To Leave or Not to Leave: Survival Strategies

B.R. Sakhi’s Domestic Violence Advocate addresses the factors that influence a woman’s decision to stay or leave an abusive relationship.

To leave an abusive, hurtful and damaging relationship sounds like the most logical and common place thing to do. Why doesn’t she just leave?  This is one of the questions people commonly ask about victims of domestic violence.   The decision to leave or stay with an abusive partner is not related solely to the extent or severity of the abuse. There are many external and internal constraints and influences that shape a woman’s decision to stay or leave.

Why some women stay

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior embedded in the dynamics of ‘power and control’.  Leaving an abusive relationship is not always the easiest or safest choice a woman can make.  Sometimes leaving can be more dangerous to a woman’s well being than staying in an abusive relationship. Aside from the fear of further abuse, there are other factors that influence a woman’s decision to remain in the abusive home.   Research has found that the need for financial support, language barriers, fears of losing child custody, family pressures and cultural expectations add on to the challenges a woman faces when thinking about how to address the violent situation she lives in.  Asking a survivor of domestic violence why she doesn’t leave ignores the complexities of how this form of violence impacts women.  This type of questioning does not take into account the set of circumstances survivors of violence must weigh to decide how best to protect themselves and their children. It further implies that it is the survivor’s responsibility to end the violence, blames her for the abuse and does not hold the batterer accountable for his crimes.

Two factors that greatly influence a women’s decision to stay in the home

The decision to leave or remain in an abusive marriage is an individual decision.  Though there are a number of factors that influences her decision, the reasons may vary from one woman to the next.  For some women, the fear factor and her children’s welfare may be one of the things that determine the kind of choices she makes.

Perpetrators of domestic violence often threaten to increase the severity of their violence, sometimes even kill women and their children if they consider leaving or refuse to return home.  Having experienced the extent of the perpetrator’s violence and seeing threats of physical violence enacted, survivor’s fear that she and/or her children may be further abused or even murdered.

Many times women choose to stay in an abusive home in order to minimize the perpetrator’s abuse towards children. Often, upon separation abusive husbands initiate child custody and visitation proceedings as a way to pressurize the woman to re-consider the relationship.  There are times when legal proceedings result in favor of the abuser- often giving them full access to children. Some men use this opportunity to abuse and emotionally manipulate the child. Living in the same household allows women to monitor the abuser’s behavior towards children and prevent children from getting abused.

While the decision to leave an abusive marriage is a difficult one, the ability to make that decision is also defined by the support systems these women feel they have. Friends, family and a network of service providers within a supportive community can be instrumental for a survivor who chooses to make the overwhelmingly difficult decision to uproot her life.

Strategies

What at first might appear to an outsider to be self-defeating behavior on the part of the victim, such as being afraid to seek the services of a program for victims of domestic violence or wanting to return to the abuser in spite of severe violence, in fact might be normal reactions to very frightening situations. Survivors use different strategies to cope with abuse. These strategies might appear to be the result of submission or passivity. However, in reality some women have learned that these are sometimes-successful, temporary means of stopping the violence.

Preservation

Because every woman is different and her situation equally nuanced and varied, women often find their own ways to preserve their safety and self dignity while living in an abusive environment.  Martial rape is common in domestic violence cases.  Depending on the particular relationship and circumstance a woman may or may not be able to protect herself from marital rape

Faria* a survivor who reached out to Sakhi is a survivor who recognized her ability to have control over her body. “Even though I am forced to stay with him at this stage,” Faria said, “I don’t tolerate his abuse like I did before.  When I realized I was able to establish control over my physically intimate relations with him, I stopped. I don’t even speak to him unless it is necessary.”

Preparation

At Sakhi we often speak to women who find ways to survive despite their horrific situations. Sometimes they survive by holding on and waiting for the right time and opportunity to leave.

One of Sakhi’s survivors named Shaina* said to us “I have been experiencing abuse since I came into this country. I know his behavior will never change. But I am not ready to leave because I need to figure out how I am going to survive outside of the house. I don’t want my children to face any financial hardship because of my decision. Once I get a full time job and a free permanent house I plan to leave.”

Dealing with abuse is always challenging and traumatic.  Shaina* and Faria* are only two examples of the many ways women who find their own ground and strategies to deal, cope and survive

Extending help

Many women use their experiences to be of help and assistance to others who are going through similar situations. They gather their strength, knowledge and experiences and share whatever resources they have. Some women reach out to friends and others to provide a helping hand to other women and work to help their communities understand the severity and dangers of domestic violence.

Ratna,* a survivor came to Sakhi with the help of a friend. “I did not know anything about this country. I had never travelled anywhere by myself alone before because I was not allowed to do so. Because of that I never felt I could go out into this unknown country and do anything for myself. I was scared. Then, my friend told me about Sakhi and gave me the number. I am so grateful to her now.”  Ratna* began to attend Sakhi’s ESL classes, but does so secretly. “He does not know that I come to Sakhi to learn English. If he knows he would not allow me to do”

Making a phone call, looking for information on how to cope, saving money, finding ways to maintain a sense of self are all examples of a significant turning point- they are indications of a woman’s readiness and a commitment to change her life.

At Sakhi, we believe that women are the best decision makers of their own lives. Each woman’s situation is nuanced and different, and with varying degrees of support and help, whether to leave or not is truly one that only the woman herself can make.  We recognize and admire a woman’s strength and resilience to face and overcome obstacles.  Regardless of whether a woman decides to leave or remain in an abusive home, we respect her decision and the courage she demonstrates through her everyday survival.  No choice is the best choice unless it’s the right choice for the woman who faces violence and seeks to survive and thrive.

* Names of survivors have been changed to protect privacy and maintain safety