Victim Blaming and Why Women Stay
Why do others blame the victim of a crime instead of the perpetrator? It happens far too often. In the Ash Park series, Detective Petrosky sometimes comes across domestic violence situations (and responds none too kindly, as you might imagine). He’s like my alter ego, doing the things I wish I could in life.
I spent years running domestic violence groups with both women and men as the perpetrators (though the vast majority of the women were victims, arrested when they finally retaliated). But this article isn’t about injustice within the system or about what causes a person to finally fight back. And there are also so many nuances and gender differences in perpetrators that I’d need another post to do justice to the wider partner-violence-accross-genders issue. For the sake of this post, let’s look at the most statistically common subtype. Let’s look at what makes women put up with emotional or physical abuse until they finally lose it and get tossed into a police car. This is about a steady stream of commentary on the nightly news saying things like, “These women are asking for it by being there,” “They should just leave,” or my favorite, “If it were me, I would have…”
Right. Because it’s always so easy to see from the outside. No one ever sees things differently once removed from a situation.
The victim blaming has got to stop. Women get hit because someone hits them. Period. But we should understand her side too. And while I can’t cover everything here, and not all of these points will be applicable to everyone, let’s at least look at a few of the reasons why women might stay in abusive relationships.
There is a reason it’s easy for me to write characters like Hannah Montgomery in Famished (get it here you haven’t already.) Why Maggie Connolly in my upcoming Mind Games series is intimately involved in helping victims of domestic violence (and why her mother was arrested for providing weapons to those victims). I’ve seen this victim cycle four million and thirty nine times. And almost all of these vulnerable women feel misunderstood and alone.
Listening matters. Understanding matters. As long as we judge her for staying, she’s not going to seek us out for help. And people like Ray Rice will get to keep beating the shit out of their partners until they get divorced or happen to raise their fist in a very public elevator.
So why do women stay in abusive relationships?
Women Stay Because It Feels Normal
Say I came from a home where I watched my mother being hit by my jerk-wad father. Over time, I often come to see those behaviors as normal, as a way to express love and passion. It might not even occur to me that there are homes where people don’t hit one another, just as it is hard for some to picture a home that doesn’t have television. (Internal screaming at the thought of missing the next Criminal Minds reboot.)
Now this is not to say that women think the hitting is okay, per se, nor are they fans of the psychological abuse that comes with it. Most abused women are well aware that these things are wrong on a logical level. But those with troubled early experiences are more likely to stay in the face of these issues based on something beyond logic (though some without troubled pasts stay as well). We cannot escape early modeling. It is not as simple as understanding what is “healthy” or “correct.” We feel normal in our bones based on what we saw in our earliest experiences of relationships.
Abusers perpetuate those cycles and beliefs, affirming their beatings as passionate. (“If only I didn’t love you so much.”) Even mantras such as “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” are sometimes used in domestic violence cases, aimed at women as opposed to children. (“I’m trying to teach you because I love you so much, baby.”) Then there are the psychological abuses, the name calling or controlling behaviors like not allowing her to work. (“I just want to take care of you, honey.”) Plus, we have romanticized versions of love to contend with that include obsessive or controlling traits, as anyone who has read Twilight can attest.
“If I can’t have you, no one can. And if anyone tries to take you from me, I will murder him with my sharp, sharp fangs. I’ll wait here and watch you sleep just to make sure.” Because, romantic.
Women Stay Because Some Might Be Subconsciously Attracted to Violent or Controlling Traits
Now, first things first: WOMEN DO NOT DESIRE ABUSE. Let’s not make that mistake. Women desire safety.
But violent or otherwise volatile early experiences may open us up to specific under-the-radar fantasy elements, leading us to be attracted to a certain “type” in order to heal past hurts. The gist is that we are driven, often subconsciously, to be attracted to those with whom we can act out past traumas and come out on top. A woman with a violent past may be attracted to strong men similar to a childhood abuser because of a subconscious notion that if she can prevail this time in her grown up state she might finally feel safe in her own skin.
And indeed, she might, if these men were actually gentle giants. But often the men women end up with are the embodiment of what they are trying to escape, leading some to bounce from one abusive relationship to another, seeking a safety that will not be found in any of them.
Women Stay Because of Shame and Self Blame
Those with troubled or codependent childhoods, who never fully leaned how to regulate their emotions through their parents, may revert back to this type of thought pattern more readily than those with secure attachment patterns. For a child, it is far easier to accept that they have done something to cause upheaval than to accept that a parent is not stable. After all, if something is wrong with your parent, your ability to live is threatened and not just your emotional state. In blaming ourselves for making a parent act out, we also feel more in control. After all, if it’s your fault, you can do something about it. You can make it better. Your parent is still stable, your home is still intact, and you can stop doing whatever you’re doing to make the abuse stop.
Children carry these tendencies toward self blame into adulthood. It doesn’t help that many abusive partners push this notion of blame, reaffirming that “I wouldn’t have to hit you if you’d just…” Other tactics like gaslighting—or messing with a partner’s perception, even making them doubt their sanity—are also used to encourage the notion that abuse is the fault of the abused. And victim blaming at the national level, i.e., “She should just leave, she shouldn’t have been there, she shouldn’t have worn that,” do little to assist women in their quests to rid themselves of shame and leave abusive relationships.
The point here is that these women often really, truly believe that the abuse is related to their actions, and they feel guilty about that. And even violence won’t convince you otherwise if you grew up being told that it was, in fact, your fault.
Women Stay Because It Is Not Always Bad
There exists a misconception that those in abusive relationships are constantly being hurt. This is quite blatantly false, though many still endure emotional abuse or smaller slights even in good times.
But most of those in abusive relationships experience cycles of abuse instead of daily injuries. It usually goes something like this: abusers lavish the victim with love, support and kindness. This instills the idea that things will be great, that there is hope for the relationship, that, “I’ve finally found the love and adoration I have been seeking.” And it is during those long periods of love and peace that women believe the relationship is worth salvaging. Within this oxytocin-induced attachment, they begin to rebuild their hopes and dreams, and envision their lives with their partner again.
But this happiness doesn’t last forever. The romance might last weeks, months or longer but eventually the psychological slights and violence emerge again. But when the violence starts, it tends to be present for a shorter amount of time than the happy times. This is especially true if women overlook small slights and emotional abuse, or see those things as normal. And of course once the violence is over, there are lovely make-up periods—called the “honeymoon phase”—where romance and sweetness are in high gear, reaffirming attachments once more with roses and, “I’m sorry.” All of this has the added benefit of making one think that this time was the last time. After all, he’s so remorseful this time, he surely won’t raise his fist again.
The takeaway? It is harder to find reasons to leave when the good days outnumber the bad. If it were all bad, if it were all pain, it would be easier to escape from. But many women see themselves as having great relationships outside of “this one thing.” It keeps them coming back, keeps them believing in the future. And hope can be difficult to beat out of someone when the beating occurs between back rubs.
Women Stay Because They Feel Stuck
Women often feel handcuffed for economic reasons, which is especially prominent when the couple has children together. Not only do those with nowhere else to go risk losing custody of their children to their abuser, but the fear of not being able to provide for a family alone can make a women believe that she and her kids might be better off remaining in the home. This is a viable concern as women’s economic standing does indeed tend to go down substantially following divorce while men’s greatly increases, both with and without children. Goddman patriarchy.
However, there are programs available to help battered women get back on their feet following domestic violence (some are listed here). And despite financial concerns, women and children alike tend to have far better emotional outcomes in the long run being away from an abusive partner or parent.
Women Stay Because of PTSD, Dissociation or The Idea That Things Are Not That Bad
There are those who lie and downplay injuries in order to protect their abuser, tactics often seen in those with a history of codependent traits or from disturbed early environments. But women who are being abused may also dissociate, report feeling numb or experience depersonalization (or feeling like they aren’t really there). While these symptoms can also be present in other conditions like anxiety and depression, trauma makes these issues more likely.
In domestic violence groups, I often saw women with severe injuries downplay the severity, i.e, “It’s just a scratch.”
Um…it required thirty-six stitches. It’s more than a scratch. However, trying to push this reality on one who is traumatized, particularly if they are removed enough from the situation that they can’t fully feel the pain of those injuries, can be either fruitless or flat-out cruel. Because some are so traumatized that parts of the event itself are still blacked out, an inability to recall based on self-preservation. This experience during and after traumatic events is an evolved mechanism in place to reduce suffering. Remember Detective Morrison in Repressed? That guy had some deeply rooted “memory lapses” that existed as a defense mechanism. And he functioned amazingly well for a decade (until a kidnapper showed up and took his wife and daughter, but that’s another story). The point is, healing isn’t always linear. And sometimes there is a reason to pretend, even briefly.
Women Stay Because It Is Less Dangerous (at least in the short term)
While around half of women will one day leave their abusers, they are up to 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks following that move than at any other time in the relationship. Seventy. Times.
I treated one woman who was planning to leave her abusive partner, the father of her child. She dropped their six-month-old daughter off at daycare and went to work. Her partner picked the child up, strapped the baby into her car seat, and called my patient so she could listen while he murdered their baby with a grilling fork.
It’s not always as simple as just walking out, or taking the stairs instead of an elevator if you happen to be with Ray Rice (I’m looking at you Fox and Friends). And if you think it is, you don’t get it.
When a woman says, “I’m afraid to leave,” she means it. And while some argue that she ought to be more afraid to stay there, she’s more afraid of what he might do if she takes off, and she should be. This pain she is familiar with. This pain she can handle. The unknown is far more dangerous, because it likely will escalate beyond what she has experienced thus far. And she knows it.
In terms of immediate, life-threatening danger, the brain is programmed to find any excuse it can to go with the safer of the two options. It’s like telling someone that they might eventually die on a desert island, but there is more abundant food and assistance on the mainland. All they have to do is swim through shark-infested waters to get there. Easy peasy, right? Uh, no.
Now does this mean that abused women should stay in these relationships? Hell to the no! These relationships tend to get worse over the years, as boundaries degenerate further and abusers get more comfortable in their domineering behaviors. This can increase risks of bodily harm as time goes on. Despite understanding why women do it, they tend to fair better when the relationship finally ends.
Getting Out of an Abusive Relationship
Relationships that involve domestic abuse and violence need more calculated removal strategies than, “just call a cab,” particularly if you are dealing with a psychopathic or antisocial personality. (I’ve got some posts on psychopaths, too, and they are doozies.) Some women open new, secret bank accounts and switch their mail to a PO box. Some keep a record of the abuse through police reports, or keep other photo evidence which may help in obtaining restraining orders. Some pack items little by little and store them at friend’s homes, in a safe deposit box or a storage facility. Many talk to lawyers, particularly if there are children involved, and file papers to be served after they are in a safe house. And some just grab their keys and hit the road. Because there are times when planning is trumped by more immediate needs for safety.
Professionals in this area are usually beneficial in making a game plan. If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). They have people on call 24 hours a day who can offer support and lists of resources in your area.
It’s not your fault. Help is available. Get out, but don’t go it alone.