Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why do victims of domestic abuse stay?

I work with a domestic abuse intervention program, co-facilitating a group designed to rehabilitate the domestic abuse offenders. This post is not about that as much as it is about the age old question that is asked of any victim of domestic abuse: "why do they stay?" I read an excellent article recently that eloquently and pretty thoroughly covers this quandary.
Here is a part of the article. The link will take you to the website and the entire article.

Domestic Violence: considering leaving

by Evan

1. Ethical objections to leaving.
Some people feel that it is their duty to stay in a relationship where they suffer violence. This is easy to reject out of hand but I’m not sure we should. Most of us don’t leave a relationship as soon as it doesn’t suit us. ... I want to pay tribute to the honor and truth in this position. Suffering can be positive.

I grew up in a tradition that values martyrdom - mainstream christianity. This is quite a different evaluation of suffering to the “If I’m not enjoying it I’m out of here” school.

So I understand and honor some elements of this ethical stance. And I think it is usually best for people to leave a situation where they are suffering violence.

Firstly about martyrdom. The martyrs went to their deaths rejoicing. If you can’t do this then it seems most likely that the suffering is demonic rather than a summons from the divine. Secondly, about children. The value of suffering for our children is in the context of the growth of a healthy person and a healthy relationship. Usually staying in a situation of domestic violence perpetuates a very unhealthy relationship - this is a decisive difference.

2. Psychological difficulties with leaving.

This can be what is called ‘learned helplessness’. People who are violated often are left devoid of initiative. (The complement to this is an all-consuming and unreasoning rage, which they suppress because they feel to let it out will have devastating consequences.)

It can also be that they feel they ‘deserve’ to be treated badly. This is often the case with abused children. They feel that they are in some way to blame, or if they weren’t bad then the other person wouldn’t have done this to them.

This can be extreme and extraordinarily difficult to be with. A woman therapist I knew was working with a woman in an awfully abusive relationship - she had been hospitalized many times and still wouldn’t leave. The woman therapist said, “Look, he nearly killed you - it probably was just an accident that you weren’t killed. What could be worse about leaving?” Dealing with this kind of stuff is quite awful.

It is important to say that rage can be worked with in a way that is safe to all people and that doesn’t damage the furniture. It can take time and patience and lots of support but it can be done. It is sometimes part of self defense for women classes.

3. Nowhere to go.
Sometimes external circumstances are very difficult. In small communities - whether geographically like a town with a small population, or in other ways (eg religious or other groups) - there can be no external supports. Leaving means leaving the whole social network.

This is really a problem with the rest of us. I’ll give an example from my own tradition - mainstream christianity. The denominations could get together and announce that every congregation would now have people in it who would offer sanctuary to anyone suffering domestic violence (the names would be kept secret). There could be a phone number for people to ring so that anonymity could be guarded. They would also institute programs that worked with perpetrators. This would involve some training and other costs. My guess is that it could easily be funded in each country by the selling of a cathedral or large piece of land.

Usually perpetrators do not stop their violence until someone outside the relationship becomes involved. Usually someone with social sanction, such as the police or other officials. Perpetrators usually don’t change until they ‘have to’ - having to because otherwise they’ll lose the relationship or end up in gaol. This is unfortunate but it is true in most areas: we usually feel stressed and over-burdened and don’t want the hassle of changing. It is just as true in the situation of domestic violence. If you are in a violent relationship or know of one, it is well worth considering getting officialdom involved.

Finally, it is important to say that domestic violence can and does end. There are relationships where the perpetrators have changed: their violence has stopped never to return. In my experience this has always been after the person suffering the violence has left. I have personally known relationships where this has happened.

I’ve written this with much nervousness. Writing about this in cold type means it can feel cold and like the suffering is being trivialized. I hope this doesn’t read this way. I decided to take the risk because it is a topic that needs dealing with.