Why Didn’t She Walk Out?

By asking that of a woman in an abusive relationship,we ignore the reality of violence and absolve society of its responsibility to protect women

Written by Nandita Saikia | Published:June 23, 2013 11:51 pm

I believe that violence travels through generations,with each generation becoming trained to accept some degree of abuse in intimate and marital relationships,within natal families,from acquaintances and by strangers. When there are (or appear to be) no options available,abuse becomes the norm. I don’t believe in the possibility of living life entirely free of abuse; the odds are simply not in my favour considering crime rates and anecdotal evidence.

Popular myth says that women who do not belong to the “lower classes” escape abuse (whether physical or otherwise). In all probability,the myth achieves nothing apart from making it that much harder for testimonies of abuse (which do not fit into acceptable stereotype) to be considered credible. Abuse (especially within domestic and intimate relationships) amongst the so-called upper classes is rarely spoken of. The only people who have a voice are the privileged and,for the most part,the privileged do not speak of abuse faced by their own,unless it is perpetrated by someone of a “lower class”. Some are,of course,perpetrators of abuse themselves. Others largely choose to ignore that they know anyone who is abusive. The standard response when hearing of abuse within one’s own circle is often,“That’s not the man I know. ”

Unsurprisingly,if no one acknowledges knowing anyone who is abusive within their own circle,the abuse itself becomes invisible. And the fact that abuse can truly be invisible to a casual bystander,in the absence of obvious physical injury,doesn’t help matters.

As a general rule,abusive relationships do not begin as abusive relationships,not to mention that once abuse begins,it may not necessarily follow patterns which resemble the generally accepted “cycle of violence” (that roughly goes from a honeymoon period to a tension-building stage followed by an abusive episode and back again). Also,although women may be obliged to participate in abuse against themselves by their abusers,contrary to popular belief,women do not teach abusive men how to treat them.

In abusive situations,I have never once seen a cycle involving a honeymoon period. And,despite persistently feeling unsafe,I have never made the attempt to leave an abusive situation simply because it never occurred to me that leaving was an option even though there have been times when,by any “objective” standard,I’ve had the resources to be able do so. And I probably would have if I hadn’t lost myself.

That’s something which often isn’t clear to people who are not in an abusive situation: it isn’t entirely about abusive episodes alone,relentless or not. It can also be about having your identity chipped away at till you no longer know who you are,till you can see nothing good in yourself (assuming you can see yourself at all),and till your entire being is consumed with nothing beyond doing whatever it takes not to “provoke” (so it seems to you) more abuse — which,as it turns out,is invariably impossible because the bar is always set higher and higher,setting you up to fail,eroding a little bit more of yourself each time you “invite” more abuse by failing. It may seem as though the only person who can make you feel better is the abuser,and you could easily become more and more desperate for validation from,ironically,the one person who’s left you in pieces and who is supremely unlikely to ever give you any validation. Except that you may not see that,and the thought of leaving may not occur to you. It may not even occur to you to define abuse as abuse at the time.

This is obviously not the only reason why women remain in abusive situations; there are other stories too,and the list of obstacles women face when it comes to leaving abusive situations is seemingly endless ,and may include issues relating to custody,potential homelessness or bankruptcy,and societal expectations.

What I’ve learnt is asking ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ is one of the most unproductive questions it is possible to ask,not to mention one of the most intrusive — women who are abused do not generally choose to be in or stay in abusive situations because they have any particular desire to do so or to be abused. If there are questions which need to be asked,they are questions which address why an abuser was abusive,how an abuser can be stopped from being abusive,and what society and state could do to attempt to keep from failing to provide women who have been (or are being) abused the infrastructure and support required to be able to safely exit abusive situations.

Abuse is not a relationship problem; it is a legal offence,if not a crime. To place the onus entirely on a woman who has been abused to leave an abusive situation is ridiculous. If not anything else,in the case of abusive relationships,the time when a woman leaves and immediately after is likely to be the most unsafe time for her. Even if one has the best of intentions,and is attempting to respect the autonomy of a woman who has been subjected to abuse,unless that respect is coupled with an understanding of abuse it “can too easily lapse into a hands-off approach”,as the American journalist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano has explained.

The degree of autonomy and capability which women in abusive situations have is questionable,to say the least,making it difficult to leave and to follow oft-repeated advice to ‘file a case if he’s abusive’.

Sadly,autonomy doesn’t magically reappear in full force upon no longer being in an abusive situation. It isn’t necessarily about just about the “big” things; it’s also about the “small” stuff. Getting up in the morning and deciding whether to fry an egg or boil it could seem like a daunting decision to have to make — when your sense of self is eroded,having to make even the most insignificant decisions can potentially feel like having to face a series of insurmountable obstacles.

Being in an abusive situation feels a little like being imprisoned. You take each day as it comes,and focus on surviving that day without considering anything but the present. It’s only later,when you’re no longer in an abusive situation,that it’s possible to truly make sense of the past,to connect seemingly independent events so as to view the past as a coherent whole (in all its wretchedness) — something it may have been impossible to do whilst still in an abusive situation simply because of having had to focus on getting through each day independently. And,for exactly the same reason,constructing a vision of the future could seem every bit as difficult as making sense of the past.

It may feel as though there is no future when one is in an abusive situation; there may just be the present. Once one is no longer in an abusive situation,accepting the past and integrating one’s knowledge of it with what one imagines of the future isn’t easy. It’s a long,often arduous,journey which (even if one is lucky enough to have support) is not made any easier by the seeming omnipresence of triggers that have the potential to remind one of abuse.

Knowing that there may not have been much you could have done to change the course of events in the past detracts from the “kindergarten spirituality” (to borrow a term Mark Doty used in Heaven’s Coast in another context) which enables all of us to believe that each one of us alone charts the course of our own life. The only person responsible for the course of abuse is the abuser.

Nandita Saikia is a Delhi-based media and technology lawyer. A version of this piece first appeared on her blog

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