“Why doesn’t she leave him?” This was the topic of a Ted Talk that I watched recently. In that talk, Laura Morgan Steiner shared her story of being abused by her first husband. The abuse not only included physical beatings but also having loaded guns held to her head as he threatened to end her life. She stated that she did not initially view herself as a “victim of domestic violence” but as someone who deeply loved a man struggling to overcome his demons from an abusive past. She thought she could help him. She finally left him after a “sadistic beating” one night and then she told everyone who would listen. In the final minutes of her talk, she lists some tips on how to help your family or friends leave.
The first thing to know is that it is incredibly dangerous to leave an abuser. The final step in the domestic violence pattern is “Kill her.” Laura Morgan Steiner stated that over seventy percent (70%) of domestic violence murders happen after the woman ended the relationship. Other outcomes include long-term stalking, denial of financial resources, and manipulation of the family court system to force the children to spend unsupervised parenting time with the man who regularly beats their mother. There are steps you can take to help your family member and friend leave an abusive relationship even in the face of danger or the prospect of unsupervised parenting time for their children.
The first step is to support her confidence in her ability to leave and to leave safely. I have recently spoken to several individuals trying to break free and the reason that they say that they lack confidence to leave is access to financial resources. Abuse is not physical but includes control over finances. If your friend has been restricted from working, understand that this was a way to control her financial freedom. In order to know that she can leave, she must be confident that she can financially support herself and her children without living on the street as he will have repeatedly told her that she could not survive without him. This fear of being worse off without him than with him is what may be preventing her from having the confidence that she can leave.
The second step is to develop a clear and safe plan for her to leave. This might not happen on your timeframe. She may need to save money, often a dollar here and five dollars there to build up enough funds to leave and not worry about the money. She will need to know how to leave safely, where she can go, what she needs to do to keep him away, and what can she do. All this planning will be scary for her. Offer to help research what is available in her area. Help her set up a secret bank account where she can deposit funds. Research what she needs to do to file a personal protection order. She may have spent years to be told what to do, what to wear, and where she can go. Breaking free and making her own decisions will frighten her. Remember, as she plans, she will need her confidence buoyed up by your loving support and not judgmental statements of contempt for her circumstances or choices.
The third step is developing a commitment to leave. Leaving is frightening. Your friend will remember everything that he said he would do if she left him or how inept she is and cannot make it on her own. She will need you to bolster her commitment to leave. Ask your friend why she wants to leave and when she wavers remind her gently of her words that she said for wanting a better life. She may have told you that if he hits her one more time. Do you know if those words were her commitment to leave or words that she said to pacify you? Unless she has begun planning to leave the relationship, you cannot be certain of her level of commitment to leave. It is not uncommon for the level of commitment to waver as she struggles with the love that she feels for him and her need for safety. This is not a black or white situation for her, your friend is seeing the relationship in shades of grey that are affected by his words and actions as well. The best thing you can do for her is to not bully her into leaving or offer ultimatums to her.
The final step in deciding to leave is the exercise of courage. This will take time for her to muster and exercise. She may test her own courage in small steps, such as developing a plan, confronting her abuser, seeking out professional help, saying something to a friend about what is happening, or saving money in secret. If each one of these steps works out for her without repercussions, then she will move forward toward leaving him. But if she fails in any exercise of courage, it could reinforce what he tells her about how weak or stupid she is. If your friend comes to you and tells you of the abuse that she has been enduring, do not judge or tell her what to do. Ask what you can do to help her. Reaffirm her worth as a person. Offer to be a safe shelter for her, if you can or research where she can go after she leaves. With nearly 20 people every minute experiencing domestic violence by an intimate partner. This equates to about 10 million women and men each year. It is bound to affect someone that you know and love. She may not have the courage to tell anyone, but she needs to know no matter what you are there for her. Since October is domestic violence awareness month, take one action to learn more about domestic violence and what you can do to help a friend in an abusive relationship.