Let us remember who is in the room.
Let us be mindful of who is in the room when we speak, when we consider how and when to ask our questions. Let us be thoughtful when we speculate.
Let us be guided by facts and real-life testimony of survivors of violence and their allies that in most any public circumstance, in any gathering of people, there are survivors of domestic violence among us. They are us and we are them.
Let us be aware that the term ‘survivor’ does not necessarily mean past tense (though that may very well be true). It often means survival right now, each day, each hour.
If survival is the past tense, let’s include not only those adults (and unfortunately, teenagers) whose partners hurt them deeply with words or with their body and got away. It also means survivors who as children witnessed the violence visited on one of the caring grown-ups in their life by another of their caring grown-ups, bringing existential and spiritual confusion, planting complicated ghosts that haunt future relationships of all sorts: romantic, sexual, parenting – anything built on trust and self-knowledge.
Remember that when you ask the question as if there is only one right answer, your tone comes off as both arrogant and ignorant. When you ask, “Why does she stay?” or the other version, “Why doesn’t she leave?” remember that she is in the room with you, is reading comments left on social media, is vigilant like many trauma survivors, listening for the underlying messages of victim-blaming and reproach.
Not only is she experiencing her relationship as not safe; when you ask those questions out loud, she is experiencing that you are not safe.
Maybe you don’t know better. Maybe you don’t know the reality of people living in violent relationships. Maybe you think you don’t know anyone living like that. I would wager a whole paycheck that you do. Abusers get good at hiding their violence and making sure it stays secret.
(Let’s not forget that many abusers experienced violence themselves, growing up, serving in the military, wherever. It does no good to have the world calling them “monsters,” when what should be called for instead is comprehensive accountability and interventions that are both psychologically and spiritually integrated. Courtney E. Martin has written another great essay that covers this well.)
There’s a saying: It’s okay to be ______________ (stupid, a jerk, unaware). It’s not okay to stay that way.
It’s okay that you didn’t know, but it’s not okay to stay ignorant. Our ignorance and turning from the facts and lives here in the room is harmful. That’s not the intention, but it is often the impact.
This means that if we truly want to know why someone stays, then we must be authentically curious. We need to be open to all the realities of that particular person and aware of all the facts and dynamics of this particular scourge. Not ready to pounce with judgment, fueled by our own sense of helplessness in the face of such suffering. Not ready with blame, fueled by our own desire to have humanity be less messy than we actually are.
There are resources to end that ignorance. Some of them are definitely 21st century, like how the Twitterverse has exploded with testimonies no longer than 140 characters, but powerful and poignant, to be found at #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. Plus there’s commentary on this social media emergence: from Michel Martin at NPR. From the Good Men Project. From the Boston Globe. Or this piece, focusing on the courageous Beverly Gooden, who has spoken out on her experience in a violent relationship, why she stayed, and why she left.
Among the many stories tweeted in the continuing saga of the Ray Rice/Danay Rice, several people have turned those problematic questions on their heads. Instead of asking Why Does She Stay or Why Doesn’t She Leave, how about asking
Why does the abuser continue to abuse?
Why does he keep hurting her?
Why doesn’t he just leave (her alone)?
I don’t know why an individual person (most likely a woman, as 85% of those experiencing domestic violence are women) stays. I won’t presume to speak on anyone’s behalf.
I do know that the highest risk for homicide comes when someone tries to leave their abuser. Murder. Death. So sometimes, staying in a relationship means staying alive. We might hear people say it’s a death-wish, but sometimes, more often than we would like to think, it’s an extension of a very real life-wish.
I do know that as a society we severely underfunded shelters and safe houses that are supposed to provide safe heaven. It is hard enough to decide to leave a relationship, to let strangers know your business and let systems humiliate you and your family, but to have no place to go, or a place that requires the survivor to leave her community, her support system, her workplace, and sometimes, her older male children – that shit is not easy.
I do know that the question, “Why doesn’t she leave?” treats such a decision as static and as if it is a one-time deal. Yet, on average, it takes seven attempts at leaving a violent relationship. So, though she may be with him now, we should not assume that she has never tried to leave. Or that she isn’t trying right now. Or isn’t just about to try and could use a few words of encouragement:
You don’t deserve this.
It won’t be easy, and you’ll figure out when the time is right, but there is a better life out there for you.
You are a survivor, not a victim.
Where others may see weakness, I see strength in you.
The National Domestic Abuse Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is available online and by phone to provide support to survivors and people who love them and want to support them. Click here to get some ideas of how to support someone you know in a violent relationship. If that person is an adolescent, this organization — loveisrespect.org — is tailored to teen needs.
Remember: that survivor is here, listening. May our questions and presence offer her safe haven.
Thank you to a colleague and friend, who got my mind and heart working around this notion of who is in the room.