving, particularly when the abuser has a history of being neglected or abused as a child. Additionally, an episode of abuse is typically followed by a "honeymoon period," when the abusive partner displays the kind of loving attention that serves to restore hope that the episode of abusive behavior is an aberration and will not continue. It can take a long time of repeating this cycle before the outlook of hope vanishes.
As the years go on, the role of fear cannot be emphasized enough. Survivors usually live with a barrage of threats from the abuser, such as: the threat of further abuse or death, taking the children away, killing himself if the partner leaves, and threatening to harm loved ones. The majority of homicides occur after the partner has finally indicated that she is leaving the relationship.
As a counselor, I have also been a witness to the failures of law enforcement and the criminal justice system to keep victims safe, the lack of shelter resources, the impact of financial dependence on the abuser, the grief of breaking up a family, and the toll of isolation from family and friends.
The belief that there is an easy way out for survivors only makes them feel more alone and more hopeless. I have heard many of them say that the judgments they received from others were sometimes as hard as the judgments they heard from their abusers.
This is a complex issue. Those who are being harmed deserve to have us listen carefully to their stories and to be as interested in understanding why their partners harm them as we are in understanding why they stay.