The Blame Game

By Jennifer Reeder

When I was in my early twenties, I lived in a crummy apartment complex in Maui. Most of the other tenants were like me: young restaurant servers happy to be living in Hawaii. I became friends with a woman on my floor named "Paula," who lived with her boyfriend of several years, "Dan."

Unfortunately, Dan drank a lot. Many nights I'd hear them screaming at each other, or things hitting the walls. One night, Paula came to my door with a bloody lip and a black eye. Dan had locked her out, and she just wanted to wash her face. She kept saying that he was only violent when he was drunk, and that the rest of the time he was really "sweet." She didn't want to leave him; she just wanted him to get help for his alcoholism.

A few days later, I discussed the situation with a mutual friend. "Why doesn't she leave him?" I asked in frustration. "It's more complicated than that when you're in an abusive relationship," the friend said. "I know - I used to be in one."

Domestic violence is everywhere - and it can happen to anyone. A woman is battered every 12 seconds in the United States. Often, it seems obvious that the safest thing for abused women to do is to leave their boyfriend, husband, or partner.

It's actually a lot more complicated than that.

Last September, I trained to become a volunteer at Alternative Horizons. I learned that there are myriad reasons why women in abusive relationships don't "just leave." Maybe her religious views prevent her from breaking the sacrament of marriage. Maybe her partner has threatened to kill her, her children, her parents, or her pets if she leaves. (As Roseann pointed out, when he says he'll kill her, her experience with abuse shows it's not an empty threat.) Maybe he controls their money. Maybe she can't take time off from work to go to the courthouse. Maybe he's threatened to turn her in to immigration, or in the case of a homosexual relationship, out him or her. Maybe he has isolated her, so that she doesn't have a car or a place to stay. Maybe she has compassion for him because he was once abused. Maybe she fears people's disapproval that she stayed for so long before finally leaving. Maybe she has a disability that presents unique challenges. Maybe he has connections with drug dealers who might come after her. Maybe he is well respected in the community, so she thinks no one will believe her.

I wish I'd known that the best way to help women - or men - in abusive relationships is to offer support. I hope you can learn from my mistakes. If you know someone in an abusive relationship, start by listening instead of jumping in with advice. Find out what she needs to feel safe, and what she's done in the past to protect herself and her children. Remember to ask, "How can I help you?" and suggest she call our 24-hour hotline at 247-4374.

By pushing my idea of what Paula should do - leave - I wasn't helping her at all. What she needed was someone to listen and let her come to her own decisions about how to stay safe. What she didn't need was additional pressure from someone who was supposed to be a friend. Because of my lack of understanding, when Paula and Dan were evicted for repeated noise violations and moved to a new apartment, our friendship basically fizzled out. If only I had known that I shouldn't have been asking "Why doesn't she leave?" As domestic violence advocates say, I should have been asking, "Why does he abuse her…and why doesn't he let her leave?"