Staying, Surviving, and Defying the Good Victim Paradox: A Perspective on Domestic Violence

“Why didn’t you/she/he/they leave?”

When it comes to domestic violence, I feel like this is often the most common question.  Why not leave–as if leaving is the most obvious thing in the world.  As several other media outlets and Twitter campaigns have striven to show, there are any number of reasons why someone doesn’t leave: they think it is their fault, they lack the resources needed to find a new place to live, they still love/care about their abuser, they are dependent on their partner for income or health insurance, they are trapped in a cycle of substance abuse, they don’t have anywhere to go…the list goes on and on.

The thing about these stories is that they illustrate an important point: domestic violence, from the perspective of the survivor, may not be black and white.  When people ask why someone didn’t leave, the truth is that they are judging a situation that they can’t know all the details of, and imposing their standards for an idea survivor actually doesn’t serve to support actual survivors of intimate partner violence.  It’s nice to think that we would all leave at the first sign of trouble, but that actually isn’t true in most cases; and it’s nice to think that anyone could recognize domestic violence if they saw it, but I can say from my personal and professional experience that that isn’t necessarily true, either.

Though I keep mentioning it on this site, I think it’s worth reiterating that not all violence is physical. Emotional abuse–particularly mind games, gaslighting, and blame-shifting–can have a survivor questioning their own understanding of the situation and make them unsure if their reactions and feelings are legitimate.  This means that in some cases, it’s difficult to actually recognize and confront the problem of interpersonal violence in the home, because the survivor may internalize the idea that this is their fault or that their perceptions are off-base.  On top of that, some forms of violence can become normalized with time, such that they become difficult to recognize as problematic–this is particularly true, for example, of sexual violence in established relationships.

Even when a survivor can recognize and come to terms with the fact that abuse is happening and is a real problem, actually confronting it can be difficult and dangerous. On average, it takes about 9 attempts for a survivor to successfully leave an abusive situation; that’s not nine thoughts related to leaving, it’s nine interactions with advocates, shelters, the police, etc.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: our most common narratives of domestic violence might focus on physical violence–especially beatings–but abusive situations also tend to include elements like stalking, wherein the survivor might not be able to move about unmonitored, or the control of the survivor’s finances, which would make it difficult to leave.  On top of that, there can be legal barriers that are not always easy to navigate, including issues like child custody.  A survivor might not want to leave if their partner is using child custody, children’s insurance, or threats to their children (or, for that matter, their pets–a large number of survivors stay with their abusers because they don’t want to leave beloved pets behind).  And even if the survivor decides they have the money to leave or opts to stay in a shelter, there can be all kinds of barriers to entry: shelter space is often limited, the shelter may not be nearby, or age restrictions regarding children may pose problems for survivors looking to remove themselves from abusive situations.

As if all of that were not enough–and, frankly, it should be–the sad reality is this: a survivor of domestic violence is most likely to be re-assaulted or killed within two weeks of trying to leave or calling the police.  In many cases, leaving can be flat-out dangerous, with a high risk of retaliation by the abuser or their family or friends.  In truth, the risks of leaving may be similar to the risks that accompany staying, so it’s up to each survivor to determine what will make them the most safe in their own situation.

Leaving seems like it should be obvious, from the outside looking in.  But every time you want to ask, “why didn’t they just leave”, remember that leaving may well be the hardest thing that survivor ever has to do.  Leaving may leave them homeless, unemployed, unable to care for their children, unable to see their children, or even dead.  Leaving is not the obvious answer, and it’s time to prioritize the actual needs and safety of survivors over impersonal narratives derived from a privileged conception of morality.  Survivors of domestic violence deserve far better than your judgement.  They deserve to know someone has their backs.

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~ by Randi Saunders on March 16, 2015.

One Response to “Staying, Surviving, and Defying the Good Victim Paradox: A Perspective on Domestic Violence”

  1. […] 5. Staying, Surviving, and Defying the Good Victim Paradox: A Perspective on Domestic Violence […]

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