May 1, 2020

Why Do They Stay?

Prevention at Home Video Education Series

YWCA Spokane staff have joined together to create a unique online engagement opportunity focused on cultivating increased community education and awareness surrounding issues related to intimate partner domestic violence. The eleven-part video series presents engaging, educational content for individuals from any background or current knowledge base. The videos and blog posts also offer watchers an opportunity to get to know YWCA Spokane advocates on a personal level; each contributor brings their own personality into their writing and presentation style. Each topic within the series has its own blog post, like this one, including a video. All of the other topics in the series are linked below. As you watch these videos and read the blog posts, we hope that you will gain more knowledge, explore topics that you may not have been exposed to, and empower yourself and those around to be in healthier, happier relationships. Thank you for taking the time to further your education, awareness, and understanding surrounding these critical issues. 


Why Do They Stay or Go Back?

 

I wanted to talk about this because it is one of the more common things I hear during the trainings I facilitate, events I attend, in the media, or out in the community–and it is a very tough and complicated concept for a lot of people. This can be especially complicated and frustrating for family members of those who are victims of Intimate Partner Violence to wrap their heads around and approach with an empathetic stance. I’m talking about the questions that many people ask: ‘why do you stay?’, ‘why do you go back?’, or ‘why do you put up with that?’ 

Whether you have never experienced an abusive relationship, know someone who has gotten out of an abusive relationship, or are someone who has escaped an abusive relationship themselves, it may seem very simple or obvious as to why and how to leave. However, I hope you will have a better understanding by the end of this post of some of the reasons as to why it isn’t that easy to just leave. Everybody’s relationship is different, and everyone’s idea of a ‘healthy relationship’ varies depending on how you were raised, how much support you have, your environment, and so forth. My goal today is to lead you to a better understanding and a more empathetic and supportive role beside a victim so we can avoid victim-blaming and can hold abusers more accountable within our community. 

So why does someone stay in or go back to an abusive relationship? Well, one factor is that someone is seventy times more likely to be murdered in the weeks following them leaving the relationship than at any other time in the relationship. To me, that is a pretty big reason as to why someone would stay or go back with an abusive partner. This can be due to their partner feeling a loss of control over the situation and adopting the mentality that ‘if they can’t have you, no one else can’. 

Another is that abusers oftentimes win unsupervised visitation or custody of shared children at the same rates as non-abusers. You might be wondering why this happens. It’s helpful to think of it this way: let’s say a victim fled their home with just the clothes on their back, no income, has been staying at their friend’s house on the couch, has no license (abusers often control their victims’ ability to transport themselves) and no way to get around. If that person came into court and presented that way to a judge, it may not look so good. On the other hand, let’s imagine how the abuser comes in: looking well-kept, might be able to afford a lawyer, has an income, has the vehicle, and has the home. The victim may have no proof of any form of abusive behavior on record. Abusers also often have very manipulative ways of turning all faults onto the victim. With all that considered, it’s no wonder this can happen. 

These are just a couple of the pretty big reasons as to why someone may need to stay or go back to their abusive partner. And odds are, there are other barriers that can impact victims along with these reasons listed previously. We are going to cover some more of those reasons, and then talk about how this impacts what services we provide here at YWCA Spokane.

Of course, there is always the constant fear of the abuser retaliating in a variety of ways. Abusers can accomplish this by trying to get them fired from their employment, filing paperwork for a protection order against the victim, turning friends and family (including their own children) against the victim, amongst many other ways.

Another huge barrier is a lack of financial resources, which can seriously hold back a victim from being able to make it on their own. If they were not allowed to work, or the abuser insisted on controlling all the finances, the victim most likely doesn’t have any cash available to attempt escape. Ultimately, trying to make it on your own after any relationship, whether healthy or not, can be very difficult if both parties don’t have a source of income independently. Leaving without having any money when they need to pay for food, transportation,  housing, and so forth, often just isn’t realistic. This is especially difficult when the couple shares children together, as the victim will need to have a source of income and the basic necessities to be able to have custody of the shared children.

Image from ywcavan.org

Attempting to protect shared children is also a huge reason a lot of people go back to their abusive partners. Oftentimes the abusive partner will get the children involved, or start to abuse them physically and/or mentally.  When the victim becomes informed of this, they will often come back in order to try and protect the children or misdirect some of the abusive behavior toward them instead. Many victims have a huge fear, as mentioned above, that the abuser will stop at nothing to get custody of the children, and that in the process they will try to prevent the victim from seeing the children. Many abusers will threaten to do these things in order to maintain control of the household.

Many victims also fear they will just not be believed if they were to seek services or help from their family or friends. We tend to see this especially when the abuser is well-respected in the community or held up on a ‘pedestal’ by the people around them. Whether it is through their profession or their social status/connections, this ‘good reputation’ can make it difficult for those who respect or admire the abuser to see them as anything but a good person. Even if the victim does seek help or a listening ear from their loved ones, outside factors often make it so they have to go back to the abuser. This can lead their loved ones to believe that what they are saying can’t possibly be true, and to question if it is really as bad as they have been making it out to be.

Household and family pets are another important piece to consider when someone won’t leave or goes back. Torturing, threatening to kill, or killing a family pet is another control tactic that a lot of abusers will use to their advantage in order to keep the victim ‘in line’. Abusers will then place the blame onto the victim and reinforce it in many ways. A common tactic of an abuser is to say things like: ‘If you had/hadn’t…, then this wouldn’t have happened. You caused this’. Victims often don’t want to leave pets in the care of abusers. This is a large reason as to why the YWCA Spokane has pet-friendly shelters.

There are also various pressures from family and mutual friends, as well as some religious or cultural standards, to stay with someone and make it work. Abuse is often not obvious outside of the home, and maybe your support people are always praising how great your relationship seems from their perspective. Maybe the abuser has a good source of stability in regards to income. Or the victim is feeling pressured to stay because they feel like they would be going against their shared religious beliefs if they left. There also tends to be a lot of shame and guilt felt by someone trying to leave, in a variety of ways. They could be feeling guilty about the family dynamic being ‘turned upside down’ or ‘broken apart’. There can also be the victim not wanting the abuser to lose a job or reputation they have worked hard to build if the abuse was to become known. 

It is also very normal for victims to believe that the abuser can change. This can be based on their good moments and memories with them, or if they know how they were raised. Victims are often convinced into believing that they are to blame for the abuse, even though they aren’t. The abuser comes back, promising to never abuse them again and that they will change. The abuser will promise to quit drinking or using drugs, go to therapy, go to church, etc, leading to the victim believing the abuse will stop. We know that drugs and alcohol are not the cause of Intimate Partner Violence, but the promise of hope and a better future are often exploited by abusers.

Lack of a good support network is a big reason as to why a lot of victims stay with their partners. If I asked you to think of any major event in your life where you needed help or were in a traumatic situation, it’s likely that you turned to a support network. Whether it was a parent, friends, coworkers, or siblings, odds are you have sought out advice or various resources from people you trust to get you through the problem. Trying to leave without any sort of close support, whether financially, emotionally or with basic necessities, is impossible for some. It is completely understandable that people in the victim’s lives may become frustrated with a situation in which the victim continues to leave and go back, or the victim is ready to leave and then repeatedly changes their minds. 

While what appears to be ‘flip flopping’ on the part of the victim can be understandably exasperating for some, it’s important to acknowledge it as a component to intimate partner violence. What the victim ultimately needs is for people to stick around with them in order to not become further isolated. While I would never suggest coming into an abusive relationship and trying to do everything to ‘fix’ the situation, staying connected is really important for victims. You are allowed to have your own boundaries of how much you will be involved to make sure the situation doesn’t take over your life, and it doesn’t put you into danger. We know that any ultimatums are NEVER a good idea, since it is rarely ever just that easy to leave and stay away. Putting ultimatums on the victim is inadvertently putting the fault on the victim. Remember to have boundaries for yourself and be honest with what you can handle. 

Cultural and ethnic barriers can also create difficulties for some victims. What if they are from outside of this country? Or have limited English proficiency? What if they don’t know the ins and outs of the law? If someone has no control of anything, including themselves, how can they seek help, even in the most desperate of times? They may not know if they can trust law enforcement or service agencies, and if they do try to communicate, they may be misunderstood or feel alienated. Furthermore, if they immigrated and do not have citizenship, this can be hung over their heads by the abuser, preventing them from feeling safe to come forward. On top of language barriers, abusers often will insist on translating for the victim and only translating what benefits the abuser, versus what the victim is actually saying. 

There are even significant barriers to accessing services once a person is ready to seek help. A lot of people are unaware of the YWCA Spokane’s services and think we are actually the YMCA, which can be confusing. Many people are surprised to learn that we have free and confidential Intimate Partner Violence services. While we do share a building with the gym, we are separate services and unfortunately do not have an awesome pool to swim in.

While the YWCA Spokane is a great resource, and there are many other types of resources for Intimate Partner Violence, we unfortunately can’t solve all problems for everyone. No one agency has every possible resource for everyone, but we do our absolute best to help people in every capacity we can. Lack of resources in not only our community, but throughout the country, tends to be a very big barrier to someone trying to leave an abusive relationship. Housing, for example, repeatedly proves to be one of the biggest obstacles to people trying to start over somewhere safe and comfortable. 

And we can’t ignore one of the more controversial reasons as to why someone would stay with an abusive partner: they love the person, even if we can’t see why. If someone didn’t love the person, it would make it easier to leave, but the love holds them close. They consistently think of the good things and times with that person, which makes it easier to stay or go back. As human beings, most could say that we try and see the good parts even in not-so-great situations or people–and victims of intimate partner violence are no exception. 

There are understandably tons more reasons as to why someone may stay or go back to an abusive partner, but these are just some of those reasons. Could you imagine having just a few of those barriers and how hard it would be for you to change your situation? Every person’s experience with intimate partner violence is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Just because it was easier for Suzy or Joe down the street to leave, doesn’t mean it will be for Janice. And unless we are walking in that person’s exact shoes, we can’t expect them to just take our suggestions and change it. 

Now that you hopefully have a little better understanding of just some of the reasons someone stays or goes back to an abusive partner, this leads me to my final point in all of this. We hopefully now know how not easy it is for someone trying to leave. And with that knowledge, hopefully the phrasing of ‘why don’t you just leave, why do you stay, why do you put up with that?’, will fade and it will be replaced with questions that sound more like this: ‘why does the abuser feel that abusive behaviors are ok?’.

By asking the former types of questions to the victim, such as why they don’t do something, whether we realize it or not, we are putting the blame on the wrong person. It is not the fault of the victim, but rather the person manipulating, controlling and abusing their partner. If we can’t stop victim blaming, we can’t truly start changing the system to hold abusers accountable, or change the culture around Domestic Violence as a whole. Just as importantly, we can’t be truly supportive and empathetic to victims while also practicing victim blaming. I’d like to challenge you to say something the next time you hear someone ask questions like ‘why they don’t just leave?’. Flip the switch and rephrase it so the right person is at fault, rather than the victim who will likely feel unsupported and misunderstood even further.


Written content and video for this topic within the Prevention at Home series provided by YWCA Spokane staff member, Nicole Nimens.


Continue Learning with Prevention at Home!

Explore more topics on your journey empowering yourself and those around you by visiting the following blog posts and watching the other videos in our prevention at home series.

  1. Services at YWCA Spokane
  2. What is Intimate Partner Domestic Violence
  3. Red Flags and the Relationship Spectrum
  4. Respect, Boundaries, and Consent
  5. Teen Domestic Violence
  6. Why Do They Stay or Go Back
  7. Trauma and the Brain
  8. Safety Planning
  9. Self Care
  10. Self Regulation
  11. How to Help a Friend

External Resources for Continuing Education

YWCA Spokane staff members have collected the following external links for you to further your education.


YWCA SPOKANE IS HERE FOR YOU

If you or someone you know is impacted by intimate partner domestic violence, know that confidential advocates are always available through our 24hr helpline services by calling 509-326-2255, emailing help@ywcaspokane.org, or texting 509-220-3725. 

To learn more about accessing additional services through YWCA Spokane during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit ywcaspokane.org/services. Thank you!

By: Mia Morton

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