People have stigmas about domestic violence — how it happens and to whom — so I struggle through writing this to be clear about ways it has hurt my friends, my family. After publishing last year’s story (If These Walls Could Talk), people asked some difficult questions. I often referred them to Family Services of Davidson County for answers. The nonprofit agency provides a team of trained professionals ready and willing to counsel individuals and families. Their Hattie Lee Burgess house for women and children fleeing partner violence will always be close to my heart and offers emergency shelter services for women in situations much like my mom’s.
I brought up one of those most frequently asked questions with a friend last week. “Why do women stay?” when a friend and I met for coffee before the upcoming Speak Up! poetry performances. My friend shared her story about a seemingly sweet college boyfriend who had grown increasingly protective. He began saying brutal things in anger and by the time he reached for her neck and ripped the gold beads on her necklace, she knew the situation was headed in a dangerous direction. That evening was the last time she saw her long-time love. “I had seen this before with my parents,” she explained. I nodded knowingly. I knew exactly what she meant.
It took me back to the few years my mom spent with Mr. John (an alias because his real name isn’t as important to the story as the fact he served time in prison for murdering his first wife) that taught me fear, anger, and escalation. Busted walls, broken dishes, brandished firearms eventually resulted in the shattering of my mother’s ankle with the stock of a shotgun. At an early age, I learned to recognize his growing rage and tip-toe my way around. “Why don’t we just leave, Momma?” was my first question at any sign of trouble.
When I was old enough to make my own poor relationship decisions, I found myself twisted up in an increasingly hostile situation. I knew the signs all too well. He began by breaking his things, then he moved on to breaking my things. By the time it turned to throwing my dining room chair, I knew his behavior was careening down a familiar path. I was next. Escaping his jealous rage was not easy; I was embarrassed for years to admit I had stayed around for so long.
I realized that year that there are so many difficult reasons why people stay. An all too familiar list published by WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise addresses some of the most common.
Conflicting emotions. “Abusers use verbal, emotional, and physical violence along with apologies, promises, and affection to control their victims.”
Shame. “Victims often feel tremendous shame and embarrassment and use denial as a way of coping with the abuse.”
Safety concerns. “In many cases, the abuser has threatened to kill his partner, himself, or the children if his partner tries to leave. (This is also true of men who are abused.)”
Lack of money and resources. “Money is often tightly controlled, so a woman may fear losing financial support and may question how she will be able to support herself and her children. Women who are elderly or have disabilities may not feel they have any other options than to stay with the abusive partner.”
Depression and isolation. “Abuse can leave victims depressed and emotionally drained. This can make it hard to act. And abusers try to isolate victims from family and friends so victims do not have anyone to support them if they do leave.”
Cultural or religious pressures. “In some cases, religious counselors, relatives, or friends may encourage women to stay to keep the family together no matter what.”
Custody worries. “A woman may worry about losing custody of her children if she leaves.”
Fear of being deported. “Immigrant women might stay in an abusive relationship because their partners have threatened to have them deported. Not being fluent in English might also be a challenge.”
My family and I know what intimate partner abuse looks, feels, and sounds like, but many don’t know the warning signs. Education is key. This month, Family Services will host vigils for those who lost their lives to domestic violence. Paid leave is necessary to give people time to seek medical and psychological help. Moving could be impossible otherwise. My question isn’t why didn’t they leave, but rather what are we doing to stop the abuse before it begins and promote healthy behaviors in relationships?
Antionette Kerr is a history lover, lake enthusiast and freelance writer who will always call Lexington home.