Your Turn: Survivors need to be supported, not judged
“You’re stuck in my head and I can’t get you out of it/If I could do it all again/I know I’d go back to you.”
These are the lyrics to the recent Selena Gomez hit “Back to You.” I heard this song on the radio while driving my children to school the other day. As I reflected on these lyrics, and on the stories and situations of survivors who have come through the doors of The Willow Domestic Violence Center, where I work, I thought about friends who have had similar conversations with me over the years. I thought about how often they have been called stupid, or co-dependent, or told they were “asking for it” because they didn’t leave or they went back to the relationship.
We are prone to victim blaming. When we hear that a survivor of domestic violence or human trafficking has gone back to the abuser, we shake our heads and ask ourselves, “Why don’t they just leave?” This is inevitably followed by statements like “They need to help themselves” or “They like the drama,” and suddenly the abuser is erased from the scenario. The victim assumes all of the responsibility. No one is asking what the abuser is going to do to stop the abuse, or, better yet, never start. It’s always the responsibility of the victim to survive and thrive despite.
People stay in abusive situations for many reasons. They are worried about the safety of their children. Past trauma, mental health issues and physical health issues often stand in the way of independence and safety. They are told by their abusers a litany of self-esteem destroying insults: “You’re too stupid/fat/ugly/uneducated/weak to be on your own.” Some survivors are denied access to their own wages and money, and are isolated from family and close friends. They are taught to distrust everyone. They are threatened with backlash that is physical, emotional and financial. Their situations are often deadly. Seventy-five percent of intimate partner homicides happen AFTER the separation has occurred. Survivors often know that it is actually safer to stay than to leave.
Yet, the notion persists that victims are to blame. Statistics tell us that on average survivors will try to leave nine times before they exit the relationship completely and permanently. Anne, a survivor we served recently, told us, “I feel so powerless. I know he will find me. I know he’ll never leave me alone. It makes more sense to just go back.” She and her four children are once again living in fear in the home of her abuser, because she cannot find the finances or support network it takes for long-term change, nor does she believe she will ever be allowed to leave safely.
Abusers seek to put as many barriers as they can between their victim and their victim’s community. Sometimes, leaving is not a safe solution. Survivors need our support, not our criticism. They need us to believe them, to get involved, and to demand an end to interpersonal violence.
I ask our community to please take a hard look at our beliefs, words and biases regarding survivors of abuse. Trust them and support them. No one is helped by “Why didn’t they just leave?”
— Megan Stuke is executive director of The Willow Domestic Violence Center.