Several years ago, I volunteered in domestic violence shelters in North Texas. I did this as part of the work of Write to Succeed, Inc., a volunteer literacy nonprofit organization I directed. Then later, in South Texas, I volunteered at the local domestic violence shelter as part of my academic research. The work was meaningful, both to the shelter residents, the surrounding communities, and to me.
Volunteers would go into the shelters and take residents through a series of writing prompts. (We supplied all writing journals and pens or any other supply that they might need to be successful in these workshops.) These writing exercises encouraged the women (mostly women) to express their experiences, a way to release some of their emotions. It was probably the most powerful writing work I have ever done. Ever. The residents were at their most raw, and when they trusted our group, they were able to write their realities. Putting that reality on paper—or sharing it with other residents in our group sessions—was powerful and restorative. We laughed a lot; we cried a lot. Even if we (as volunteers) had not been in a domestic violence situation, as women, we understood the emotional and physical torment of being out of choices.
But to volunteer at a shelter, we had to undergo volunteer training, and this taught us why people end up in domestic violence shelters. Taking her children in the middle of the night—with only the clothes on their backs– is not a woman’s first choice when faced with a bad marriage or a toxic relationship. It’s not a second choice. It’s a much, much, much later choice. It’s a choice when she has exhausted all other choices.
In training, we learned that it could take years to get to a point when a person considers leaving their spouse/partner for a shelter. In fact, statistics show that it takes a woman leaving (and returning) seven times before she finally makes a break from her abuser. Yes, there could be verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, or psychological abuses. But often, without the resources necessary to sustain her and her children’s lives, she has no choice but to stay.
I’ve heard some people argue that there’s always a choice. If she stays, for example, she’s choosing to stay. Leaving would be another choice. I would assert differently. She’s staying, not because she doesn’t see other choices, but because she doesn’t see the other choices as valid. She can stay and die. She can stay and see her children harmed. She can stay and lose all sense of her own autonomy. The abuser makes the choices. She lives with them.
It’s important to remember that over time, a woman’s sense of her own power diminishes with each abuse. After years of being beaten down (literally and figuratively), she doesn’t see or understand her own agency. She feels powerless. At this point, the only choices she understands are black and white: stay or leave.
So, to leave and go to a shelter? It’s the last possible valid choice.
But why would she stay? This article explains this more fully, but here are a few of the more potent reasons:
- Society normalizes unhealthy behavior so people may not understand that their relationship is abusive.
- Emotional abuse destroys your self-esteem, making it feel impossible to start fresh.
- The Cycle of Abuse: after every abusive incident comes a make-up honeymoon phase.
- It’s dangerous to leave.
- They believe that if they stick it out, things might change.
- They share a life together.
So why is this a topic on the blog today? People exist in your world who are in abusive situations. You might not recognize that abuse because from the outside, everything looks fine, but you are not in the home or in the marriage. You don’t see their reality. However, if you suspect that someone you know is in an abusive situation, reach out. The person being abused might not be receptive but keep reaching. Offer resources. Offer shelter. Offer support. Offer kindness. Offer.