If it is really that bad, why doesn?t she just leave?

Date: January 1, 1970
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Police, prosecutors, magistrates, social workers and even those working directly with victims of domestic violence often find themselves scratching their heads at the decisions women make when they are victims of domestic violence. We wonder how they endure and tolerate the years of violence and what seems like endless cycles of abuse.

Activists working in the area of domestic violence are often asked “If domestic violence is so common and the abuse is really that bad, why don’t women just leave?” The answer is at once perplexing and thought-provoking, but in putting aside judgments can be painfully obvious. Police, prosecutors, magistrates, social workers and even those working directly with victims of domestic violence often find themselves scratching their heads at the decisions women make when they are victims of domestic violence.
We wonder how they endure and tolerate the years of violence and what seems like endless cycles of abuse, attempts to seek help to stop it, then reconciliation with the abuser. We wonder what’s wrong with someone who risks her life, the life of her children, alienation from her friends and family and her own ‘happiness’ for an abusive man? The victim’s choice to stay in an abusive relationship is at complete odds with what we all say we would do in a similar situation – “send him packing” – so we start to question the legitimacy of her claims, the “seriousness” of the violence and the extent to which she, herself, is taking the violence seriously.
In trying to understand this deeply complex issue, it is important to understand and reflect on “relationships.” We all have them: intimate ones, professional ones, platonic ones. Some of them are easy, loving and respectful; others are complex, frustrating and hurtful. Most of them are quite functional, others are not, but we tolerate them anyway. Women who find themselves in situations of domestic violence also have these relationships with their abusive partners; they can be loving and they can be dangerous. The ties that bind them, however, are far more powerful, intricate and multifaceted. In the 1970’s, an American psychologist Leonore Walker, created and coined “the theory of the cycle of violence.”
Walker found that abusive relationships follow a repetitive pattern which involves three distinct phases: a tension-building phase; an acute battering incident; and a tranquil, post-violence loving phase that follows after the acute abusive incident. These phases happen repeatedly in relationships marked by domestic violence. The victim of domestic violence develops methods of survival in the relationship which appear, from the outside, to be protecting her abuser or to be “playing games.”
She may use tactics such as placating the abuser by avoiding him or behaving in a manner that is apologetic and docile and covering up his behaviour or the abuse in an attempt to win his favour. She may acquiesce to his demands, isolate herself from others so they do not find out about the abuse and may even try to provoke an incident “just to get it over with.” Sometimes these tactics work and sometimes they lead to an acute violent episode.
Over time the tension-building phase gets shorter and the acute phases of violence occur more frequently. At the end of an acute incident, the “honeymoon” phase begins. The tension and violence stops and sometimes within hours the abusive partner may begin to exhibit warm, loving behaviour towards his partner. The victim of the abuse colludes in this false illusion of love and non-violence and may even convince herself that the abusive partner will not do it again.
Some victims start to believe that they are responsible for their abuser’s emotional stability and take responsibility for the abuser’s expression of despair after the violent incident. This “honeymoon’” phase is the phase in which many women feel compelled to withdraw charges against their abusive partners or attempt to retract protection orders against them in order to ‘save’ the relationship and the family.
There is, however, a special twist to this theory of domestic violence that I believe more adequately captures the lethal nature and consequences of domestic violence in South Africa; what I refer to as the “spiral” of violence. With each cycle of abuse that occurs in domestic relationships, the abusive episodes become more frequent and more violent and therefore more likely to result in a critical injury or death. Over time, the original perceived threat of death shifts towards a more imminent reality.
This spiral of violence, and potential of severe injury or death, galvanises the idea that it is truly dangerous for a woman to leave a relationship marred by domestic violence. The increasing intensity and brutality of violence over is compounded by the usual problems associated with leaving ‘normal’ relationships more generally. Fear of retaliation by the abuser, concerns for the socio-economic welfare of the victim and her children and lack of support from family or friends and alienation by extended family are a few of the concerns the victims of domestic violence have cited.
International studies suggest that on average it takes an abused woman around 10.5 years to leave an abusive partner. This is a period of constant engagement with the abusive partner, in negotiating safety and attempting to prevent further violent incidents. It is also a period during which an abused woman will, in all likelihood, employ a range of help-seeking behaviours before she attempts to leave, finds an appropriate intervention, or is killed. Our research on monitoring the Domestic Violence Act – which examined over 600 cases of domestic violence in the Western Cape – found that applicants for domestic violence protection orders were most likely to seek an order for physical abuse (67 percent), followed by psychological/emotional abuse at 84 percent. The use of weapons to threaten applicants or to commit acts of domestic violence was mentioned in 41 percent of cases and in over a quarter of the cases victims mentioned the use of a “dangerous weapon.” Applicants, however, did not appear in court to finalise their protection order in almost 39 percent of the cases. This finding appears consistent with the phenomenon of women withdrawing criminal charges of assault after an incident of violence.
In another study I conducted in rural areas of the Western Cape, women said that “‘victim-blaming” by family and criminal justice personnel made victims reluctant to pursue legal assistance and intervention. One woman said: “[Our] communities make women ashamed … people make them ashamed … if they talk about it people will say bad things about this victim and talk about her … they make it hard for her to show her face because people make a judgment about her.”
So the next time someone asks, “if it’s so bad, why doesn’t she just leave?” ask them “Where would she go? How would she pay for it? What if there is no other place to go? What exactly will she tell her children? Her family? Her friends, colleagues and neighbours? What if they all abandon her? Blame her? Where and how will her children go to school, how will they be fed and clothed (and cared for if she has to go to work) and how will she keep them away from further harm? What if her religion or custom forbade or discouraged divorce or separation? What if her abusive partner is threatening to kill, injure or destroy her or her children or anyone or anything that she loved if she left? What if she just … can’t?”
Lillian Artz is the Director of the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town. This article is part of a special series of commentaries on the Sixteen Days of Activism Campaign produced through the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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