ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Why is she still with him? How bad does it have to get before she leaves? Why does she keep going back? Why doesn’t she just leave?
Those of you who are already familiar with HAVEN’s work are probably also familiar with our philosophy of not asking these questions. We prefer to ask, Why is he abusing her? However, before I dive further into that idea, I want to share an exercise that my fabulous co-worker Cristy Cardinal shared with me recently that offers some perspective into the many different reasons why some survivors do not “just leave”. (Don’t know Cristy? Check out the Prevention Education team out at their blog. They are all pretty fabulous.)
Think for a minute about the different jobs you have held in your lifetime. Now think about which one (or more than one) you absolutely hated. Then ask yourself this question, “What kept you from quitting that job that you hated?” For some of you the answers might be, “Nothing – I quit and never looked back” or “I’ve actually never had a job that I hated.” If that is the case, then good for you! But keep reading anyway!
For the rest of us, though, the answers might look something like this:
I can’t afford to quit; I need the money. I hate the job, but I love my co-workers. I need the benefits, the insurance. I don’t think I will be able to find anything better. What happens if I quit, find a new job, and it is worse? At least I know how to do this job. I’ve been here forever – I can’t quit now. It is better to have a job that I hate, than no job at all. It’s really not that bad. If [fill in the blank] changed, everything would be fine.
That is certainly not an all-inclusive list as there are as many different reasons not to quit a job as there are people in this world, but these responses are probably among the most common.
Now look back at that list and see how they could easily be applied to a situation where a survivor might be thinking about leaving an abusive partner. Here is the same list of reasons, tweaked just a little:
I can’t afford to leave; I have no money. I hate the violence, but I love him. I need his benefits, his insurance. I don’t think I will be able to find anyone better. What happens if I leave, find a new partner, and he is worse? At least I know him and I know what to expect. I’ve been with him forever – I can’t leave now. It is better be in a relationship that is not great, than have no relationship at all. It’s really not that bad. If [fill in the blank] changed, everything would be fine. However, a job you hate is not a perfect analogy to a relationship with an abusive partner for one really important reason: FEAR.
Domestic violence is all about power and control, intimidation and threats, and making your partner afraid of you. So take all of those reasons for why a survivor might not leave an abusive partner and add in fear, for herself and possibly for her children as well. Everything becomes that much harder when you are afraid.
So if it’s that difficult to leave a job you hate, think how much more difficult it is to leave a partner who is abusive to you when you are struggling with all those reasons not to leave and you are terrified of the person.
These are problems that we help people with at HAVEN. We try to help survivors understand the very real and valid reasons they have for making whatever decisions they have had to make along the way. We open our doors, listen to their stories, and help them see that they are not alone and they have not done anything wrong. We give them a place to process all that fear and think through safety options to help keep them and their children safe. And in the process, we do not judge and we do not tell people what to do.
Like I said in the beginning, though, here at HAVEN we also try not to focus so much on the question of why she doesn’t leave because doing so places the spotlight on the survivor while ignoring the person to blame for the situation in the first place: the batterer. Instead, we prefer to ask, why is he abusing her? By shifting our focus in this way, we are better able to address the root causes of domestic violence – things like sexism, misogyny, and cultural messages about sex and gender, for example. And then, by addressing the root causes, we set ourselves on a path of primary prevention aimed at fulfilling our mission of eliminating sexual assault and domestic violence in our communities.
Intervention services are important, but we prefer to envision a world where because of primary prevention efforts, intervention services are no longer needed.
For more information about primary prevention and to see how you can help put me and the other counselors out of work, you can contact Cristy Cardinal, Director of Prevention Education firstname.lastname@example.org.