In all the recent discussion about domestic violence and intimate partner abuse, the same few silly questions pop up on your #MeToo bingo card.
Why didn’t she just leave?
Why did she let him do that?
Why didn’t she call the cops?
“Why didn’t she.” Notice that through-line, as opposed to “Why did he.”
Also on the bingo card are these inane assessments:
I don’t know, he seems like a nice person.
She just wants attention.
People fight, it’s no big deal.
I’m inclined to say that it’s pointless to address these questions. There are many reasons people want to disbelieve survivors of intimate partner violence. It’s baffling, isn’t it? It’s a legitimate question: why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she report? If she didn’t, it must not have been too bad, right?
Of course, people aren’t always asking these legitimate questions legitimately. They’re actually making a statement. When they “ask” why she didn’t leave, they’re saying they would have.
I can’t answer these questions for everyone, because as with any relationship, abusive relationships take many forms and affect people differently. (People have different experiences, how about that.)
I could talk about the facets of partner abuse and the science and data behind those facets. As an academic, I have read hundreds of papers on this very topic.
However, I doubt it would really answer these questions, and that’s because I was conducting this research when I got into the relationship with my abuser. It still took me a year to recognize the thing that I was studying in my own life.
I did leave, after a year. I never did report. I engaged law enforcement and consulted with a lawyer. As many survivors have found, there are few avenues that seem safe, let alone effective. I ultimately decided not to pursue a restraining order, which in my state has a high likelihood of lethal retaliation, or to file a police report, for reasons I outline below.
I stayed for a year because I was trauma-bonded. Trauma-bonding, the basis of Stockholm Syndrome, is the ultimate answer to #WhyIStayed. I stayed not because I believed his promises, but because I wanted to. I stayed because I had poured so much energy into the relationship that no other avenue seemed possible. I stayed because I felt an unspeakable bond to him, wrought by the fires of his fury and my chilling fear that leaving would be much, much worse.
I also stayed because I doubted my own reality, due to an devious tactic called gaslighting. The term is derived from a classic film and refers to trickery meant to make the victim doubt their experience and memory. Their reality. It’s especially insidious because victims of gas lighting appear unreliable to outsiders and moreover feel confusion that compounds their shame. They ferociously pursue the reality that’s mockingly wandering away from them. If given a choice between two realities, wouldn’t you choose the one in which you’re not a victim of abuse?
Dr. Gaslighting, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Lamp
The term “gaslighting” comes from a classic film — not Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although that one has its own lessons —…
I didn’t report because police said that they would need full access to my life and then talk to my abuser. I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which police showing up at his door would end in anything besides my body at the bottom of the river. I also didn’t want all of my friends, family, and acquaintance to be interviewed about me. I didn’t want to be the subject of gossip and speculation. As it is, my abuser made me so. Abuse victims feel pressure to be strong, to behave as though everything is normal. If we don’t, we’re beaten. That’s why people say, “You two seemed so happy, though!” They’ve been duped by the performance.
I also doubted cops would believe me. Here’s the thing: victims of abuse don’t look too good in these situations, and especially not in our messages. There are messages in which we’re begging the abuser to take us back. There are others in which we tell them to go to hell. We seem inconsistent as we struggle to navigate the Boschian hell the abuser has painted for us.
There are plenty of moments when we wanted to turn him in but couldn’t. We loved our abuser. We didn’t want things to get worse for either of us. Imagine the moment where you feel like you might just be able to calm him down. If you call the cops, you’ll get raped. Or beaten. Or worse.
Our screams are silent. When we reach out for help, we seem hysterical because suddenly our constant screams are escaping our mouth. Meanwhile, our abuser has pulled on their psychopath mask and seems calm and collected.
Sounds like a bad relationship. And indeed most domestic violence is “situational couple violence” in which both parties mistreat each other. (For more information on this, please see the work of Michael P. Johnson.) But if it’s a power play, what’s often called “intimate terrorism” in the literature, you’re at the receiving end of a carefully calculated campaign to make you look insane and the abuser look like the lovesick innocent.
I didn’t report because my abuser was charismatic and skilled at bringing people to his side. He passed off his spurts of anger and self-righteous arrogance as being “quirky.” He did have a history of violent altercations with others, but was able to pass this off as a part of a “rough patch.”
He benefited a lot from being male. My story is dismiss-able, chalk-up-able to my being the stereotypical crazy (ex) girlfriend. Although women certainly can be abusers, male abusers aren’t subject to centuries of tropes about women being hysterical or manipulative. Women are considered crazy. Any crazy behavior a man exhibits is considered to be because of a woman. We hear it in songs and jokes, we see it in movies and TV show. For this very reason, it’s especially hard for male victims of intimate partner abuse at the hands of a woman to come forward. They are ridiculed, and once again, bystanders find silly questions and inane assessments about the victim, rather than questioning the abuser for their choices.
Here’s the thing: abusers tend to admit wrongdoing. Both the academic literature and personal anecdotes have shown that. Even if they blame their behavior on external factors, they admit to it. And the reason is clear: this gives them an opportunity to control the conversation and make it about themselves, rather than their victim.
I didn’t report because it wouldn’t have mattered. The damage was done, and the whole process would have caused a shit-ton more damage. I wish I had had a moment where it felt safe to report, to get a restraining order, to get him out of my life sooner. But by the time I recognized what was happening, that opportunity was far behind me.
Ironically, once I did leave, I was met by an army of enablers demanding to know why I had thrown away a relationship, why I didn’t try harder, why I had hurt him so. But that’s another story.
For more of my writing about recovery, abuse, and the science of both, follow me on Medium or visit Persephone’s Journey. If you need help, please reach out to your local resources or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 or TTY 1–800–787–3224.