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Opinion: 'When we ask that question – why doesn’t she leave? - we abuse again'

Domestic violence conjures up images of bruises, broken limbs, the woman who walked into the door. But it rarely starts that way; it starts like so many other relationships – romantic, sweet, promising, writes Dr Carol Baumann.

Dr Carol Baumann

WHEN WE HEAR of women in abusive relationships, we often shake our heads and ask: Why doesn’t she just leave? As if it were that easy. To leave. It’s not.

Domestic violence is an interesting phrase; it conjures up images of bruises, broken limbs, the woman who walked into the door. In fact, it rarely starts that way; it starts like so many other relationships – romantic, sweet, promising.

Attention turns to concern

He pours out attention, oozes affection, listens – in fact he listens very, very well. He learns all about this lovely woman – what makes her tick, who is important in her life, what she is most afraid of, where her weaknesses are.

And that attention can quickly turn to concern – where were you? I’m only asking out of concern. The concern then becomes obsession – I’ve called you five times, why didn’t you answer? The obsession then becomes control – I’ve told you not to leave the house. I’ve told you not to speak to your sister; your family are always causing trouble. You’re useless, fat, ugly – you’re too sensitive, can you not take a joke? And then finally, ‘you know I love you, I can’t live without you’.

Living with this roller coaster of abuse/ adoration can make your head spin – you don’t know which way is up. You learn to please, you learn to soothe – you begin to believe that you’re the problem – if I were thinner/ smarter/ could control the kids/ was less sensitive – and that the solution is in you – so you try to change, you try to become different, you behave ‘better’. Because you’re at fault.

He didn’t mean to do it

When the first slap lands, it stings in its violence, and it stuns in its shock – you can’t believe what just happened. Because you’re desperate to keep this horror private, you may join with him in making excuses – he didn’t mean to do it, his hand slipped, he was drunk, he was stressed, he had a bad childhood…..you’re ashamed. Think about that. HE breaks all the rules of decent behaviour, and YOU are ashamed.

And so goes the cycle – adoration, control, violence –it can take a long time for a woman to see what is happening, and most importantly to see she is not the problem – HE is.

When this woman – maybe a woman you love – finally sees how abused she is, can finally see through the control, the intimidation, and says the words out loud – he’s abusing me, he hit me – how will we react?  Will we say ‘why don’t you just leave’?

Where should she go?

Let’s think that one through – why doesn’t she leave? Well, where should she go? She knows there is a housing crisis. Very possibly, she has no financial independence – she may have no independent income, no access to any money. She may be isolated from her family – she believed him when he convinced her that her family were causing trouble, that all she really needed was him – now he is all she has.

If she has children, she worries for them – what will happen, they need their dad, will Social Services take them? And because he knows her so well, because of that attentive listening he did, he knows her fears – he has already begun to play on them.

So – back to the question – why doesn’t she leave? She thinks she has nowhere to go. She is afraid she will lose her children. She is sure no-one will believe her – he is pleasant, charming, helpful to the world outside their home. She’s not sure she has the strength – sadly, she may have come to believe all those negative and nasty things he said about her.

When we ask that question – why doesn’t she leave? – we abuse again – we again say to this woman – this is your fault, you need to act, you need to leave your home, you need to flee with your children, you need to engage with the authorities, you need to defend yourself. You. You who did nothing wrong.

It is time to think about the women in our lives – our daughters, sisters, friends and colleagues. Think about their courage and strength. And be ready to ask instead ‘What do you need right now and how can I support you?’

Dr Carol Baumann is part of COPE Galway Domestic Violence Refuge & Outreach Service. COPE Galway’s Domestic Violence Services in Galway, offers support to women and their children who experience domestic violence and abuse. If you are concerned about your own situation or that of someone you love, please phone us confidentially on 091 565985.

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Dr Carol Baumann

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