Getting It Right: Why Women Stay

“Why does she put up with it? Why doesn’t she just leave?”

You’ve all heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it. If you have, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. You never needed to ask yourself that question – or you got out in time. In both cases those that say this often add, “I have no sympathy for her. She just needs to get some backbone.”

If only it were that easy.

There are many reasons women are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to leave an abusive spouse. A few of these I know firsthand via my family of origin. I’ll begin with those.

Every now and then we hear or read in the news of a murder suicide. A man has killed his wife and children and then killed himself. That would have been my family if my mother had tried to leave. The attitude that brings this on is “If I can’t have you, nobody can. And if I kill you I have to kill the kids, too, as I won’t let anyone else have them either. And I can’t go to jail, so I’ll kill myself.” These men feel justified.

Sometimes, especially if there are no children involved, a man kills his partner and does not kill himself. Usually this happens after she ‘gets away’, or tries to. She leaves, gets the restraining order, hides, or goes to a shelter, (if she is fortunate enough to live in a community with a shelter). All to no avail. He doesn’t care about the restraining order, the law is an ass, she belongs to him, she betrayed him, and so she deserves to die. If she survives the attempt, he may even try again after he is out of jail.

Another factor is often financial, more so if children are involved. The woman knows that getting support from her abuser, even for the kids, will be a life-long battle. The courts may decree support but remember: abuse is about control. And he can and will control the money. Withholding support or making sure there are many strings attached to it allows him, once more, to control his woman. Even if he does obey the support order, her financial status will be far below what it was with him. Often she believes that the kids are better off if she stays. At least they won’t have to live in poverty. Remember, one category of abuse is financial and this can occur outside as well as within the relationship. By the time this point is reached, she has often lost her career as a result of the systematic undermining of her work, or has given up work to ‘look after the home’ at his insistence, and will have difficulty getting a job with a wage that will adequately support herself and her children. Yes, I am aware that this is not always the case, but today we are dealing with ‘why women stay’.

But before relationships even get to this dire point, much has happened behind the scenes that outsiders never get to see. It is the main reason for a woman’s inability to get out from under, even if her life and that of her children are not in actual danger.

In my last post I talked about the common cycle of abuse and remorse. When they begin dating, her beau is so attentive and complimentary. (Only later will she understand that control issues were in play right from the beginning.) She is flattered by his ‘love’ and wants to make him happy, to please him. Slowly she gives up more and more: her friends, her work, her nights out with the girls, even shopping for groceries. But the more she gives up, the more he demands. She becomes increasingly isolated. And don’t forget the results of shame. She can’t go to her family. If she does, often they try to counsel her to try harder, to find ways to appease his anger. They do not see or hear the constant put-downs, the accusations of infidelity, the name calling, the insults to her intelligence and integrity.

Gradually the self-esteem she had when they met is eroded away. She comes to believe there must be some truth in what he tells her, that she is somehow flawed and maybe even needs him or she won’t be able to survive in an outside world that needs skills and strength she obviously must not have.

Sometimes she gets it right and he acts lovingly – until she ‘blows it’ again. Or he sees that she is ready to leave and acts remorsefully, tells her he needs her and that he’ll reform. The remorse phase lasts just long enough for her to become hopeful. And when the abuse resumes, she wonders why she didn’t see it, why she is so stupid. Maybe she deserves it after all. In the end she is so worn down that she no longer has the strength, the belief in herself, or the means to leave.

If you have been abused and got away, give yourself a huge pat on the back. But please save some compassion for your less fortunate and less courageous sisters. Few women are as strong as you.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “Getting It Right: Why Women Stay”

  1. And, don’t forget that despite the opinions of social workers, and the entire legal system, the abuser will never be rehabilitated. Twenty years later, he is still an abuser, perhaps with another woman. The penalties, the psychological counseling, rage control classes, even the medications — no matter what — HE WILL NOT BE CURED. The huge amount of money that goes into rehabiliating these monsters is a waste, and the only way to protect the women and children is to keep the abusers permanently locked up — literally, for the rest of their miserable lives.

    1. In general I would agree that change is challenging , though I do know of a couple who turned around. It depends on an epiphany about their attitude, which is often precipitated by a traumatic event.Thank you for your comment.

      1. Yvonne,I hope you are right. I really do. But the woman was my friend, I would keep an eye on them. I would never trust this man again.

          1. I stayed in an marriage for 29 years… verbal, emotional, but felt like and was told I could never make it on my own and I believed him, once it got to the physical abuse, (the first time) he was sorry and vowed he would never do it again. I believed him. He threatened to kill himself and it would be my fault, because he said I made him do it. He was and as for as I know still is and alcoholic… according to him you can’t be if you just drink beer. Right, when the second time the physical abuse happened, I decided he would never, ever get a third chance. My children were grown, I never told anyone, but after being hit, shot at with a 22 rifle, (he just shot it about 3-4 feet from me) I grabbed my purse, put a change of clothes in a bag, and started to leave, that’s when he wrestled me to the floor and began to cut up my clothes. I knew if I didn’t leave then, he would kill me next. I got away. I found my big girl panties, got in the car, know when I backed out I would NEVER go back. EVER! He was so drunk by then he could hardly stand. Sometime during the day he pulled 4 spark plug wires of in my car. I didn’t care, I drove like hell and decided I would go as far as it would run. I showed up on the door step of a friend who was good enough to let me stay for a few months. That was 12 years ago. I now am in a wonderful relationship with someone who treats me very well. It is a different life all together. Life now is good and he’s my best friend. It can get better, once you get out of that bad relationship. You just have to do it, and its hard. But a good life is waiting for you out there. .

  2. Thank you for a needed and powerful post. Hopefully people will understand it just isn’t that easy. “Until you walk in some else’s shoes,” fits this situation. I’m glad you survived a difficult time and have the courage to help women in need. one note on retraining orders, don’t bother, your new address is provided so you might as well give him the key.

  3. I Have dealt with this at grass roots level: looked after some of those women who have had the courage (eventually, once they realised it was never going to change) to take out restraining orders, and who of course had either the finances to hire someone like me or were lucky enough to discover one of the organisations who provided someone like me.

    I once looked after a woman and her two small children whose husband had cut off the top joint of his own pinkie finger, in front of his wife and children, to prove how much he loved them; telling them he would kill or die rather than be separated from them. He of course didn’t end up doing either but instead went to jail for quite a long time.

    Even those cases that end up alright run a traumatic course. The outcomes are many and varied and, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. For anyone who is going to involve this subject in a writing project, and don’t have first hand knowledge or know someone who has, there are many places you can get the real story from but the people who run ‘Women’s Shelters’ would be some of the best people to talk to.

    Great post, Yvonne.

  4. Great posts. Abuses come in so many different forms. The obvious ones are more easily defined, but how many times do you see a relationship in which the man is always “right” and the woman finally finds it easier to agree than to speak her truth. No one gets hit, no one is threatened, but gradually the woman looses her personal voice because she knows she will never win. In effect the man is a bully in his relationship; to the outside world he is a personable, pleasant man who many would see as an ideal companion. The lack of mutual respect is a form of abuse too, but most women stay because it doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to leave; still it has a major impact on them over time.

  5. And all this is made worse by the stigma that our society places upon women who are victims of sexual and violent crimes. People ask “what was she doing to invite this behaviour?” Surprisingly often the people who ask questions like that are in positions of power or trust, counsellors, lawyers, police officers. So when a woman does gather th strength to speak to someone it can result in her being trodden further down. Assigning blame to the victim can be pretty common and turns shame into a carefully constructed process that keeps a victim of abuse feeling like she has to live with it.

    Thanks for the post, very interesting stuff.

    1. Absolutely, Ben. This is the reason so many crimes of a sexual nature never get reported or prosecuted. The victim is re-victimized by the stigma and the system that lays the blame on them. Thank you for that insight.

  6. Great post, Yvonne. I’ve bookmarked and will send to a couple of friends who have voiced the same “Why doesn’t she leave” sentiments. Until you’ve experienced that kind of abuse or have known someone in that situation, it’s hard to understand the difficulties encountered once the abused decides to escape.

    1. I hope they ‘get it’. For those who have never experienced it, as you say, it’s hard to understand. I’m glad you found it rang true for you and hope it has some effect.

  7. I am glad – now – that I stayed, but there was a time that I probably should have walked out. There is so much going on in a woman’s mind, and it is dreadfully unfair for anyone looking in from the outside to label her or deny her the respect she cannot give herself. You have done a wonderful for countless women by posting this.

  8. As always, ma chérie, you are on target. I know how hard it is to confront these issues, and as writers, we need to get it right.

    As my writing guru, Robert McKee says, “Write the truth.”

    And the battle goes on. I am in the process of helping a former student to leave what is becoming a spiraling out of control abusive relationship. She has family out of state and we are working together on her escape and setting her up in a new home.

    What you have done with these 2 posts is nothing short of incredible . . . and I salute you!

  9. Yvonne,

    Great post. Very thoughtful and helpful. People who question why people stay have a hard time putting themselves in other’s shoes. And you gave them the stock they needed to do that.

    I think people underplay the role of finances in abusive situations. People are more likely to leave if they truly fear for the lives of their children (though, this is hard to come by, because in abusive relationships, there’s a lot of denial). But, short of that, people will often put up with a lot of crap if they’re concerned about impoverishing themselves and their children by leaving. And while women can work, it’s often hard to find a well paying job that gives you the flexibility you need when you’re a single parent, especially if you’ve been out of the workforce.

    Anyway, great post to help people empathize.

    1. Thank you. And you are correct, of course, women often stay because they believe (mistakenly, as you’ll hear when speaking to those children as adults) that the financial benefits outweigh the emotional deficits. The reality is that the damage from to the children from remaining is usually greater than the results of the possible poverty from leaving.

  10. I want to respond to the last comment by ‘no name please’ but the space ran out of ‘reply’ so Ill do it here. I hope you see it. You mention two aspects that have been left out of the discussion. One is alcohol (or drugs) and the other the threat of suicide. Both of these are common factors. Especially the threat of suicide is a powerful tool for control. And booze is a common excuse for loss of control. But women need to know that neither is EVER their fault. They are both tools in the manipulation arsenal.

    I am so happy that you were able to finally get away and that you were able to love again. My mother also did not get away until my sister and I were grown. My other hope is that your kids were not sucked into repeating the pattern and that you have maintained good relations with them. Thank you so much for telling your story. You have helped others today.

  11. I was one of those people who couldn’t understand. It had never been part of my life. Until my fiance’s daughter was killed by her boyfriend, who then took his own life 12 years ago. She was making the break. They were 19 and 20. I’ve learned so much over the years since that happened, and I have so much more compassion for women in these types of situations. We need more people speaking out like you have. There needs to be a better understanding in society of this kind of situation. And the physical, psychological and life-impairing consequences.

    For my part, I am writing a memoir that tells about the impact of this situation on not just my stepdaughter’s life now ended, but the rest of the family. It is a problem we cannot ignore.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that. I am sorry for your loss. It is an important piece of work you are attempting. The wider the word is spread the sooner these situations will diminish. Public awareness and opinion are the driving forces for social change. It happens at the grass roots first. Your book will help.

      1. I agree that opinions change starting at the grass roots level. I admire your courage for putting your story out there for people to read. From writing my book I know that sharing these things can be heartbreaking and emotionally difficult. I wish you luck in your campaign for change.

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