A few months ago, an acquaintance took in a friend who was fleeing from her violent husband. The story was as heart-breaking as you would expect but it was the many obstacles this woman faced, in trying to leave, that took me back to some unresolved issues about domestic violence. This specific issue, annoyance actually, was about the question that invariably pops out of people’s mouths when serious domestic violence comes to light - “Well, why did she let it get that bad, why didn't she just leave?”
It reminded me of when a friend, let's just call her Pam, called me up to discuss an X-Factor contestant who had revealed that the violence that his mother suffered at the hands of his father, was so bad that his brother committed suicide. During this conversation Pam asked (PAM ASKED!) whether I didn't think that the mother was partly to blame for the boy's suicide as she was the only one out of the three – the contestant, the brother and herself – who had the power to leave the family home.
Let's leave my reaction of incoherent, spitting fury which convinced no one, least of all Pam, of anything, for another day. I understand the practical relevance of questions like this; I really do. Do people like me, who splutter about victim blaming, suggest that no attempt should be made to encourage the victim to leave? Should we just 'leave it then', maintain the status quo, since it's so difficult to leave?
No, but it would assist if people understood how monumentally difficult it is to 'just leave'. The first bald fact is that most women who are killed in domestic violence incidents are killed when they attempt to get out, whether by running away or calling the police. So there is the psychological hurdle of freeing herself from mental cage that he has put her in – of believing that she deserves the beatings because she is so bad, stupid and infuriating, that no one else could tolerate, much less love her, that she is a useless wife, mother and person and lucky to have him. She would not survive a day without him and neither will the children. And he will kill her if she tries to leave. It turns out that the last one is true. It is not just mind tricks. Women are found and killed by their partners when they try to leave.
The victim will of course be aware of this by,
(1) his constantly telling her
(2) the violence that he has been able to inflict on her with little or no consequence
(3) her isolation from her friends and family, many of whom simply could not or would not take a woman and her children in and
(4) the fact that on her current salary, if she has one, she cannot just up and find two to three months' deposit for a flat in today's housing market, close enough to her children's school but sufficiently hidden so that her former partner cannot find her.
Just in case you think I'm making up these excuses, various DV charities acknowledge that advising a victim to leave is by no means the obvious solution that the question - and the tone of the questioner – implies. For example, charity Refuge acknowledges the heightened vulnerablity that comes with trying to escape - https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/forms-of-violence-and-abuse/domestic-violence/barriers-to-leaving/.
The woman referred to at the beginning of this article did manage to leave, after a couple of failed attempts. She was fortunate enough to have a family home in another town and friends who were extremely generous with their support but her experience highlighted to me the differences between the services and support that exist in people's perceptions and the ones that exist in real life. You see the services are there, at least here in the UK. It is easy to think of the criminal justice system, social services, the housing department and the rest of the local authority and various charities as one seamless escape route for any woman who has made the decision to leave.
In reality, in many parts of the country, services are woefully over-stretched. Over-worked social workers will take days to get back to victims and will, presumably in a post 12 hour shift daze, ask whether the victim can't ask (violent) Dad to babysit the children while she pops into the office to fill out a few forms. School administrators, to whom victim has carefully explained the situation, will call the next day to threaten prosecution if her children do not re-appear in school.
Ah, but you could just call the police, who will whisk him away and you can have the house (innit?).
- Nope. You may get an arrest but he will be let out on bail and the deeds to the house are likely to be in his name. After going through the trouble of assisting the Crown in obtaining a conviction, if you get that far, there is every chance he may handed a sentence that's little more than a slap on the wrist. All this will make him very cross indeed and he will come back and kill you.
Ah, but as a woman you should always have your own money. You know what they say – never depend on a man!
- Ah, but why don't you just shut the f*ck up?
Actually, don't shut up. Let's examine these strange, contradictory, standards that are applied to DV victims. It seems to consist of incompatible alternate universes where a woman is assured that she is incomplete without a man, should make continuous sacrifices to maintain a relationship, should avoid emasculating a man but should suddenly spring up and out of the relationship, fully independent with her own income steam and a spine of steel, the second anyone notices how badly he beats her.
My mad theory is that the question 'Why didn't she just leave?' is not borne out of genuine, innocent, curiosity and welfare for the victim. It is an instinctive victim-blaming tic.
If any other victim had been held as a virtual prisoner of war, the first, second and three hundredth question would be directed towards the perpetrator. If the perpetrator had inflicted this kind of violence on anyone else, a stranger perhaps, we would insist that he was locked up. When it comes to DV however, we are content to let these men, even if a particular victim gets away, walk away with nothing more than a 'tut tut', free to pound another woman to smithereens. Our cross-examination is reserved for the victim.
I believe this is leftover from the days when we used to ask DV victims what they did to provoke such bad treatment. If that question is now politically incorrect, we can find something else to blame her for - not leaving. That’s it! Not leaving! Out here trying to make us feel sorry for you!
Another thing I've noticed is that while polite society will not tell a victim to stay with an abusive man who is the father of her children, they seem to be very sure that the worst thing that can happen to a child is growing up without a father. All of urban society's ills are blamed on boys, particularly young black boys in the UK it seems, not having a father figure or a male role model.
Now I grew up with my dad around and my children are similarly in a two-parent home so it is not for me to dismiss people's sense of loss at not doing the same. However, my limited view is that the situation is a bit more complicated than is often made out. I do not, for instance, think that it is simply the absence of a father which causes these problems – poor areas, bad influences or lack of support for the single parent are probably also factors. I definitely do not think that a violent father is better than none.
However, the message that I receive clearly and loudly is that allowing your children to grow up in a single parent home is a one-way ticket to delinquent, troubled, criminal-minded children, a position that is only slightly altered when someone notices that the children's father is doing terrible things to the family whereupon they turn around and shout “WELL, WHY DIDN'T SHE LEAVE THEN?!?”) This is of course combined with the violent partner telling the victim that she would be a terrible mother to deprive her kids of a father or a man of his children. I've seen this factor more than once in decisions to stay in abusive relationships.
I have no doubt that there are times when it is easier to leave an abusive relationship – like the first incidence of violence or when the abuser starts to display signs of controlling and/or violent behaviour, like destroying property in anger, or before he isolates the victim or even before there are children. Society can assist by eradicating troublesome ideas about relationships and reinforcing the idea that the only response should be to leave such relationships. It's everywhere from the idealisation of romantic love to the notion that a woman has failed in some way by not achieving partnership or marriage by a certain age.
Another harmful practise is excusing unacceptable behaviour in men because of infantilisation and mythical concepts like 'emasculation'. When people say things like 'men are like that', 'they get angry when....', they find it hard to communicate', 'can't you be a bit patient with him...', it's based on the idea that as the more emotionally, mature lot, women should carefully guide the gentle, fragile beast to a better version of themselves. It doesn't always lead to DV but the message that a woman should seek a relationship above everything else, including her self-interest and to the extent of tolerating and correcting bad behaviour allows, I believe, violent abusive behaviour to thrive.
In fact, I would like it if we could just stop implying that a woman deserves or should expect some kind of punishment for not being nurturing enough – whether it is a bad temper, infidelity or violence – or telling women that they are the sole or principal guardians of a relationship ('a woman holds the key to her home') and if we could treat two adults like they are both responsible for their own actions and equally responsible for the relationship.
However, I know it's not always sexism or lack of sympathy that makes us instinctively bleat out this insensitive question. I personally think that by taking that stance, some people believe they are excluding themselves from potential victimhood – 'That can't happen to me! I would never take that from a man'. I also acknowledge that the excuses from a woman who doesn't immediately want to leave can sound pathetic to the objective ear. And it is daunting to get fully involved in someone else's DV situation – I know I have failed spectacularly on many occasions and I only hope that I can make it up to society in some way.
However I think people need to remember that a victim who makes no moves towards leaving is not acting out of stupidity, masochism or a desire to irritate. Apart from being harangued into submission by their abusive partner, they have been conditioned by society's confusing ideas of relationships and how men behave within them. We also need to remember that for every DV victim who decides to leave, there is the potential for family, friends, lack of services and opportunity - policing, housing, benefits, social care, education, employment – to march her right back to the perpetrator. Of course she should leave but we as a society could stand to examine the reason for this first shrill reaction to being made aware of domestic violence.
Words by Tracy Ofarn