“Why don’t they leave?”

It’s something we hear often at Domestic and Sexual Violence Services (DSVS). It’s a logical question from someone who has never lived in a violent relationship. One would think the normal reaction to abuse would be to get as far away from the abuser as possible, yet many women stay with their abusers, or leave and end up going back.

It’s difficult to understand but leaving is never a straightforward choice. A closer look at the dynamics surrounding domestic violence and the affects of trauma can give us a better understanding.

Domestic violence is not about someone having a “temper” or drinking too much. While these factors may be present, they are never the cause. Domestic violence is based in power and control, where one person creates a climate of control over another and dominates that person using whatever means necessary to maintain control. It doesn’t happen overnight but is a steady progression of events over time which destroy a victim’s self-reliance and self-esteem. Tactics can include continual verbal bashing, isolation, or physical and emotional abuse. As this pattern escalates, a victim’s self-esteem is eroded, and the victim begins to feel helpless, hopeless and trapped.

Leaving requires money, transportation, employment, a safe place to live and a strong support system. When all those things have been methodically stripped away from someone through escalating power and control, victims believe they have no options.

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At DSVS many of the people we see have no financial resources of their own. After years of forced isolation, they usually have no support network outside of their abuser’s circle of friends and family. Some are terrified that if they leave, their partner will find them and kill them or take their children away. They have been told this so much throughout the relationship, it has become their reality. When faced with all the barriers to leaving, many victims choose to stay.

It’s also important to understand that the trauma of abuse effects everyone differently. The patterns of someone’s abuse may be what is leading them to make choices that don’t seem to make sense. For example, statistics show that survivors of domestic abuse are at the highest risk of being seriously injured or killed after taking steps to leave their abusers. They might stay with or return to their abusers because they know it is the best way to keep themselves, their children, or their family alive and safe. It might not seem logical, but it makes perfect sense to the person enduring the abuse.

When people say, “Why don’t they leave?” it dismisses the abuse and lays blame on the abused. It’s time to stop wondering why and do something. Be a friend, provide a listening ear and become a support system. Suggest calling a domestic violence helpline and be there to provide transportation or help with the kids if they need it. By becoming involved you could save a life.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is in a violent relationship, call 406-245-4472 (Yellowstone and surrounding counties) or 406-425-2222 (Carbon and Stillwater counties)

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Kate Croft is direct services manager for Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, based in Red Lodge.