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?
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.
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.
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.
Maybe 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. 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.