The CCTV footage is fuzzy and jerky. The imagery it shows is chilling. A man and woman make their way into an elevator. There is some shoving before the man punches the woman once, then again. The second hit knocks her head into a hand railing and she falls to the floor, unconscious.
The video, published in September 2014, of NFL player Ray Rice with his then-fiancée and now wife Janay Palmer went viral. While the league flip-flopped on its view of the incident, an equal, if not greater, amount of controversy surrounded Janay Palmer’s decision to stay engaged to and even expedite her marriage to Rice.
On Twitter, the hashtags #whyistayed and, conversely, #whyileft were born. Writer Beverly Gooden, a domestic violence survivor herself, started #whyistayed to highlight the tendency of the public to oversimplify the issue and to blame the victim. Scores of women took to social media to relay, in 140 character bites, the unique complexities that affected their individual choices in abusive relationships. There were a myriad of reasons for staying and, in the tweets of some of the women, reasons for eventually leaving:
He taught me I was worthless, couldn’t do any better. #whyistayed
I was told marriage is forever. I didn’t want to be a failure. #whyistayed
Though I was the sole wage earner, everything was in his name. I had no credit rating. Nobody’d rent to me. #whyistayed
Because I thought if I loved him enough he would stop. #whyistayed Because I knew he would kill me eventually. #whyileft
#whyistayed I promised to give him 5 years after he hit me the first time. #whyileft My daughter tried to kill herself when she was 4.
In varying degrees, a combination of psychological and emotional forces along with situational factors influence a victim’s decision-making. Children, financial dependence, hope for change, shame, and having nowhere to go are among the reasons most often cited for staying in an abusive situation. Breaking free is never a mere matter of walking out the door.
And then there is the potential lethality of the violence cycle. The chance of deadly violence is actually greater for those victims who leave. Between 50% and 70% of intimate partner homicides occur at the point of separation or after the end of the relationship. Why? According to a 2015 TEDx speech by domestic violence survivor Leslie Morgan Steiner, it is because at that point ‘…the abuser has nothing left to lose.’
For women living with abuse, the choice to leave is often the single most difficult and harrowing, not to mention dangerous, decision they will make in their lives. As outsiders looking in, it is impossible to judge reasoning or motivation. It is not our place to question why. Instead, should a woman determine the time has come to break away, society’s role has to be in helping her figure out the answers to how she might safely make that happen.