Domestic Violence Series: Why Women Stay
November 8, 2021
As a culture, we tend to arrive at broad assumptions about complicated issues like domestic violence with beliefs that are fairly black or white. We like them to fall in one of two categories with very little gray area. Tragically, this is why we often ask the question, Why do women stay in abusive relationships? instead of Why don’t abusive men stop being abusive? Unfortunately, the answer to the latter may be simpler than the answer to the former: Because it’s too easy to get away with it.
The Gabby Petito case, which has consumed the media in recent months, illustrates the lack of real understanding about domestic violence. As reported by Deseret News, less than a month before Petito was declared missing and then found strangled, police in Moah, Utah, responded to a report of domestic violence between her and her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. Laundrie was reported to have slapped Petito, but upon arrival, police body cam footage shows Petito, weeping, apologizing, admitting to hitting Laundrie, and even hyperventilating, all while her boyfriend stood by calmly, even joking with police. Although no charges were filed, Petito was labeled the aggressor. She exhibited several behaviors common to emotionally abused women, but law enforcement didn’t recognize them.
To answer the question, Why do women stay in abusive relationships? requires that we recognize emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse — all part of the definition of domestic violence — have a profound, crippling effect on its victims, producing wounds deeper and more debilitating than physical scarring.
The Coercive Control Component
Coercive control plays the leading role in answering the question of why women stay. This is when an abusive partner uses less obvious ways to manipulate and diminish the other. It is more subtle and easier to hide, but just as powerful as physical abuse.
“It really has to do with the motive, which is to undermine someone’s identity and dignity, to bring them low,” says Evan Stark, director of the Masters of Public Health program at Rutgers University and author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.
This form of abuse is often more powerful than physical abuse in that it is invisible to the outside world, and therefore, invisible to the justice system.
Abusers control their victims by manipulating them to feel rejected or betrayed by family and friends, by isolating their victims and, over time, controlling any means of potential escape. Domestic abusers control, limit, or deny access to phones, transportation, debit cards, information, and how their partner’s time is spent. All of this happens well before any physical violence takes place.
The aggressive partner controls the narrative to the point where the victim actually believes his anger is her fault. He may convince her that leaving is not only financially impossible, but more importantly, harmful to their children or spiritually unforgivable.
The Complications of Breaking Free
The question of why women stay in abusive relationships is, in itself, problematic because it implies it’s somehow the victim’s fault. Our culture concludes, You’ve made your bed, now lie in it, essentially excusing emotional abuse as normal, expected, and deserved.
Certainly, our society makes it possible for abusers to go unchecked and unpunished. Think about these domestic abuse facts offered by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (AAETS):
- Domestic abuse may not be considered criminal, but rather a “domestic dispute”
- Courts may not appropriate severe consequences such as fines or jail time
- Counselors/clergy often feel that abusive relationships can be improved over time
- Gender-role stereotypes condone abusive behavior by men
Stephanie Land, who chronicled her escape from domestic abuse in her best-selling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, talks about how even the system seems to be on the side of the abuser:
”Often up until [the physical abuse begins],” she tells Vox, “you don’t believe that you’re in an abusive relationship because they haven’t hit you. And then they start hitting things near you, but that’s still ‘not really domestic violence’ until you have bruises. For me in that situation, not only did the court system tell me that a reasonable person wouldn’t feel threatened, they saw me as the bad person because I was removing a child from a stable environment and a stable home. My abuser was seen as the better parent because he had a house and a full-time job and had resources, and I was homeless.”
To break free from an abusive relationship — in a society that often turns a blind eye to the emotional component of domestic violence — takes more than summoning up the courage. Courage itself is difficult to come by, given the very real potential of retribution and more violence should any part of the escape plan fail. Leaving an abusive relationship is, no doubt, the most dangerous time in the life of the victim.
Breaking free takes financial and other resources, a strategic plan and ongoing support, which most abuse victims either don’t have or don’t believe they have.
Move Beyond the Question
At Willow House for Women, we’ve created a safe place for domestic abuse victims to open up about their stories and explore what breaking free can look like. If you or a loved one are in need of immediate help, the domestic abuse hotline is free, confidential, and accessible 24/7. For non-emergency help building a crisis plan, getting counseling, or any other kind of support, we are ready and waiting to come alongside you. We understand why you’ve stayed, but a better future awaits.