After video leaked of ex-NFL player Ray Rice punching his fiancée unconscious, some commentators focused as much on her behavior as on his: why, they asked, didn't she just leave?
I worked in a battered women's shelter for five years, four as a volunteer and one as a full-time staffer, so I might be able to answer this question. Obviously, this will be too general: people stay for lots of reasons. I knew someone once who had a bad heroin habit, and, while getting involved with a guy who beat her up if she tried to leave the house would not be my preferred method of detoxing, it worked for her. (She was still clean the last time I heard.) But generalizations might be better than nothing. I will also refer to abusers as 'he', and to their victims as 'she'; this is accurate in the overwhelming majority of cases.
In some cases, understanding why someone stays is easy. A lot of women are afraid that their abuser would try to harm them if they leave. And with good reason: about a third of female homicide victims were killed by a spouse, lover, or ex-lover; and that's not counting the women who are "merely" beaten, stalked, and so forth. In a case like this, staying, at least until you had figured out how to leave safely and cover your tracks, is not mysterious or perplexing.
Moreover, while I think the assumption that battered women stay because they are just dumb, or have staggeringly bad judgment, is wrong and insulting, there are a whole lot of battered women, and it would be very surprising if none of them stayed for such reasons. We asked women who came to our shelter when the abuse had started; one woman told me that her husband had thrown her from a moving car on their first date, at which point I wondered silently why on earth there had been a second date, let alone a subsequent marriage. But in my experience such women were a vanishingly small minority.
What is hard to understand, I take it, is why women who do not have obviously bad judgment, and who do not take themselves to be in serious danger if they leave, stay anyway. So I turn to them.
Abuse often begins when its hardest for a woman to leave
To start with, it helps to know that (last time I checked) the two most common times for violence to start were the honeymoon and the first pregnancy. By the time you reach either point, you're already in a pretty serious relationship, and leaving is not something that anyone would do lightly.
Moreover, the violence often comes as a real surprise. It's not that there aren't signs: there are. But they are often things like he falls for you too hard and too fast, or he wants to be with you all the time. You'd have to be either paranoid or a victim of a previous abusive relationship to leap to the conclusion that either of these things means that abuse might be in your future. (Imagine, in particular, someone whose last relationship was with someone who didn't seem to care about her. Imagine her saying to herself: last time he didn't care enough. This time he seems to care too much. Am I impossible to please?)
So imagine yourself, in love with someone and on your honeymoon or pregnant, when suddenly this guy just goes ballistic, often for very little reason, and hits you. For a lot of women, this is profoundly shocking and disorienting. There are things that are comprehensible parts of the world, even if they're rare, like having your car stolen; and then there are things that are unexpected in a completely different sense, like having your car turn into an elephant before your eyes — things that make you wonder whether you're completely crazy. Being beaten up by someone who apparently loves you is one of those things.
What this means is that precisely when a woman needs as much confidence in her own judgment as she can muster, the rug is completely pulled out from under her. And it's not just that she questions her judgment because she got involved with this guy in the first place; she questions her judgment because something so completely alien to the world she thinks she knows has just happened.
Under the circumstances, it is very, very hard to say: well, OK, I am married and/or pregnant, I am in this serious relationship, but I will nonetheless decide to leave, now, because I think I have to, and I trust my judgment. Trusting your judgment at that moment is like trusting your sense of balance when someone has just poured a fifth of vodka down your throat.
The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon
Besides that, there's also the Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon. If I had a nickel for every woman who has said to me, "It's like he was two people! Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!", I'd be a wealthy woman today. When I first heard this, I didn't entirely believe it. I thought: maybe Mr. Hyde abuses her, and Dr. Jekyll turns that same abusive streak on himself, beating himself up with guilt. (Abusers are very big on heartfelt apologies.) Maybe the thought of him as two people is just easier to bear than the thought that the same person one loves has done this. Who can say?
Then I encountered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde myself. One fine evening, a guy I was involved with, a guy who was normally kind and decent and funny, suddenly went nuts. He started accusing me of all sorts of things that were truly insane. (You'll have to trust me on this one: things that there was no reason in our relationship or my character for him to suspect me of, not a scintilla of evidence to support, and that would have been wildly implausible about anyone.) He followed me around the house, screaming and screaming, for about ten hours. (You might wonder, why didn't I leave the house? Answer: it was on the outskirts of Ankara, at night, and there was nowhere to go and no public transportation.)
In the morning I left to walk around and try to figure out what had happened, in the kind of absolute daze I described above. I was basically wandering around, all day, with a little thought balloon saying "??????" When I came back, he was appalled by what he had done, and not in the "I am beating up on myself" way I had always imagined, but in the way a normal person would be, if a normal person had somehow done something like this. It was completely baffling. It really was as though he was two people. I did not leave then. He did it again four days later. After that I thought: right. It is conceivable to me that someone might do this once. But if he felt the way he seemed to afterward having done it, nothing like that should happen again for, oh, at least several decades. The fact that it happened again four days later means that something is going on that is above my pay grade and that I should not so much as begin to imagine that I can deal with. I flew home shortly thereafter.
But consider my advantages. While I have the usual run of horrid insecurities, underneath it all I am reasonably self-confident. Nothing in my background or upbringing would in any way make it hard for me to leave. I'm a feminist. Moreover, at this point I had been working in battered women's shelters for several years. That was crucial: I knew that this was emotional abuse, in a pretty strict sense of that term, and that that meant that it was very, very unlikely to change. I was, therefore, not inclined to second-guess myself, and that was immensely important.
With all that, I did not leave the first time.
Imagine someone who stays longer. The longer you stay, the more your confidence and your self-respect are undermined. The first time often comes out of the blue, but it is normally the beginning of a cycle, not a one-time episode. And more or less everything about this cycle is absolutely corrosive to a woman's self-respect.
Beating someone up is itself, obviously, a gesture of immense disrespect. But there's generally also verbal abuse: battered women are often told, repeatedly, that no one should listen to them, that they're ugly, stupid, hateful, bitchy, and, in all sorts of ways, worthless. And besides that, there's often forced sex, sometimes immediately following the abuse. (Luckily, I was spared that.) It's hard to think of a more horrible way of saying: your feelings do not matter at all than asking someone whom you have just beaten up to have sex with you.
The longer a woman stays, the harder it becomes for her to leave
As I said, it's corrosive. The longer you stay, the worse it gets. And since the capacity that is under attack is the very one you need in order to get out, this makes it harder and harder to leave. And, of course, the longer you stay, the dumber you feel about staying. Many of the women I knew left not because of the danger to themselves, but because the abuse was endangering their children. I always found this both immensely sad and completely comprehensible.
There are several more things, though. First, abusers often isolate their victims. At first this can take an apparently benign form: he wants to be with you all the time; he wants to envelop you in a kind of cocoon; there isn't time for other things. Later, it's a lot less pleasant. Women who stay often try to keep the peace, and one way to do that is not to insist on seeing your friends and family. That, of course, makes turning to your friends and family a lot tougher later on.
Second, it would be a lot easier if abusers were sneering villains. But they are not. They are often charming on the outside. More importantly, they are often in genuine psychological distress. It often seems like a combination of two things: first, feeling as though, if their wife left them, some truly terrifying abyss would open up in their minds and they would fall down into the darkness forever, and second, thinking that, to prevent this, they need to keep her from leaving, to control her (as opposed to, say, trying to build the best marriage ever). In the case of the guy I was involved with, he had been tortured, badly, and it was hard not to think that that was somehow involved in what happened.
If you love someone who is in genuine distress, you normally don't want to make things worse for them. And that's what leaving looks like, up until the moment when you say to yourself: he will not change, at least not while he's involved with me; this will not get better; and, that being the case, I am not helping him by staying.
At that point, you can think of leaving as helping him. Until then, it looks like kicking someone you love when he's down. Your husband or lover is in pain; he needs you; and you are going to leave. For some people, it's easier to take sacrifices on themselves than to inflict them on others, especially others they love. That is not the worst kind of person to be. But it makes it much, much harder to walk out the door.
Again, consider the example of me. I was not beaten up, and the emotional abuse did not last long before I left. Moreover, I had no doubt at all that I was right to leave, nor was I particularly confused about whose fault this was. But despite knowing perfectly well that I had not done anything wrong, I felt horribly guilty for several months afterward. It was the oddest thing: I knew the emotions were just completely misguided, but they were, apparently, settling in for the long haul. Getting over it was very tough. I don't want to imagine what it would have been like if I had not known that I had done the right thing when I left.
I came into this with every advantage in the world. I left quickly. I got off easy. But for all that, it was very, very hard. I don't want to think how hard it would be if I had been just a little less lucky.
A version of this article originally appeared in Obsidian Wings. It has been adapted and republished with permission.