The Big Question: Why Did You Stay?

The Big Question: Why Did You Stay? A question which should never be asked of DV survivors, and question which is all too often asked of DV survivors. Answered. www.bettysbattleground.com
The Big Question.

The question everybody wants to ask survivors of long-term domestic violence. The question nobody should ever ask a survivor of domestic violence: Why did you stay?

Why
Did
You
Stay?

Look, I get it. If you’ve never experienced relationship violence, it doesn’t seem to make sense that a person would stay in an abusive relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, however, more than 75% of women between the ages of 18 and 49 are abused by the same partner more than once. That means that the majority of women who have been assaulted by their lover, return to their lover. So it can’t just be that we are all pathetic, liars, or masochistic.  There has to be something more.

Which has actually been recognized among the psychological community for years. Yet despite the abundance of information now available to the public about this subject, the question still gets asked. All the time. And it shouldn’t be. It is a really hurtful question to ask a survivor of domestic violence. Even when your intentions are based out of genuine concern and curiosity, and even when you are a beloved confidant, “why did you stay?” sounds to us like “it’s your fault that you were abused.” We already have to battle the shame that comes with feeling like our abuse was our fault. We don’t need anybody reinforcing it, however unintentionally.

So I am going to now answer The Big Question: Why Did You Stay?
I am not a psychological expert. I don’t claim to have professional expertise about the complex emotional and psychological factors with which all DV victims contend. If what you’re seeking is an expert opinion, I recommend visiting one of the sites I linked in the paragraph above, or reading one of the resources I link in the Amazon banner at the end of this post.

What I can offer is first-hand, honest testimony and an answer the question as it applies to my life.  Why did I stay? Which seems to be what a lot of people want to hear judging by how often this question is asked of me.

If you have ever felt compelled to ask me or another survivor the question “Why did you stay,” please, continue reading. And then, when you’re finished, don’t ever ask a survivor this question again.


Why do victims of domestic violence stay in abusive relationships? Find out one survivor's reasons on www.bettysbattleground.com

That’s me in that graphic, by the way. It’s actually a little disturbing for me to look at my enlarged, melancholic eyes staring out at me from beneath an all-caps banner demanding to know: “WHY DID YOU STAY?”

Nervous rambling aside, let’s get to the answers.

The first answer that I can give is that I was vulnerable. All of his victims were. In my case, I was young, and inexperienced. I was actually a virgin. I am certain that The Ex has more victims than I know about, but of the ones I do know about, they were:

-A Japanese international student who was still struggling to learn English, and though not a minor, was also reportedly a virgin
-A fifteen year old homeless heroin addict
-A thirteen year old homeless runaway and IV meth user (reportedly not a virgin; he excused what he did as “okay” because she was “already molested by her uncle”), and
-Me: A fifteen year old psychedelic peddling, multi-substance addict from a broken home

He impregnated all but one of us.

Abusers are not out of control. Their abuse is intentional. My abuser was particularly adept at selecting victims who he could easily manipulate into recanting and underreporting his abuse. The Ex was a felon with a long arrest history, but before I finally testified against him, he had never been to prison.  Do you want to know what he did to the girl before me, the international student who is now the mother of his second child? He held her in a basement for several days, duct taped her to a bed, and raped her. I’ve heard that he was arrested by a SWAT team. But Akie, who spoke little English, was understandably terrified, and this doubled when she learned that she was pregnant, so she fled back to Japan and never testified in court. They had to let him go.

The first reason that I stayed? I was selected to stay.

On top of that, he groomed me. You’ve probably heard that term on Law & Order: SVU or some other cop show. It doesn’t mean brushing hair. It’s what older men do to the kids they want to fuck. Basically, the predator behaves in a way which is appealing to the victim until she is, in effect, “under his spell” and can be manipulated by him. By the time he engages in outright abuse, she is already so under his control that escaping or sending him to jail is out of the question. Although grooming is a technique usually associated with pedophiliac/hebephiliac/ephebophiliac relationships, I think that even age appropriate abusers do it. The point is that one person is in a position of power over the other, and age is only one possible factor in that dynamic. The Ex groomed me by doing or saying things which made me feel mature and equal,  like repeating every angsty teenager’s favorite  mantra, “age is just a number,” and then letting me in on the top-secret details of his latest criminal endeavor. Validation was a big deal to me. His grooming worked.

I met The Ex when I was fourteen, had my first intimate encounter with him when I was fifteen, and began dating him when I was sixteen. I was seventeen the first time he hit me. There was a lot of time for him to manipulate me. Don’t get me wrong: He was abusive before he hit me. Obviously, he sexually abused me, though at the time I thought that it was romantic when he whisked me to a hotel and ordered two beds so that the front desk clerk didn’t know we’d only be using one. After we began dating, and even before then, he would make subtle degrading comments. I was already a depressive teenager with an unhealthy family background and a history of body dysmorphia. I didn’t need the man I was falling in love with making comments about how my body wasn’t womanly enough (which was maybe because I, uh, wasn’t yet a woman). He also started acting physically aggressive, by pushing me and threatening me, before he ever hit me. Those things were scary, but I didn’t get hurt, so that meant they were okay, right? His deliberately slow escalation lead me to accept increasingly aggressive behavior, so that by the time he forced me into a motel room under knife-point and beat me for three days, I’d already given him so much license, it wasn’t that hard to give him a little more.

Wait.

Hold up.

Forced me into a motel room under knife-point and beat me for three days? Did that happen?

Yes. At the Sea-Tac Super 8 shortly after my seventeenth birthday. We’d been planning to stay there together, because he was homeless and my mom wouldn’t let him stay at her apartment anymore (yes, she had let him stay with us for a couple months), but when he told me that I looked like a “whore” because of the oversized, dumpster-dived brown tweed coat I was wearing, I decided I didn’t want to go anymore.

In response, he pulled out a knife, held it against my back, and demanded that I get on my bike. I don’t remember the face of the random bystander who witnessed this, but I remember the sound of his laughter. I hope that it haunts him too.

The Ex chased me on his bike, switch blade pressed between palm and bike handle, shouting at me to go faster. I remember the feel of my pedals as they spun out of control beneath my feet, The Ex shouting at me to keep pedaling, keep pedaling, even as we sped down the steep incline of Denny Way. He directed me onto a bus, and then wrapped himself, sweating, around me, while I stared out the window in a daze.

When we got to the room, he beat me so hard I literally saw stars. I remember thinking that the cartoons were real. You really saw stars if you got hit in the head hard enough! He hit me and punched me and bit me, and when it was over I had a swollen black eye. After that, he panicked. He told me that if I didn’t use my money, money I’d won from a poetry contest and had been given for my recent birthday, to pay for another night, and then another, he’d tie me up in the woods until my eye healed.  He beat me the entire time, and my black eye never healed, but on the third day, I came up with a story that he considered plausible enough to let me go.

He escorted me to the nearby payphone and let me call my mom, who had reported me missing. My voice must have sounded so tinny and distant, explaining to her that I’d been in a car accident,but I was okay. I’d been at my friend’s house in a suburb of Tacoma, a city adjacent to my own, and not easily accessed my public transportation. My friend’s cellphone had broken. I’d had trouble finding a ride. But I’d be home tonight.

Already, my mind was engaged in a lie. Already, I was denying the reality of what happened.

By the time he actually set me free, maintaining the lie was the most important part of my reality. I had never been hit before, by anyone. Before then, being beaten had been the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. I was in shock. My mind found solace in the storytelling, and did not return to reality for years.

I stayed because staying was a form of denial. Staying was a way of saying, it wasn’t so bad. No one would stay if it was really bad, right? So if I could stay, then what had happened could not be so terrible.

But it was. It was terrible, and I was terrified.
A huge reason I stayed, was that I was afraid.

The Ex did not want to go to prison. Avoiding arrest was his top priority. I have police transcripts of voicemails he left me threatening to kill me if I testified against him. Those voicemails ultimately got him charged with Witness Tampering, but it took four years of abuse and harassment for a charge to stick. I am now engaged in a custody battle with him, in which he insists that the fact that I called the police so few times, and recanted most of the times that I did, is proof that I am lying about the extent of his abuse.

Of course, that’s not true. It’s actually proof that his abuse was so extreme, I was too terrified to testify. Besides the fact that many victims of domestic violence recant, I was especially vulnerable to this phenomenon because I was young and inexperienced. When the prosecutor told me that she could not guarantee his detention, I did not recognize it as a standard legal disclaimer. To me, it sounded like: “Even if you testify, he’s going to go free, and then he’ll kill you for speaking out against him.” When the prosecutor did talk numbers, she would tell me that if I agreed to testify, he would likely take a plea deal, which would land him a handful of months in jail. Not even prison. A couple months in jail. That wasn’t enough time to get away, or get strong, or come up with a safety plan. I couldn’t testify. I couldn’t leave him. I was too afraid.

And then there was my conditioning. I was a highly competitive youth, and addicted to the win. My first poem was published when I was five. By age eight, I had been published in the prestigious Sow’s Ear, a poetry magazine to which established adults aspire for publication. By the end of my freshman year of high school I’d had three public staged readings at two established Seattle theatres. And those are just the big highlights. I liked winning. I was used to it.

I had fallen in love with The Ex. I had chosen him. Not only that, I had vouched for him. When rumors began to circulate about what he had done to the Japanese woman, I had already spent enough time with him to like him, and not enough time with him to hate him. I had been learning the basics of html. I built a crappy little webpage on one of those dinky free servers that were popular in the early 2000’s, and depicted Akie as a mentally incompetent liar. At the bottom, in big red Comic Sans, I wrote “FREE HIM NOW.” I remembered the page a few months after he began beating me, and deleted it, but I’m certain it exists in perpetuity on some web server somewhere.

Likewise, a homeless tweaker, Breed, tried to warn me about The Ex holding a thirteen year old girl against her will in the rented garage he was living in. I looked that man straight in the eyes and said “No. He would never do that. I swear on my life.”

I will never forget the look on Breed’s face. It was a look I would see often on the faces of many of The Ex’s friends and acquaintances when they met me. I recognize that look now as ineffable pity.

Maybe I stayed because it was my karma, after vouching for him so blindly.

"Why did you stay" is a question that everybody wants to ask survivors of long term domestic violence, and which nobody should ever ask survivors of domestic violence. Find out why one survivor stayed...and then don't ever ask the questions again, on: www.bettysbattleground.comMaybe I stayed because to leave would have been to admit failure. To leave would mean I was a loser. After all that I had suffered, after the beatings, the cheating, the strangulation, the seizures, the nights stayed up wondering where he was, the drug use behind my back after I got clean; after all that, the least I was owed was my prize. My guy; the one I’d chosen. At least I should have him.  I stayed because I thought I could, one day, win by changing him. I could win his love. I stayed because it would have broken my pride to leave. It did, in the end,  but by the time I left, I had a son who was more important than my pride.

And then there was love.

Yes, I loved him.

Looking back, I am certain that my psychotic devotion was rooted in the fact that he’d gotten me hooked on meth. We started hanging out a lot when I was fifteen and he was in his 20s. He and his tweaker friends intimidated me into taking my first hit of meth. Don’t get me wrong: I willingly ingested a lot of psychoactive chemicals when I was a kid, including some you probably haven’t even heard of, but uppers were not my thing. I’d seen what meth did to people, and always avoided it. The Ex’s friends acted like they were going to think I was a ‘narc’ if I didn’t do it with them. These were big, scary, prison-hardened guys. And then there was The Ex; high, bouncing around, somehow making nervousness look charming, telling me to “try it, just try it.” I took the hit.

The day after doing meth for the first time, The Ex offered me heroin to help ease the comedown. I declined that, but ended up getting addicted to speed with him for a couple years. He was a hardcore addict, so smoking with him meant a LOT of dope. Imagine a 98 pound, 15 year old girl doing methamphetamine for the first time in the quantities of a seasoned, adult addict. I went into amphetamine psychosis more than once, but that is a topic for another day. The point here is that my infatuation with The Ex was fueled not only by the chaos of teenage hormones, but also by the dopamine surge his drugs induced. My brain became hardwired to associate this man with extreme, unnatural pleasure. I became addicted to him. I had to get clean from meth before I could even begin to contemplate leaving him.

So I loved him that way: With unnatural devotion and addicted zeal. The Ex was, truly, like a god to me. I could not live without him. When he would disappear on his three-day tweaker/sex/whatever rampages, I would wander the streets, the coldness of the wind cutting into me and whistling through an emptiness I could feel, really feel, in the center of my stomach. How could I not stay? Without him I was empty.

Finally, I stayed because I didn’t want to be fucked up by the abuse. I didn’t want to process those memories and end up developing some terrible, lifelong disorder like PTSD.The reasons why people stay in abusive relationships are complex and various...Find out one woman's reasons at www.bettysbattleground.com Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: You don’t get it until the trauma is over.  That’s why I didn’t start to manifest symptoms until after I had moved across the country to go to college. That’s why I wasn’t diagnosed until after my son turned one, and The Ex was packed away to prison for over eight hundred counts of Violation of a No Contact Order and Witness Tampering. Before then I knew the abuse was bad. Of course I knew it was bad. I knew it would scar me. I knew I’d have to work through it. And I didn’t want to.

As bad as being abused was, I didn’t have PTSD yet. I could still feel joy and love and excitement as pure, fully realized emotions. I could still dream, and believe in my dreams. I was afraid, but only of The Ex. Now, with PTSD, I am afraid of phantoms, of random thoughts, of wood left unknocked, or bottles facing the wrong direction; I am afraid of the eyes of strangers, I am afraid of telephone calls, I am afraid to be seen, to exist, to live. To love. Which is worse? To be afraid of one man, or the entire universe?

Why did I stay? I stayed to protect myself. From the soul-hurt and daily ravage and unquenchable fear that marks life after trauma.

I stayed because when I left him, and walked into life with PTSD, I lost a piece of myself, a piece of my humanity, which I fear I will never regain.

If this post touched you, please check out these DV and trauma resources (affiliate links; disclaimer at bottom of page)

Please, if you were someone who used to victim blame, or wondered why women stayed in abusive relationships, and reading this post helped change your thinking, take a moment to leave me a comment and tell me how.

Further questions? Leave a comment and I will do my best to answer…but you have to promise that you won’t ask “why did you stay” to another survivor ever again 😉

Thank you for reading.


49 thoughts on “The Big Question: Why Did You Stay?

  1. Wow, woman. You pulled me right in. You are inspiring for writing this out and setting it free because it WILL help other women and also help you in the process. Not the same story as yours, but I can relate very deeply with your dealing with your healing and PTSD –why you avoided healing for so long. You’re understood. It still comes in waves for me and I think I’ll be purging for quite some time still, but writing has helped me a lot as well. Like you, the birth of my son pushed me to face my past to break free and be healthy for him. Keep telling your story, as many times, in as many different ways as you need to until you’re free. You have my support. Going to read your other post now too xo

    • Paige, I am so sorry to hear that you are working through trauma too. There are too many of us, it happens too much. That’s another reason why we need to keep talking about it, yes! We need to let the world know we exist,we’re not invisible, and we are not going to be silent anymore! Thank you for both of your kind comments. <3

  2. Most women stay bcoz they do not know what is the right step to do… No experiene…. Could not dare…. Or may be afraid to take bold step to make yourself free.

    • Well, I think it’s a lot more complex than that, which is why I wrote the post. To talk about the reasons. Yes, fear factored in. I didn’t bring that up in this post because I covered a lot of big things already, but that is a good point. When I did come up with the courage to call the police, prosecutors (the people who were supposed to want him arrested!) would tell me that they couldn’t guarantee he’d do time (I know now that this was a legal disclaimer, but it was pretty scary to me then), and then that if he took a deal (likely) he’d do very lttle time. Like a few months. And I was terrified that he would come out and kill me. So yes, fear was a definitely a factor. Thanks for reminding me. Maybe I’ll edit that in. And you’re right also that this subject is not talked about enough so most people in these situations have no idea that there are resources available or how to access them. Sometimes they are afraid to access them because of what could happen if they are caught. It’s a very unempowering situation.

  3. Thank you for sharing. Sometimes I find that getting your thoughts down really puts things in perspective and can help others. Your writing is so powerful! It might sound weird to say this but I enjoyed reading and learning about something I didn’t know much about before. <3

    • That’s not weird at all, and thank you for leaving a comment. I also enjoy reading and learning about perspectives and experiences that differ from my own. I’m glad that you were able to learn something from this post:)

  4. Hey lady,
    Wow. Just wow. You are a strong woman. While obtaining my nursing degree, I took a hand-full of psych classes (totally not my thing but I’m thankful for people who are cut out for those types of careers…) and we learned a lot of general info about this subject. But reading your account helped me to understand it so much more because of your willingness to share specifics – to share the thoughts behind the decisions. It’s not fair what happened to you, and I’m ever so sorry for it. I’m praying that you come to a place of healing and freedom from the past. I’m not sure what that would look like or even if it seems possible to you, but I’ll keep on asking! xo

  5. I was the victim of verbal and mental abuse. I srated because I didn’t think I could afford living on my own. After a suicide attempt by my ex thst he eventually admitted was “to get my attention” I decided that if I had to work 24 hours a day I was getting myself and my girls out of there. We did it . We are much better off and happier than we’ve ever been

    • Stephenie, thank you sharing a bit of your story with me here. Verbal and emotional abuse are certainly very distressing. And you are not alone in staying for financial reasons. That is a HUGE reason for a lot of women, and certainly not helped by our country’s sexist pay/daycare/maternity leave setup.

      This is not a commentary on your specific situation because I don’t know the details of your specific situation, but I generally have a lot of empathy for people who are genuinely suicidal, because I have been there. A lot of suicide attempts *are* demands for attention, because the person is in a lot of pain and really needs it. Of course, there’s a difference between trying to get attention because you need it, and trying to get attention because you want to manipulate or control someone.

      I am planning to write a post shedding some light on suicidality. Probably not my next post, because I try not to put super heavy posts back to back, but if you think it will interest you subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss it! (Join Betty’s Army on the sidebar) It may not apply to your situation because abusers have different reasons for that kind of behavior than abuse survivors, but who knows? Could still be a little informative, or at least interesting for you.

      Thank you for your comment 🙂 I am so sorry for what you went through, and glad you had the bravery to finally move on.

  6. This is so very well written, thank you for sharing. I am sorry that you went through that. No one deserves that. I didn’t have the physical abuse that you had, but I was in a 3 year emotionally abusive relationship, and it was the scariest time of my life. I stayed because I thought I was supposed to, that that was what love was, you stick with the person no matter what. When I was finally brave enough to stand up and say that I did not have to stay, the PTSD that followed the end of the relationship was scary. I still feel like a shell of a person sometimes, but I am proud of myself for moving forward, and for healing a little bit more each day. <3

  7. Thank you for sharing this traumatic account. It’s so brave of you to put your personal story out there to the world. Yes, you’ve been through horrific experiences, but wow, you’ve come out such a strong person. I hope for your child’s sake that you win your custody battle and that this horrific individual finds himself behind bars in the near future!

  8. Your writing is powerful and your story, intense. I’m so sorry you went through all of this but appreciate your candor and your mission to help others.

  9. This is heartbreaking. The line that struck me the most was ‘maybe I stayed because of karma, because I vouched for him’ please, please, please never let that thought enter your head again. He sounds like a master manipulator and you were so vulnerable, believing in him does not mean you deserve bad karma, it just shows how much of a grip he had on you. You are so brave and inspiring for sharing your story. I just hope that this piece breaks the spell for other people suffering in silence.

    • Thank you. It means a lot for you to say that. I guess it’s the last piece of the “it’s my fault” mentality that almost all survivors of relationship violence experience <3

  10. Wow. First I am so sorry that you had to go through this. Second, thank you for sharing your story. It sometimes may be so difficult to re live but stories and viewpoints like yours have the potential to save another woman.

  11. This was fascinating, shocking and terrifying to read! It is unthinkable for me to imagine what you went through and the damage caused. You are one brave lady! Thank you so much for sharing and I mean that sincerely. Keep spreading the understanding, it will help!

  12. Such a powerful post! I think it’s harder to leave than people make out. They don’t just physically abuse but mentally. They tell them they are useless, or nobody else will love them x

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure it is very difficult to be so open and vulnerable with your feelings and past experiences, but I’m sure your words will be helpful to so many. I appreciate reading your perspective.

  14. You are so brave for sharing this with us and I am glad that you are. I hope that by each word you typed on here, you were able to release some pent up emotions. I pray the best for you and complete healing.

  15. I think most people think it is an easy decision to just walk away, sitting as an outsider looking in, all the responses and actions are easily said, but if you have never been in the position yourself it is so much harder. A friend of mine went through an awful time with her now ex husband, he would beat her in places that none of us could see, infact if she had told us what he did, chances are we might not have believed her because they were school sweethearts and he was such a laugh, behind closed doors, well clearly a monster x

    • You are absolutely right. This is such a common phenomenon. Remember in the article I wrote that abusers are not out of control? This is another piece of evidence; they hit where no one can see, or in a way which doesn’t leave bruises. When my ex was finally arrested and sent to prison, it was for violating the no-contact order that was in place between us, but I tried to get him charged with strangling me to the point of partial seizure while I was holding the baby. Because there were no marks, the prosecutor wouldn’t charge him. And now he is trying to use those types of things to say I’m making it up, so that he can see or maybe even get custody of my son. The courts really, really fail women in this respect, and it seems to be an international phenomenon. I see that you’re in the UK; would you say the judicial system is supportive of people trying to leave violent relationships, or that they hinder them? What did your friend do? I’m so glad, by the way, to hear that he’s her EX husband.

    • Often true, but I’m curious as to how you feel this applies to this particular question. Can you elaborate?

  16. A shockingly powerful post and one that must have been very hard to write. It’s not always easy to just ‘walk away’. I admire your strength x

  17. I can’t believe that you went through all of this, you are very brave to share your story. I think with a lot of people it’s hard to even give advise or pass judgement when you’ve not been in that situation x

    • Thank you for commenting. I agree, people should not pass judgement upon those who behave differently than they THINK they would. We really don’t know how we will behave in a situation until we’re in. No matter how wonderful our imaginations are, when we get into these types of situations, our bodies take over and often our mind, logic, etc get left behind. Thank you for saying this, it means a lot to hear it from someone else.

  18. What a journey. Your story sounds awful so sorry you had to experience this but you are stronger for sharing this story with us and hopefully spreading awareness of DV. Hopefully it will help someone reading this.

  19. Oh my god, what an incredibly harrowing story and its worse knowing that you experience that and had to live through it. I can totally understand your reasons for staying. Its not easy to just walk away, especially when someone has you under their spell so to speak. I’ve never been someone who blames the victim but I know plenty of people who do and I reckon if they walked a mile in your shoes they’d understand how its not just a case of packing a bag and toddling off xxx

  20. Wow, this is so incredibly powerful. It’s a huge accomplishment that you feel secure enough now to publish this and share your story. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’ve certainly opened my eyes and empathy.

    • Thank you. I appreciate you saying that. I’m glad that I was able to help you gain a little more understanding of a very complicated issue

  21. I think you are incredible. Hands down. Your passion is so powerful. And I love the way you write. You have come out of this much more stronger than you probably imagine. I applaud you. I see a fighter. I see strength. I see myself. As a survivor and a mom with ptsd I find comfort in your blog. Like we’re in this together. We are. Thank you for sharing your story. And keep up that great strength. It looks beautiful on you.

    • Thank you Sweetie. You are incredible too. Braving motherhood with PTSD is incredible alone, but also that you talk about it and encourage others makes you amazing. If you want to keep up with the blog, sign up for an exclusive newsletter and updates on the sidebar under the “Join Betty’s Army heading.” Are you interested in being involved or featured on the blog as well? You can message on Twitter, or e-mail me at bettymama206@gmail.com I think you’re great and I’d love to work with you.

  22. Thank you for sharing it must have been really hard to write this reliving the horror he put you through! It is so important that you have shared this though as a survivor myself I know this will help someone hopefully give them the courage to leave themselves. You are truly amazing and I hope you know that I wish you well on your journey x

    • Thank you. It means a lot to hear this from another survivor. I hope it is able to help someone else. I know that it is definitely helping me; my abuser is currently forcing me to engage with him in a custody battle (even though he abandoned our son completely for the past nine years) and I am having to tell these stories in court. Getting them out here first is incredibly helpful.

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