- April 15, 2016
- 9 minute read
- by Staci Gray
This is one of those questions that people ask quite often. If you’re not happy and he hurts you, why don’t you just leave?
This question usually comes from kind, well-meaning people who are just trying to help.
Unfortunately, they are absolutely clueless how naïve they’re question is. They don’t know what they don’t know because they haven’t lived through an abusive intimate relationship themselves.
If you’ve ever asked this question, you probably heard a reply something along the lines of … ‘It’s not that easy. Leaving just isn’t that simple.’ Or possibly… ‘Well he doesn’t hurt me all the time, just sometimes.’
As a former target of abuse, I hope to share some valuable insights for those who have innocently asked this question and for those courageous souls that have experienced abuse. It’s a perspective I hope will shed some light on why she doesn’t just leave and what might be a better approach.
Before we begin, to be clear these insights are simply scratching the surface. There are numerous reasons why she doesn’t just leave, including social, financial, cultural, religious, kids, pets and legal reasons.
However, I am only going to focus on two reasons I believe will bring the deepest understanding for people on both sides of this question.
QUESTION: If he’s abusive, why don’t you just leave?
First, it might not be safe to.
Leaving is dangerous. Statistically speaking the most dangerous time in a targets life is when she decides to exit an abusive relationship.
Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the first two weeks after leaving an abusive partner than at any other time in the relationship.
It can be life-threatening to underestimate an abuser. Abusers thrive on power and control. When she decides to leave, she’s directly challenging the abusers lifeline. She’s disrupting his power and control over her. In essence, leaving is asking for things to get worse.
Even if she can’t communicate this clearly, she intuitively knows it. So, it’s imperative to have a well thought out escape plan prior to leaving. Just leaving without a safety plan may be asking for more trouble.
Now that we’ve addressed her physical safety, we also have to acknowledge her mental and emotional state.
Second, abuse is progressive.
Abusive relationships have a nasty way of keeping its’ targets trapped. All physical abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, and property violence is preceded by psychological abuse.
Here’s why… If you go on a date with someone for the first time and instead of a kiss goodnight, you get slapped across the face… would you go on a second date?
Of course not! BUT that’s not how abuse happens.
First, your head and heart get enmeshed. You fall in love with their charming attributes. The kind things they say and do. The way they make you feel loved, safe, cared for, and protected. You fall for the amazing person you believe they are and the wonderful life you dream of building together.
While the early stages are wonderful, the transition to the dark-side is subtle and the ending is disastrous.
It’s important to remember that nobody is ever all good or all bad. As a former target of abuse, I can tell you first hand that controlling, manipulative, and abusive people actually do have some good qualities contrary to social stereotypes.
And these good qualities are most prominent in the early stages of the relationship or when they’re trying to win you back.
Thus, when things turn south – as a target, we’re confused because first impressions are so strong.
When things progress in ugly ways – we keep anchoring to how things were in the beginning. And instead of ending things like we would’ve done on the first date, we make excuses for their behavior.
They were just drunk. They were tired. They had a bad day at work. They didn’t mean it. I was just their punching bag.
And because first impressions are so incredibly powerful, we keep clinging to the hope that things will change. Most of the time, we don’t want the relationship to end… we just want the controlling, manipulative, and abusive behavior to end.
We just want things back to how they were in the beginning. So we try everything humanly possible. We overlook reality to keep the peace. We start walking on eggshells and doing emotional gymnastics to just get things back on good footing.
All the while not realizing how our deep desire to feel loved and safe in our relationship will never happen with a controlling, manipulative, and abusive person. Just because someone can hide their abusive nature early on – doesn’t mean we should ignore it when they reveal it to us later.
The challenge is when they do reveal it to us - we don’t initially identify it as abuse. We don’t instinctively assume our relationship has turned abusive or that the person who claims to love us is abusive.
Thus, we get trapped in the viscous cycle of abuse. We believe the twisted truths sold to us by our abuser. We accept their seemingly heartfelt apologies. And we genuinely believe that we can make the relationship work. And this cycle plays out over and over and over again.
We stay trapped until we have our enough is enough moment. It’s when we care less about what other people will think, say or do and most about our own sanity and safety. And if children are involved there’s too.
Our priority shifts from wanting to do anything and everything to save the relationship to doing anything and everything to save ourselves, our kids, gain back lost time, and restore our lives again.
Identifying abuse as abuse isn’t always necessary. For me, I didn’t even know my relationships were abusive. The isolation coupled with the controlling and manipulative behaviors left me confused. It wasn’t until later that I connected the dots.
But there is something I did identify that was necessary. I identified what was and what wasn’t working for me in the relationship… what I liked and what I didn’t like about the relationship.
At the time, it wasn’t necessary to know if the relationship was abusive or not abusive; right or wrong; bad or good; or who was to blame. That stuff’s interesting, but it wasn’t going to fix anything. It wasn’t going to change anything.
Being able to identify what was working for me and what wasn’t working for me allowed me to see clearly that the things that weren’t working for me in the relationship were outside of my control.
When the things that weren’t working for me could not be solved by superior emotional gymnastics, jedi eggshell walking skills or better boundaries… I realized that how he was treating me was never going to change because how he treated me was his choice - not mine.
What was my choice was whether or not I was going to continue to accept the mistreatment or if I was going to take an active role in my own life.
Abusive relationships have a way of pressuring us into believing we no longer have a choice in our lives. And sometimes the pressure is our own belief systems because we desperately want to do what’s right.
Get rid of this notion that choosing to stay or choosing to leave is right or wrong… bad or good… and simply identify what is working or what isn’t working for you; what you like and what you don’t like.
You don’t have to understand a bunch of psycho-babble and abuse statistics to figure out what you like and what you don’t like… what works for you and what doesn’t.
For me, it was a matter of evaluating without judgement the realities of the relationship. I could clearly see that the relationship wasn’t working for me… I didn’t like how I was being treated, I didn’t like who I was becoming, and I especially didn’t like the lack of progress towards an authentically happy relationship.
Once we identify and accept what we don’t like and what isn’t working for us, we can get on with our lives. Both people can get on with their lives - the target and the abuser.
We can stop pretending. The truth is we’ll never experience what we like and what works for us when we’re in a relationship with a partner that is controlling, manipulative, and abusive. It’s a sad reality.
This realization oftentimes comes with deep sadness. We grieve the loss of what we thought we had and what we thought we could build with that person.
It’s usually with a heavy heart that we make the transition and let go. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength to make choices for “me” and “I” instead of “we” and “us”, especially, when “us” was all you ever wanted. You gave everything you had to save “us” and letting that go is painful.
However, the end is just a new beginning of something far more beautiful. Although the rest of the story has yet to be written, making the courageous choice to do what’s in your best interest is how it starts.
Now that we understand the physical dangers of leaving and the emotional anguish targets of abuse experience when deciding to leave, let’s improve our approach.
Scrap the question… if he’s abusive, why don’t you just leave?
And instead, approach the situation with empathy.
Now that we understand the gut-wrenching process she must go through to reach that point of decision, we can be a better friend to her. We can hold space for her and raise awareness at the same time.
To help raise awareness that there is a better life waiting, here are some alternative questions to ask …
Do you like how he treats you?
Do you want your daughter or your niece believing that type of treatment is normal or acceptable?
Do you like the person you’re becoming in a relationship with him?
Do you feel loved and safe in your relationship?
Is your relationship dynamic working for you?
Or phrases such as…
It’s obvious you want a happy, loving relationship… that’s what most people want in their intimate relationship… and I want that for you too. Do you think you can build that with him?
Someone I know spent years holding out hope that her partner would stop being controlling, manipulative and abusive - she found out through wasted time and unnecessary heartache that she couldn’t get him to change. And largely because he didn’t think his behavior was harming the relationship. It’s a sad reality that we can’t get people to change - no matter how hard we try.
All we really have in this life is the ability to make choices that make us happy. In whatever fashion we got here… we still can make choices for our future that are in our best interest. The struggle is knowing which choice is going to bring happiness. Only you know that for you. And only I know that for me.
In my experience, you can’t make a choice for someone else. You can’t set a goal for someone else. You can’t change someone else. You can try, but it won’t work.
Transformation is a personal choice.
Asking different questions and using different words may raise awareness, which can help someone connect the dots in their own head. However, at the end of the day judging someone or shaming them into doing what you think is best for them will only drive them further away from you and in the direction you don’t think is best.
Targets of abuse have been living under an iron thumb for longer than you may know… they are masterful at hiding behind their smiles, their vibrant personalities, their happy-go-lucky outlook on life and all the while they are living in an emotional dungeon.
When someone innocently asks... why don’t you just leave?
As a target of abuse… the question feels dismissive. It feels as if you’re not seeing all the hard-work, effort and time that’s been invested to fix the relationship. I don’t want to just walk away from all of that.
It feels as if you don’t understand what’s going on and because you naively asked the question, I feel like your agenda is to get me to leave. And, at the point you’re asking the question, it’s likely not my agenda yet.
Having been on both sides of the equation… a target of abuse and an eyewitness to abusive relationships…
One perspective is black and white… and the other is every shade of grey imaginable. One has clarity… the other mass confusion. What seems simple and easy to one… is complicated and paralyzing to the other.
The most important role an outsider can play… is to hold space for the person experiencing abuse.
It means you provide the emotional space for them to fully embrace their process. It’s a place where they feel safe to admit the dysfunction… they feel equipped to overcome the destruction… they believe they can emerge with their dignity intact… and they feel courageous so that they can transform into the unstoppable person they aspire to be.
We do this by allowing the other person to have their journey… to live out their process. It must be done without judgement or shaming. We do it detached from the end result. We don’t try to fix them, make them feel inadequate for their process, or try to control the outcome.
When we hold space, we genuinely and sincerely want them to uncover for themselves the depth of courage, strength, and power they have to make choices that are in their best interest. The kind of choices that make them happy and fulfilled.
Being a target of abuse is tough. Seeing first hand a loved one experience intimate partner abuse is tough. Any way you slice it, intimate partner abuse is tough.
But if you’ve read this far - it doesn’t matter which side of the coin you’re on - I’m confident you’re tougher than whatever is trying to destroy you.
Maya Angelou said, “We do our best until we know better and when we know better we do better.”
And now you just might have some new insights to help you along your way. I hope this brings more clarity as to why she doesn’t just leave and how to approach intimate partner abuse differently.