Why don’t they just leave?
Helen never expected she would be a victim of domestic violence. But she was.
Helen (a pseudonym) is no longer a victim of domestic violence. She is a survivor.
But it was a harrowing, lengthy process.
It is not unusual for folks to say things like: “Why did she get together with that guy in the first place if he was like that?” Or: “Why did she stay so long?” Or: “If it was me, I would just leave.”
If only it was that easy.
Power and control are at the core of abusive relationships. Abusers are highly manipulative and are adept at revealing only what they want their partner to know or see. And most often, male abusers are perpetuating a learned behavior.
As far back as 1996, studies of the American Psychological Association, in a report of the Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, indicated that male children who live in a violent home environment may grow up to be abusive themselves, continuing the cycle of violence in homes and communities into the future: “A child’s exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.”
This was certainly true in Helen's case. Both of her husbands grew up in such households.
Substance abuse may play a strong role in households where domestic violence resides. This was certainly true in Helen's case. Abusers use insults, name calling and threats of harm or death to control their victims. Alcohol and/or drugs only serve to intensify the behavior.
On one occasion, Helen's second husband, a large man who was a big drinker, emotionally abusive and controlling, began calling her horrible names and insulting her to the point where Helen talked back to him.
“I had learned to keep quiet, but sometimes you get pushed too far. If I hadn't become so upset, I wouldn't have said anything,” Helen said. “He came over to where I was on the couch, made me stand up, and he forced me into the bedroom where our son was sleeping and said: 'Say goodbye to your son.'”
With his arm around her neck, he brought her out into the kitchen. Helen, frantic and screaming, struggled to break free and wound up falling on the floor and injuring one of her knees.
The incident required a hospital visit, but she didn't tell anyone what had happened. He was with her.
Threats of taking away a woman's children, or implying something will happen to her, her family, or friends is evil, but effective for an abuser.
A mother's concern for the safety and well-being of her children outweighs any fear she may have for herself.
This husband also threatened Helen's life while holding a lethal weapon (Helen requested the actual weapon not be named) over her late one weekend night as he interrogated her. They had been living separately, Helen said, largely because he had found work in a different state and because of “the state of the marriage.”
He eventually put the weapon down, but made sure she saw that it was still within reach, before continuing his interrogation.
Their young child was sleeping in a bed in the very same room.
“I lay in bed just petrified, shaking, like you do when you have the chills and I was cold ... and doing everything in my power to concentrate on giving him the right answer,” Helen said. “My biggest fear, if he killed me, what was going to happen to my children. I wasn't so afraid of dying for myself, but what would happen to them? My number one objective was to stay alive — no matter how awful things got.”
Helen still has no idea how she got through that experience. When she went to work the following Monday, a co-worker could tell something was wrong.
“I whispered: ‘My husband threatened to kill me this weekend.’”
That co-worker and another put Helen on the phone with New Hope for Women immediately. Helen doesn't remember much about that initial conversation with a staffer at NHFW. She does, however, remember knowing she couldn't leave her situation right then.
Life in Helen's household did grow progressively worse. Her husband would clench his fists, sometimes even at the dinner table, at Helen, and once at her daughter because her stepfather didn't like the way she answered a question. He threatened to call Helen's employer and get her fired.
Months later, her husband threatened to kill her in front of their child (then five years old). And that was the day Helen knew she was ready to get ready to leave.
“It had gotten to the point where I had to do something,” Helen said. “I called New Hope, my work colleagues, and began getting ready.”
To escape, everything had to be very well planned. Getting Helen and her children to a safe place involved staff at NHFW, one of her family members, work colleagues, and her younger child's daycare provider. Everyone worked together to ensure that on the appointed day the escape would be swift and successful.
“I am so thankful for the support I had through friends, coworkers, family and from New Hope. I don't know that I would have been able to get out without them,” Helen said.
Helen never expected to be a victim of domestic violence.
Her story is like that of so many, many women. Too many. Including women who are not mothers, victims who have slowly become separated from a support network, whose self esteem, self worth, and sense of hope has been taken from them by their abuser.
Women cannot “just leave”; they are immobilized by fear because threats made in their world are often followed up by action too painful to bear.
If you are in an abusive relationship, or suspect someone you know is, remember: it is not your or their fault.
Domestic abuse and violence is never an act of love. It is an act of power and control for which there is never an excuse.
There really are people out there who want to help. Start by calling New Hope For Women's 24-hour hotline: 1-800-522-3304.