The country is abuzz about abuse again, and the talking heads and twittering fingers are asking why people stay in abusive relationships. Why is Janay Palmer Rice standing by her man even though he punched her in an elevator and dragged her body out? (And then she proceeded to marry him one month later.) Why did Rihanna have such a hard time leaving and subsequently going back to Chris Brown, even after the world saw her blood-crusted, bruised face after Brown crunched his knuckles into her eye socket? Why did Tina Turner take Ike Turner’s slaps and punches again and again?
Guess what? You’re not the only person to wonder this. People currently in abusive relationships and those who have successfully escaped them ask themselves that very same question. Why do/did I stay?
In order to truly understand the answer to that question, it’s helpful to think of abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, as a series of tiny subconscious extensions of permissions. Each time he hits you or she tells you you’re worthless and you—for whatever reason—don’t take a stand right then and there that you will not tolerate such abuse, you’ve made a docile statement that it’s OK to treat you this way. Of course, it’s not OK and you don’t want it to happen—you never did and you never will. But each time it happens and there is no serious repercussion for the abuser, they are granted more permission and you’ve given them more rope to tug you around with, much like a master with a dejected mutt on a leash.
For victims of abuse, the internal question often is “How did I get here?” and one part of the puzzle is all of those tiny permissions.
So there you are, a scared, frightened pup on a leash, right? But that’s not all of who you are. You might be brave at work, pumping your fist in the air and demanding your employees follow the rules. You might never lead on about the troubles at home when hanging out with your girlfriends, and possibly even telling elaborate stories about what a good man you’ve got, how he spoils you like a princess. Or you’ve been so desecrated for so long that you no longer recognize your former spirit and you walk around with empty eyes, shoulders slack, wondering when you’ll have the courage to just walk out into the middle of the street and let a bus hit you because that would be easier than leaving.
Not everyone being abused is suicidal and not every survivor would agree with being likened to a gnarled stray dog, jerked around on a chain. In fact, the abused can get downright defensive about their situation, telling you things like, “You don’t know him like I do,” “You don’t know the whole story,” “I made him do this to me,” or “She’s a good person; this only happens when she’s stressed.” But in the quiet darkness or in their quick trips out alone, they’re lost in a reverie at the red light, wondering how their life spiraled out of control and what can possibly be done about this. If you leave, he’ll come looking for you. Maybe she’ll take the children and hurt them instead of you. Maybe he has all the financial control and you don’t have a dime to your name. Oh, and then the bone-crushing shame of admitting to anyone that your life has fallen apart—that you chose an abuser. There’s that, too.
We still exist in a world where the victim is blamed: A rape victim’s experiences of consensual sex are paraded in front of her in a courtroom as if an experience of forced sex isn’t as big of a deal if the victim wasn’t a wholesome virgin. A child molested again and again by an adult is outrageously asked what he did to encourage the abuser. An emotionally abused middle-aged woman is asked if she’s just being too sensitive. Talk show hosts say you must have provoked him. Friends say there’s no way that he could be so different behind closed doors—it’s you who is failing to see things as they are, not the friend.
And, then, if there are emotional ties between the abused and the abuser, it’s a thick, tangled web of thorny branches and it feels like no one can escape unscathed or at all.
But then, there’s hope.
Even prisoners of war, locked in dank cells for years, beaten routinely until they’ve lost both health and self, are miraculously able to retain hope.
And survivors of domestic abuse know that feeling all too well. The abuser doesn’t always abuse you. Oftentimes he’s sweet as pie, reminding you of why you fell in love with him. It can even feel like you’re being courted, receiving flowers, chocolates and poetic texts. And you wonder—for a moment, albeit fleeting—if you shouldn’t take the bait this time. But your sense of danger is warped now. He’s successfully convinced you that you’re not a victim, this isn’t abuse and you two are madly in love, and you can make this work. So you bite the apple, and ingest more of this charmer’s poison, waiting with hopeful baited breath for things to get better. But they don’t. And they won’t.
It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole when you choke down the forbidden dry, crusty cake, which turns everything upside down and suddenly you don’t know what is normal or OK even is anymore. It’s all an illusion. Is everyone laughing at you? Have you hidden the bruises—internal or external—enough? Is that a trick mirror you’re looking into? Is this really your life? Is your partner your friend when he says, “Come here, love. You know I can’t live without you.”? Or is he a foe, when he says, “Why do youmake me so angry? Why are you so fucking slow? Get out of my fucking way, you fat bitch!” as he kicks you to the ground, causing the plates in your hand which you couldn’t put away fast enough to collapse beside you, clattering in slow motion, sharp pieces flying. “Jesus, you’re so fucking clumsy!” as he takes one last swing at your head, rearing his leg back like
Beckham and pointing his toe right into your temple, making you so dizzy you’re unsure if this is even happening, and why, oh, why is it happening again? “Clean this mess up, bitch.” And he walks out the door while you hold back your anguished moan because between two bloody clumps of your hair you can see your children standing solemnly in the kitchen entrance, holding each other, curious, scared and masking their fear with false bravery at their tender ages, seeing too much, learning the wrong thing. And yet. You’ll stay for their sake.
As for those asking the abstract victim the inflammatory question of why stay, know that the very inquiry places blame on the struck, the raped, the broken.
“Why did you let him do that to you?” The haughty superiority in this question is enough to make us want to choke you, not the abuser. You think you could have done better? You think you would have fought back, run, gotten away, gotten help? You. Don’t. Know. Anything.
When are we going to start hashtags such as #handsoff or #wewillhelpyou or #leavethemcomehere? Instead of gnashing our teeth at each other on social media, how about extending your hand to someone in need? You don’t have to know them. Send comforters and comfort to women’s shelters. Show up for the soup kitchen line. Say something when your friend is entering into an odd relationship where she is giving up all power. Say something when that kid who used to have light dancing in his eyes is all burned out, can’t look you in the face and is struggling to hold his life together. Step in. Step up. Show up.
It is not enough to just tell a victim to “just leave.” It is always complicated. And she (or he) needs your help. We need your help. #helpusleave #wewillhelpyou #wecanbestrongtogether
Kirsten Ott Palladino is an award-winning editor and writer working on a memoir about surviving repeated gang rape, emotional and verbal abuse and child molestation. She’s the co-founder and editor in chief of equallywed.com, the world’s leading digital LGBTQ wedding magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @kirstenop.
This was first published on The Manifest Station.