Why Don’t Domestic Violence Victims Just Leave? I Was One, So I Should Know

The go-to response that we often offer victims is actually all wrong.
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The go-to response that we often offer victims is actually all wrong.

Editors Note: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This anonymous author is sharing her story of recovery; if you are looking for help, more information is at the bottom of the article.

Domestic violence doesn’t always look the way you expect it to. It certainly didn’t match my preconceived notions, shaped by pop-culture stories and the judgmental comments of others. Even after a concussion, an ambulance visit, and the subsequent PTSD, I could not accept that what was happening in my marriage was domestic violence. Our relationship was difficult at times, troubled maybe, but he is not a wife-beater, and I am not a victim, I thought.

If you have no familiarity with violence in the home, you might wonder how a functional, intelligent person could be so appallingly dense. How could someone, even while carefully dressing to cover the bruises, deny the obvious problem in their marriage? Here’s how: People don’t think of themselves as statistics; they see their stories in their fullness. The very fullness of that vision—falling in love, cherished times of vulnerability and laughter, apologies and resolutions—creates a terrifying blind spot that obscures a realistic comprehension of abuse and violence.

As a woman in my twenties who had met my husband in college, I did not recognize my story in commentaries on abuse or in TV shows and movies portraying domestic violence. Those accounts showed an inverted image from the one I saw: all terror and abuse with one spouse virtually held hostage, tormented daily by the other. What I had was a happy marriage marked by a few “bad episodes.” We were working on it; things were getting better, I told myself. After I finally sought help and got to know other people like me, I discovered that my blind spots were common.

Victims Aren’t Weak

There were two main ideas that prevented me from accepting that I was being victimized by an abusive partner. One, I am not weak. Pop culture usually presents victims who are quivering, nervous, wincing women. I am courageous, resilient, and confident. I have never cowered in my life; I didn’t cower when my husband assaulted me, and, for me, the fight or flight response was almost always fight. No matter how much he physically intimidated and threatened me, I never flinched, a quirk that seemed to unnerve and frustrate him. Always preferring the intellectually-more-challenging verbal and psychological abuses, he would commonly back me into a corner, letting out a quiet, relentless stream of vicious words within an inch of my face while preventing me from getting around him. He seemed to relish witnessing me hit my breaking point.

The pushes and slaps I delivered in self-defense (particularly the ones done in that strange, gray area of an abuser’s intimidation and threats of violence without actually becoming violent) made me feel complicit in the domestic violence and equally at fault—a moral sensitivity he exploited with Machiavellian skill. “We have a problem,” he would tell me. I believed him, and I thought I shared the guilt with him. What I did not realize is that whereas I felt guilt for every action I had done in response to his abuse, he felt nothing.

Violence Creates a Fog

The second reason why I was resistant to the idea that I was a victim of abuse is that I liked my husband, even up to the week I left him. Abuse victims do not marry monsters; we marry people we love deeply. It all seems so normal in the beginning—no one is perfect. Forgiveness and trust are keys to every relationship, right? The line of abuse is usually blurred long before the first act of physical violence, and a pattern of minimization, blame-shifting, and forgetfulness is disguised as forgiveness. My husband was only violent a handful of times. Then, I told myself, he “got better” because he never actually physically assaulted me again.

This pattern is also not uncommon, as the threat of violence is often enough to exercise the comprehensive control that an abuser needs. I was in a fog of trauma for several months after his escalation into violence. Survival mode shuts down emotions and what would be considered “normal” reactions. I went to work and outwardly functioned like myself, but there are a few months I can scarcely remember. During this time, he happily commented on how “calm” I was and how peaceful our marriage had become.

After abusive outbursts, he would recover his equilibrium literally overnight and behave as though nothing had happened, leaving me doubting my memories of the previous night. The times that I did push for explanations, he would either turn an energetic accusation back on me or would offer a thinly veiled victim-blaming apology: “I’m sorry, but you . . .” In between these tumultuous episodes, he was the person I had fallen in love with: charming, articulate, and fun. I always enjoyed spending time with him and jealously guarded the good times, all while working hard to hit just the right notes to keep him in a good mood.

Up until the day I left, my husband minimized the abuse, literally scoffing at me as he told me that I had to take responsibility for my part of it. That’s when it finally dawned on me: He didn’t believe that he had done anything wrong because anything he had done to me, I deserved. That is the distilled philosophy of an abuser.

The End Isn’t Easy

Despite everything, I have the utmost confidence in people’s ability to change. But people only change if they want to change. Waiting and hoping for change is not only foolish, but it is also dangerous in an abusive relationship. Without serious and intense intervention, the situation will only get worse.

If you have a friend or a family member who is experiencing abuse, you need to understand how difficult it is to reach out for help. People are designed to protect their families from threats; it is part of the primal survival instinct. When the threat is the family, it is near impossible to fathom the confusion and conflict that such perversion creates within someone’s heart unless you have experienced the agony.

If you ever have to talk to someone in a domestic violence situation, I offer you this advice. Do not under any circumstances launch into an “If my spouse ever did that to me, I would do X” diatribe. Every time I hear an “I would do X” comment, I bristle. Unless you have been knocked to the floor in the middle of an utterly mundane disagreement and strangled by the person who vowed before God, your family, and friends to protect you, you have no concept of what you would do in a domestic violence situation.

Comments such as these have an unintended tone of victim-blaming: as in, “This is the correct way to respond. If you were like me this wouldn’t happen to you.” As a survivor of domestic violence who is so thankful to have gotten out, I implore you: instead of interjecting, listen. Empathize. Do not make judgments based upon the small details you are getting; abuse victims often withhold the worst details. Understand that in each situation, coming to a safe and wise decision is complicated and painful; in both cases, the awareness, love, and support of family and friends is essential. Offer support, and encourage them to get professional help from domestic violence resources. Reassure them that they do not deserve abuse under any circumstances.

If you are experiencing abuse yourself, I tell you as someone who has been there before: Stop keeping your secret. Do not assume that you are exaggerating or imagining things. People do not function well nor think clearly when they are deep in survival mode. That fact is nothing to be ashamed of, but it does mean that you need help.

Once you accept this, the next step is to be discerning about who you tell, particularly in the beginning. These two steps are not contradictory. Stay away from the drama queens, the hysterics, and the gossips. It is humiliating and scary to tell people your story, and you need to tell people who will respond rationally and lovingly. I still shiver uncontrollably for several minutes when I share my story with people, one of the remnants of my PTSD. You need people who will listen, give practical advice, and understand the immediate danger you are in. Go to or call a domestic violence shelter for support and resources. I learned that most police, EMTs, lawyers, judges, and even a lot of therapists do not know how to properly handle domestic violence or how to give practical advice for it. Go to the experts.

Domestic violence is uniquely dehumanizing and stifling. I became a shadow of myself as I tried to cope within the constricting and erratic limits set by my husband. As the years marched on, I became convinced that the person I was before the abuse was gone forever. For anyone fearing the same, I can assure you that is nonsense. When you finally accept the reality of your situation and work toward recovery, you will rediscover everything that you thought you had lost. In addition, you can gain even greater depths of compassion for others and confidence in yourself.

You will be different, of course. Every experience we go through in life leaves its mark on us. But those marks can be a source of strength and growth.

Resources for Those Needing Help

  Access the National Domestic Violence Hotline at thehotline.org or 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Here's info about a California moving company that helps domestic violence survivors move out, and is backing a campaign #MoveToEndDV to encourage other companies to follow suit. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence can be reached here. Find info about the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center here. Safe Horizon offers help and its own hotline here. Domestic violence is the single leading cause of injury to women nationwide. Do not wait to get help.   

Photo Credit: Nikoline L. Rasmussen