Why Battered Women Won't Always Leave Their Batterers

Community members, as well as medical and social service professionals, frequently lack sympathy for women who stay with their abusers. These same women are sometimes treated poorly by the criminal justice system, too.
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The reality is that most domestic violence victims are women. State ex rel. Hope House, Inc. v. Merrigan, 133 S.W.3d 44, 47 (Mo. 2004). Such women are often blamed for remaining in abusive environments since "one of the common myths, apparently believed by most people, is that battered [women] are free to leave." State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178, 205, (1984).

Community members, as well as medical and social service professionals, frequently lack sympathy for women who stay with their abusers. These same women are sometimes treated poorly by the criminal justice system, too.

For example, in State v. Kelly, id. at 199, Kelly claimed self-defense, which required proving that she subjectively believed in the necessity of using deadly force against her abuser and that this belief was objectively reasonable. Kelly's failure to leave her partner after multiple violent incidents, however, indicated to many that the beatings "could not have been too bad," and therefore, that deadly force in self-defense was not reasonable. Id. at 205. The Court eventually ruled to allow an expert to testify on Battered Woman's Syndrome (BWS), who could explain why battered women fail to leave even the deadliest batterers. Id. at 204.

Perhaps it would be helpful to explore some of these reasons.

Believing there is no escape.

A battered woman develops certain characteristics as a result of abuse for an extended period of time by the dominant male figure in her life. Id. at 191. "These characteristics include fear, hyper-suggestibility, isolation, guilt, and emotional dependency, which culminate in a woman's belief that she [...] cannot escape her batterer." Robinson v. State, 308 S.C. 74, 76 (1992).

Similarly, BWS "is characterized by such abuse and degradation that the battered [woman] [...] believe[s] she is unable to help herself and cannot expect help from anyone else. She believes that she cannot escape the complete control of her [partner] and that he is invulnerable to law enforcement and other sources of help." State v. Norman, 324 N.C. 253, 258 (1989).

Such beliefs make avenues of escape unthinkable.

Hindered by love.

BWS develops from a 3-phase cycle: Phase one includes rising tension and minor abuse. Phase two presents the battering. Phase 3 involves the victim forgiving the batterer. During this last phase, the batterer ceases violent behavior and displays affection; often he even promises that the violence will not recur. The cycle then repeats itself. Id. at 77.

During the third phase, many women develop hope that the lovingness will endure and consequently find it difficult to leave.

Fear of retaliation.

Perhaps more often, though, victims are too afraid to leave. In State v. Norman, Norman faced criminal charges for killing her abuser. She testified that she had previously attempted to leave her husband, but that he had always found her, forced her to come home, and then beat her. Norman, 324 N.C. at 257. When she discussed possibly filing charges against him, he threatened to "cut her throat before [law enforcement] got to him." Id.

When occasionally victims of abuse do involve the authorities, many "backpedal on [their] initial complaints," afraid that involving the criminal justice system will demonstrate betrayal and endanger them further. United States v. Williams, No. CRIM. 1999-25, 2000 WL 1739214, at *8 (D.V.I. May 10, 2000).

Law enforcement's reluctance to intervene.

Often battered women hesitate to press charges not only out of fear of their husbands' lawlessness, but also because of the criminal justice system's historic apathy towards "private matters."

In 1868, a court stated, "We will not inflict [...] the greater evil of raising the curtain upon domestic privacy, to punish the lesser evil of trifling violence." State v. Rhodes, 61 N.C. (Phil. Law) 453, 459 (1868). It was not until 1979 that a court established that women have a right to enforcement against assault. This was after officers responding to a victim's complaint supported her assaulter, one even remarking, "Maybe if I beat my wife, she'd act right too". Bruno v. Codd, 90 Misc. 2d 1047, 1050 (1979).

The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was passed largely in response to these issues. The Obama Administration conveyed that VAWA has led to "more victims [...] reporting domestic [...] violence to police, [which] are resulting in more arrests." Fact Sheet: The Violence Against Women Act, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/vawa_factsheet.pdf.

While VAWA is one step toward a culture that no longer trivializes "private matters," cultural change requires far more legislation, and most importantly, attitudinal shifts at the local and national levels.

Learned helplessness.

The principle of "learned helplessness" was developed when Penn psychologist Martin Seligman discovered that dogs receiving unavoidable electric shocks failed to take action in subsequent situations, even when avoidance became possible. Learned Helplessness, Encyclopedia Britannica (2016), available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/learned-helplessness.

Battered women experience this same learned helplessness. The "repeated batterings, like electrical shocks, diminish [their] motivation to respond." Robinson, 308 S.C. at 77. Failure to leave may be less of a rational decision and more of a psychological impairment.

Additional factors.

Other reasons why battered women fail to leave their batterers include a stigma of being a victim of abuse, low self-esteem caused by repeated torture, and forced isolation (abusers are "often highly possessive and excessively jealous") that makes it implausible to communicate danger to others. Why Doesn't She Just Leave?, New Choices, Inc., http://www.newchoicesinc.org/educated/abuse/DV/whynotleave. Additionally, many women stay in abusive environments out of commitment to their relationships and the belief that keeping the family together is best for the children. Id.

Necessary steps for progress.

With a better understanding of why battered women do not escape their batterers, hopefully we can learn to stop blaming the victim. Even today, victims encounter some "doctors [who] prescribe Valium for coping, ministers [who] recommend more accommodating behaviors of the victim, and therapists [who] advise better communication with the abuser." Id.

This is simply unacceptable.

First and foremost, domestic violence needs to be treated more seriously. When friends, agencies, or law enforcement possess knowledge of an abusive environment, they should feel compelled to help remove the battered woman from a situation she believes is inescapable.

Secondly, this is a lesson about empathy. Perhaps people should stop blaming the victim of domestic abuse until they have walked a mile in their shoes.

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