If It Was So Bad, Why Didn't You Leave Sooner?
11 Reasons Victims Stay
Victims of domestic violence/abuse are often asked two questions that leave them feeling bewildered, misunderstood, and isolated. To the average person, these questions seem logical and fair; however, they minimize a victim's experience and are void of compassion and empathy. These queries inadvertently call into judgment the victim's intelligence, sanity, and honesty. I'm hoping that this article will help the uninformed to better understand a victim's experience of domestic abuse, and seek ways to support those who have suffered under oppression.
"If it was so bad, why didn't you leave sooner?" This question came to me multiple times as I was struggling to mentally process all that had happened in the last 30 years; figure out how I had gotten into such a place of desperation; re-invent a new life after losing almost all of my relationships, my church and church family, my job, and very nearly my faith. Why hadn't I left sooner? How would my life be different if I had? After nearly 5 years, it's still difficult to articulate my experience. Nevertheless, here are some reasons I, or other victims "stayed so long":
1. I didn't know it was abuse. My only experience of marriage was my "normal". I grew up in a culture that taught me to believe that I must submit to all authority, or I would be punished. I spent my adult life compensating for my abuser's behavior, thinking that is what a good wife should do. I didn't know why my problems kept mounting without resolution; why I began experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts; why I didn't have the power to change things for the better. I had no labels, no counsel, no language for what I felt; I only knew that I was dying on the inside with no hope of getting better.
2. I didn't know I had choices. My thinking was that my situation was permanent unless a crime were committed--that I had no righteous options. I figured that it was my job to make the best of the situation, and that God would be displeased with me if I exercised agency on my own behalf.
3. I didn't think I was worth saving. Though I am far from being a perfect human (there's only one of those!), I sincerely believed that my sole purpose on the planet was to be a good wife and mother. These roles served as my only identity, and I truly poured my life and energy into my family. Apart from my value as a wife or mother, I felt I had no life outside of the context of the home. Furthermore, the psychological abuse I had endured brought me to the point of despair.
4. I believed God would punish me. Honestly, I didn't believe in divorce, nor had the thought ever crossed my mind. As I considered an exit strategy, I struggled with this concept of God's displeasure because of what the church taught, and my obligation to submit.
5. I knew I would sustain terrible loss. And it was true. Not only did I leave my home, at the time I had to concede to the fact that I could only keep as much as I could carry. In the end, my freedom was worth way more than my losses, but that didn't erase the pain of the loss or significant change of ALL of my relationships, my church, my pets (I did go back for the bird), my lifestyle--in short, the disruption of everything with which I was familiar.
6. I knew I would be judged. And I was. My friends and church did not understand why I "left my family" (as if I had greatly sinned). I fell under the criticism of several family members, and the "Christian" educational institution where I worked had no concept of the nature of my pain. After my divorce, my new "identity" felt very negative, as if I were guilty before God for my failed "marriage".
7. I didn't believe I could make it on my own. This one is almost laughable, since mine was the only steady, earned income in the marriage. Even with 2 college degrees and 2 jobs, I feared that I just couldn't do life without someone else calling the shots or "standing in" as the leader.
8. I was afraid of what people might think. There, I said it. I had struggled for nearly 3 decades to present a facade of normalcy, because, well, I wanted my life to be normal. In my desperate attempt to be the good wife and good mom, I was caught up in the performance of "the perfect, admirable family".
9. I was afraid of damaging God's reputation. Which, of course, is impossible. God is certainly capable of defending Himself, and there's nothing a human can do to rob Him of his glory. I felt I was doing my Christian duty by staying.
10. I thought it would get better. I guess God puts in all of us a certain hope that we can improve on life. I figured that if I could just be a better wife and mom, the relationship would improve. Year after year, obstacle after obstacle, I believed that a better life was just around the next corner--the next move, the next house, the next job, the next whatever; however, my life and this relationship deteriorated steadily.
11. I couldn't face reality. I justified my abuser's behavior ("he's had a hard life/background; he's just frustrated; he can't help himself"); I minimized my pain ("it's not really that bad; I can get through this; my feelings don't really matter"); I denied the obvious ("he really does love me; he's a faithful Christian; he's just got a funny way of showing his affection"); I spiritualized the situation ("if God wants, He can change him; I just need to pray harder").
There are plenty of other reasons victims may stay: they have no resources, no job, no family, no other place to live, or perhaps they are being a "human shield" for their children. Yes, a situation may be bad, even impossible, but an exit isn't always as simple as it may look to someone who is not being oppressed by mind games, forced poverty, coercive control, intimidation, threats, and punishment. If the victim was a child at the time of the domestic abuse, he or she had even fewer choices.
If you are ever in the company of a survivor of domestic abuse, choose to engage with compassion. You may be privileged to hear the person's story if he or she is ready to share, but the best rule of thumb is to show kindness, patience, and friendship. No one can measure another's pain, but we can connect with empathy.
If this article has been helpful for you, or you're interested in learning more about the nature of domestic violence, I highly recommend the following podcast that tells the story of Naghmeh Saeed, former wife of an Iranian pastor, interviewed by Julie Roys:
So, what's that other question to avoid asking a survivor? I'll be talking about that in my next article: "But Did He Actually Hit You?"
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©2021 Julianne Knapp. Originally published 10.12.21