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Why Don't They Just Leave?

by Christy Koch


The scene is a familiar one: I'm at a party, making small talk, and it comes up in conversation that I've done work with battered women. Then, slowly, the "what-exactly-do-you-do's" and "that's-great's" shift to the question, the one people ask once they get up the nerve: "Why don't they just leave?"

For two years, I've worked as a volunteer crisis line counselor for the Orange/Durham Battered Women's Coalition. In that time, I've talked to a lot of women in abusive relationships. Many of these women were ready to leave and did so, others wanted to leave and did not, and still others didn't feel ready to go yet. Some left and then went back. The reasons for these diverse actions were numerous and ultimately individual. Thus, I'll make no attempt here to provide anything approaching definitive insights on what causes a battered woman to stay, go, or go back. I'd just like to explore this one question a bit.

"Why don't they just leave?" I think that particular question represents a very prevalent social attitude regarding battered women. Namely that they are masochists who stay with their abusers purely out of emotional need. This assumption is troubling. Firstly, it simplifies and distorts our view of domestic violence, its victims, and its perpetrators. Secondly, it tends to put the cause and solution of the problem back in the victim's lap. The logic at the core of this perspective is that the true responsibility for ending domestic violence rests with the women who suffer it. In other words, if they would just do what they should and break these sick emotional ties, there would be no problem.

So, I want to suggest a few of the myriad of reasons why women don't "just leave" and hopefully show, if only superficially, why the issue is not quite so easy as it may initially appear.

Reason #1: She has nowhere to go. I mean this literally. In Orange and Durham Counties there is currently one battered women's shelter with a capacity for 16 women and children. It is usually full. Hence, women from these two counties calling the crisis line in search of shelter often must be referred to shelters in neighboring counties which may or may not have any space. The best bet for finding women shelter is sending them to a rural county where the shelters more often (though not always) have more room. One problem is that a woman must have her own car to be able to function in these shelters. Though we can get her there, the shelters themselves do not have the staff or resources to provide the women with transportation when they need it and public transportation is non-existent. Not all women have cars or the money to buy and maintain them.

Another problem with relocating out of county is that many women have children who would have to be taken out of their current school and enrolled in one near the shelter-only to do it all over again in a month or two as shelter is only a temporary measure. Mothers do not like to disrupt their kids' education, particularly when their home life is going to be in flux at the same time. Many women also have jobs, family and/or friends who they are unwilling or unable to leave in order to go into hiding out of town. Unfortunately, because of very limited space, the decision to seek shelter frequently requires battered women to leave a good deal more than their batterer.

Yet, at the same time, for many women shelter is the only viable option. Batterers tend to isolate their partners from other people because this gives them more control and security (and the women less, of course.) Hence, these men often make having friends difficult or impossible for a woman. If she happens to have family in the area, batterers will commonly discourage or prohibit her having contact with them. Furthermore, women in abusive relationships frequently become estranged from family members and friends who are frustrated that she has not left her abuser. They too wonder why she doesn't "just leave." However, even if a woman does have family or friends willing to put her up, it is highly possible that she is putting both herself and them in grave danger by staying there. A batterer often looks for a woman when she leaves. If her mother, brother, or best friend live in the area, you can bet he's going to go there first. These men are violent individuals. They are dangerous. Some of them are complete and utter psychopaths-I am not exaggerating. In addition, statistics show that a woman is mostly likely to be killed by her batterer once she does leave (yet another serious barrier to leaving.) Shelter locations are kept confidential for exactly these reasons and so, are often the only safe place for women to run to.

There is the problem of a long term housing solution as well. If a woman is lucky, she has a good job and can rent a new apartment on her own. However, if a woman needs affordable or subsidized housing for herself and/or her children, the situation is difficult. Orange County has a waiting list years long for public housing and reasonable rent is not easy to come by. Durham also has a long list. However, battered women are given priority and usually can obtain housing in two to three months. That's still a long wait-particularly when the question as to where you stay in the interim looms large. To compound the problem, much of Durham's public housing suffers from serious crime. Naturally, this worries many women, especially those with kids. They are trying to escape a violent living situation and understandably are not eager to go through the upheaval only to continue feeling unsafe.

Reason #2: She can't afford to leave. Some women have the economic means to leave, but many do not. Domestic violence transcends class boundaries, but obviously the less money one has, the more limited one's options are. The situation with housing that I describe above is one way in which money acts as a severe impediment to many women leaving abusive partners. Several studies have suggested that a majority of homeless women and children are actually fleeing domestic violence. Unfortunately, this may be the only way out for some.

The average American household requires two incomes to stay afloat financially. Many women cannot support themselves or their children on their income alone. Particularly as women, in general, still earn less than men. Some women may also be at home or working part time in order to care for their children. This exacerbates their financial difficulties should they decide to go. Furthermore, federal cuts in welfare and food stamps have made leaving even more problematic for many women as government help to aid them in their period of transition is more limited than ever. Undoubtedly, some women will go back to their abusers as their benefits run out and they are still unable to make ends meet on their own.

Finally, batterers tend to be very controlling individuals. Just as they often restrict their partner's social contacts, they also frequently give her limited or no access to money. It is not uncommon that she receives an allowance or has to request money from him. In this way, he keeps tabs on her and makes her more dependent on him. Thus, even women who do live middle or upper class lives might still have great economic impediments to leaving.

There are many other reasons why women don't leave as well as why they go back. I've discussed a few. I don't want to deny that there are often serious emotional and self-esteem issues involved in women remaining with abusive partners. Nor do I wish to suggest that these reasons are any less valid than those I've touched upon. I would simply like to present some answers to the question of why women don't leave which may prompt other, perhaps more productive questions about the problem of domestic violence in public discourse.

For example, why is every county in North Carolina required by law to have an animal shelter but not a battered women's shelter (and many counties in the state do not)? Why aren't battered women's shelters and coalitions funded publicly or federally (most are in constant search of private donations and grants to keep their doors open and their overworked staffs underpaid)? Why is "Assault on a Female" (as domestic violence incidents are legally called) a misdemeanor in our state? Why is domestic violence the leading cause of injury for women in our society (yes, it outstrips car accidents)? And perhaps most importantly, Why is the "solution" for domestic violence so often seen solely as rooted in the victim's emotional and psychological problems? Why isn't it seen more as a social issue which must be addressed by social and political institutions?

Nobody (with the exception of some cerebrally-challenged conservatives) would suggest that the solution to the education crisis is that students just need to study more and that the public need take no part. But, in the case of domestic violence, society in many cases has taken just such a ludicrous view of the situation. Women in abusive relationships do play a key role in improving their own situations. No one else can leave for them. However, neither can they do that alone. They need support and resources. Support and resources which are still grossly inadequate in most places. Given the situation, I think a more valid question would be-How do women manage to leave their abusers in the face of so many obstacles?


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