It’s time to change the question

Survivors of intimate partner abuse (IPA) face many obstacles as they move towards lives free from abuse. Those barriers may come from within – the survivor’s own fears and feelings – be institutionally based – a lack of systemic supports and services – or be the result of a lack of public understanding about what IPA really is.

One of my biggest frustrations is being asked why a woman did not leave a relationship in which she is being abused, or why she didn’t leave sooner, or why she returned — or hearing women being asked this question directly.

This question should have been retired long ago, and yet it continues to be asked. The result? Women who do not leave a relationship immediately upon the first incident of abuse find themselves deemed to be at least partly to blame for the abuse that follows.

As Arwa Mahdawi wrote in The Guardian earlier this year:

“Why did you stay so long if it was that bad? Why didn’t you just leave? . . . . Whenever a woman accuses a man of abuse there’s an immediate chorus of victim blaming. The accuser is put under a microscope: her history’s dug up, her actions are scrutinized, her motivations are analysed. A standard narrative emerges: the woman is somehow responsible for what a man did to her.”

Would you leave?

No woman likes to be abused. However, most women are resilient, and many find ways to manage the abuse so they can have functional day-to-day lives. They learn their partner’s patterns so they can anticipate when a violent episode is likely to happen and then take steps to protect themselves and their children. They slowly save up a bit of money to make an escape possible, some day. They secretly find out about resources in their community. They share their story with a trusted friend or family member. They teach the children how to keep themselves safe.  They live their lives one day at a time.

While leaving may seem like the obvious thing to those looking at the relationship from outside, there are many good reasons for women to decide to stay.

They may be afraid to leave out of fear that the violence will increase if they do. This is an objectively rational fear: abuse almost always continues post-separation, often escalating, and women are at the greatest risk of being killed by a partner at the time of separation.

They may believe the children will be better off with two parents, the greater financial security offered by a two-parent household and the stability of not maintaining the status quo.

Many women feel too embarrassed about the abuse to tell anyone or to leave. They may feel shame and responsibility or have told someone in the past and not been believed. They may worry they will be shunned by their community.

There are inadequate social supports such as affordable housing, child care, employment and counselling, especially for women who live in rural communities or are new to Canada.

Legal responses to IPA are inadequate at best and, at worst, cause further harm, leading women to stay rather than rely on the law to protect them if they leave. The challenges women with children have in getting safe parenting orders from family court is just one example of how the law drives some women to remain with an abuser.

Often, women want the abuse to stop but continue to love the partner as he was when they first met and hope he can return to being that person.

Time to change the question

British musician FKA Twigs responded to the question of not leaving head-on in a recent CBS This Morning interview about the end of her relationship with actor Shia LaBeouf, who abused her physically, emotionally and verbally. When interviewer Gayle King asked her why she didn’t leave, Twigs did not mince words:

“We have to stop asking that question. . . I’m not going to answer that question any more. Because the question should really be to the abuser: why are you holding someone hostage with abuse? People say it can’t have been that bad, because else you would’ve left. But it’s like, no, it’s because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.”

Twigs readily acknowledged that her career, public profile and financial situation gave her more resources than many women have.  But even all that privilege was not enough to make leaving easy: it was the abuse itself that kept her in the relationship.

As Jess Hill, who wrote See What You Made Me Do, an award-winning investigation into domestic violence, says:

“Most people still think of domestic violence and abuse as a set of discrete incidents: assaults, put-downs, threats. But when it comes to coercive control, which is akin to hostage taking, we’re talking about a system of abuse that operates like a cobweb, each strand pulling tighter and tighter until it feels there truly is no way out. This is not just abuse or ill treatment; it is entrapment. . . . leaving will carry such serious consequences that it is actually safer to comply and to stay.”

Enough said. No more “why didn’t she just leave” questions.

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