"Why doesn't she just leave?" This may be the most common question asked about domestic violence. It can be a particularly difficult concept to understand for those of us in the self-defense field who are focused on helping women learn to fight back physically against an aggressor. What keeps these women mired in a relationship where they are being abused emotionally, physically, and possibly sexually? And what can we do to help them?
While each abusive relationship is unique, there are many commonalities. Physical abuse is only a small piece of the larger puzzle; the threat of violence is what allows a perpetrator to maintain all of the other abusive behaviors he engages in. There is the emotional and psychological abuse, the constant insults and derogatory comments that chip away at her self-esteem, leaving her feeling that she deserves the abuse. Perpetrators are masters at minimizing and justifying their abusive behaviors, leaving the victim believing she is overreacting or imagining much of the abuse. She keeps focusing on how she can somehow be "better" so that he'll stop the abuse. What she fails to realize is that it doesn't matter what she does; he'll find an excuse to continue his behavior.
Isolation is often a major factor in domestic abuse. He gradually drives a wedge between the victim and her family and friends. He may pick a fight with her every time she is going out. He will constantly point out how her family and friends are "against" him, and he expresses intense jealousy about any time she spends with others. In the beginning, women often view jealousy as "romantic", failing to see it as the red flag behavior that it truly is. Over time, it just becomes easier for her to minimize her contact with others. When it gets to the point that he is "all she has", it's harder for her to leave him.
Economic control is another factor. He typically controls all the money and makes her account for every penny spent. He often prevents her from getting a job, or gets her fired from jobs with his constant phone calls and harassing behaviors. This frequently happens even in cases where she has already left him. While it's unfair to hold a woman responsible for the behavior of her abuser, employers have been able to successfully fire domestic violence victims (even ones who have left their abuser) using the argument that the abuser poses a threat to workplace safety. It's almost impossible for a woman to break away from an abuser when she has no economic resources.
One of the most important facts to realize about domestic violence is that the largest majority of women who are murdered by their partners are actually murdered either after they left or while they were in the process of leaving. Those of us on the outside view the relationship as being tremendously dangerous for the victim but, in reality, it is when the abuser realizes that he has genuinely lost all of his control over her that he becomes the most dangerous. This is why we cannot simply tell survivors "You have to leave", even though it may seem like the obvious solution to us. No one, the police included, can guarantee her safety 100% if she chooses to leave, and we are not the ones who ultimately have to deal with the consequences of her decision to leave.
What we CAN do is help her look at what specific barriers are keeping her in the relationship and begin chipping away at those. She needs to hear the basic message that she does not deserve the abuse and that she is not causing his behavior. Victims often have the idea that "if I could just be better, the abuse would stop". Victims cannot change their abusers, so they need to focus on what they can change. What are the barriers that prevent her from leaving, and how can we help her get past them?
In making a plan for leaving, help her brainstorm where she can go. Encourage her to think about what she will need. Often women begin leaving small things at a family member or friend's home, such as; pajamas and extra clothes, extra medications, important documents, pictures, jewelry, etc. A lot of domestic violence projects have emergency cell phones for domestic abuse victims that only call 911.
If she does make the break from him, it's important for the people in her life to know about what's going on. Co-workers and supervisors need to know he is not allowed on the property. Neighbors need to know to call the police if they see him hanging around. Childcare providers need to be in the loop. Police departments in most areas will briefly go through a person's home with them and do a general safety check. This can include simple things like installing better locks, outside lighting, etc. They will also drive by her property more frequently and keep an eye on the place if they know what is going on.
Restraining orders are also an option for a woman leaving her abuser. It's only a piece of paper, however, and it isn't unusual for perpetrators to ignore them. What an order does help do, though, is untie the police's hands as far as consequences. Without an order, a victim has to document stalking behaviors for a long period of time to establish a pattern of behavior before the perpetrator can be prosecuted. He may do a great deal of damage before she can actually do anything about it. With a restraining order in place, he only has to call her or show up ONE time and he can be arrested and prosecuted. It's vital for the victim to understand that she must not allow him any leeway in violating the order.
Encourage her to establish a relationship with her local domestic violence center. Support groups and counseling can go a long way in helping her understand the dynamics of the relationship she was in and help her see warning signs in the future. They can also help her in setting up her own personalized safety plan.
And, finally, we need to teach her that she can fight back physically. This is where self-defense instructors can excel! She has been beaten down over time, and this is our opportunity to help build her back up. She needs to be on top of her safety planning so she will hopefully never have to face him physically again but, if a confrontation does happen, we can make sure she has the tools to deal with him effectively. Mindset, of course, is key; this man is an attacker who means her harm - just the same as someone jumping out of the bushes at her. She needs to be 100% committed to fighting and winning. Encourage her to visualize him as the attacker while she is practicing. We don't want to instill unnecessary fear, but she needs to fully understand now that she's left him, he poses a genuine threat to her life. Many perpetrators had a "go-to" move that they would use; for example, maybe he would regularly pull her around by her hair. Find out what kinds of situations she's fearful of facing or has had trouble with in the past, and help her work on those moves.
In closing, it's important to always remember that we haven't walked in her shoes and it isn't fair for us to judge her past decisions. Our goal is to empower her to become a stronger, more confident woman who recognizes the red flags of abusers in the future and knows how to keep herself safe.