As a survivor of both parent and partner perpetrated domestic violence, and now as a counsellor, I feel obliged to address and hopefully put an end to the age-old question... "Why doesn't she just leave?"
To begin with, can I remind you that if it was as easy as just leaving the toxic and abusive relationship, women would do it in a heartbeat.
What outside observers don't know is that the reasons women don't leave run much deeper than just fear or self-doubt. The reality is, abusive relationships almost always involve power and coercive control, both of which can severely limit a woman's choices in ending and fleeing the relationship.
In addition to this, there are often also psychological, psychosocial and financial factors that influence a woman's choice to stay or to go. Add to this the effects of Stockholm syndrome and complex trauma bonding and suddenly it starts to make sense why she would stay in the relationship for longer than what most people would consider as 'normal' or 'healthy'.
For many women, the thought of leaving has likely crossed their mind time and time again. But the reality is, unless the time is right and unless she is emotionally prepared to take a huge, and often blind, step into her new and largely unknown reality, it won't happen. In that regard, making the choice to safely leave an abusive, controlling or violent relationship is often about the timing, the 'waiting for stars to align'.
The other factor that many in the community fail to understand when judging women who remain in toxic relationships for long periods of time, is that for most women experiencing abuse, violence and control, leaving is often the most dangerous time. The time when abuse and violence often escalate to previously unseen levels.
For many, the fear of the inevitable unknown becomes greater than the fear of the known and this is very telling of the stress and trauma these women endure.
So, the next time you hear a woman's story of abuse, or the next time you find yourself having to support a woman experiencing domestic violence, I implore you to reflect on your completely understandable lack of insight and try, just for a moment, to restrain from judging the woman for her choices.
This sort of judgement and shaming can further erode a woman's confidence, which may already be at an all-time low.
Instead, what helps is to show empathy, remain non-judgemental and to demonstrate unconditional positive regard for the woman, regardless of her choices.
Ultimately, the most powerful show of support is to shift your language from "Why didn't she just leave?" to "Why did he do this to her?". Or from "What's wrong with her?" to "What happened to her?".
These statements go a long way towards putting the blame back where it belongs. That is, with the perpetrator, and not with the woman.
- Erica is a counsellor who works exclusively with women over 18. Her private practice is located in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. You can read more about her work at www.shecounselling.com.au. She can be contacted at email@example.com, on 0412 707 242 or via socials @shecounselling.