Written by Shannon Cooley Herdman
The HSWC Society acknowledges abuse occurs in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, and as documented in the 2013 Statistics Canada publication, Measuring Violence Against Women; Statistical Trends, in a small percentage of intimate relationships where violence is reported, the primary aggressor is identified female. However, for the purpose of this post, and to underscore the dominant work performed by the HSWC Society, abusers will be referred to as male and survivors will be identified as female.
One of the most common questions I encounter from the public and associates concerning my role as a support worker to women fleeing violence is: “Why does she stay?”
Needless to say, it’s complicated. There are many reasons why a woman may remain in a relationship where she experiences abuse. Clearly some of those reasons impacting a woman’s decision to remain in an abusive relationship are more obvious than others.
In the beginning, women enter committed relationships with great hopes of lifelong mutual support, romance and love. In the beginning, most would-be abusers are charming, attentive and full of appealing promises. While women may have the odd “niggly feeling” that not everything is quite right in their relationship, these doubts are often minimized in the face of what appears to be true love. In fact, abuse often does not enter the relationship until there is a measure of security established, such as when the couple moves in together or when she becomes pregnant. According to a 2004 Fact Sheet entitled “Family Violence and Pregnancy” (Women Abuse and the PEI Justice System Research Team), 40% of assaultive relationships begin in pregnancy. Why? Certainly there are added emotional and financial pressures, but likely the abusive partner is losing a sense of control in the relationship, feels threatened by the access health care providers has to his spouse or he has developed jealousy over the attention the unborn child and the expecting mother are receiving.
Other reasons women may stay:
1) She loves her partner, not the abuse. Sometimes the abuser is loving and caring. She thinks she can help her partner change. She hopes her partner will change and the abuse will end.
Post-conflict, an abusive partner often apologizes, acknowledges difficulties with anger and become the “great guy” the woman originally loved. Unless the partner commits to real change by seeking out long-term help though, tension will return to the relationship and the cycle of abuse begins again.
2) The abuse is minimized by family, friends and spiritual advisers. She is pressured to return. She believes the abuse is her fault. She is ashamed.
Many abusive partners have an engaging and sympathetic public persona, where it becomes hard for close family and friends to accept that there is an abusive relationship occurring behind closed doors. Sometimes the woman is asked, “What did you do to deserve it?” The common belief women and men contribute equally to the health or success of a relationship perpetuates the notion women are 50% responsible for any abuse occurring in the relationship. In the face of denial, a lack of support or poor self-esteem, women will return and remain in the abusive relationship much longer.
3) She feels committed to her marriage vows. She wants the children to grow up with a father. She wants to maintain the social status of being in a relationship. She is afraid to be alone or parent alone. She possibly believes a man is the head of the family and has the right to control her. She feels she will be blamed for “breaking up the marriage”.
4) Financial Security, Housing
Financial security is a common reason why women remain in abusive relationship for a long time. She simply does not have the resources to move out. She may not have access to the family money. Perhaps she has been out of the work force for an extended period. Her education or training might not be current. She might have to go on welfare, experience poverty and encounter stigma. She may lose her house and all the materials she has collected throughout her life. Housing rental rates for herself and her children can be prohibitive. She has worked hard to achieve a family home. She may wonder, “Why should I be the one who moves out?”
5) Racism, Discrimination, Stigma, Language Barriers
Indigenous women and women from visible minority groups may not call mainstream authorities for assistance, fearing potential racism and a lack of cultural safety. There may be internal community pressure to solve problems involving domestic violence within the community and for the women not to seek “outside” solutions.
Women, who are unwell, disabled, or experiencing varying levels of mental wellness, including depression and/or addiction, are vulnerable to misrepresentation on the part of the abuser. These women fear no one will believe their claims of abuse and would be considered an “unreliable witness”. If the woman is a mother, she likely fears losing custody of her children if it is established she is “crazy”.
One of the most powerful tools an abusive partner has in their power and control arsenal is threats to the woman if she attempts to leave the relationship. Threats may include harming, abducting or getting sole custody of the children, harm to family pets, her other family members or threats to dispose of family assets. Immigrant and refugee women are threatened with deportation or having their family harmed in their country of origin. Sometimes a desperate partner may threaten suicide if the woman acts to leave. She may believe that her partner is incapable of getting along without her.
Finally, an abusive partner may threaten the woman with rape, disfigurement, or death. When such threats accompany a pattern of escalation in the other abuses she experiences, especially if he has access to weapons, the woman is at high risk of bodily harm or even death, at the hands of her partner.
While British Columbia has a “Violence Against Women In Relationships” policy guiding its criminal justice system and this same policy mandates governmental agencies to work with community partners to make it easier for women to safely leave a violent relationship, it is also easy to see, in the face of such danger and hardships listed above, why women may choose to remain or return to their abusive relationship. At the Howe Sound Women’s Centre, we work from a philosophy that women are experts in their own safety, and it is our job to be accessible when women experiencing violence have questions or have come to the conclusion they are ready to make a change.
If you are experiencing violence in your relationship, please call our 24 hour support line 604-892-5711 or 1-877-890-5711 and a trained, non-judgmental support worker will help guide you through your options, even if you are not ready to end the relationship.