October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Most of us have seen posters and pictures of the victims: women with bruised faces, broken bones, split lips and missing teeth or children huddled in the corner, covering their ears.
But if domestic violence is so horrible, why don't victims get out? Not only do victims often stay with their abusers for many years, but when they do escape, the majority go back. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that victims leave an average of six times before finally staying away.
Unfortunately, batterers rarely show their true colors on the first date. In fact, they're often the most charming, considerate, polite people you'll ever meet - at least in the beginning. It may take months or years for the abuse to begin. (Get a list of early warning signs at hiddenhurt.co.uk/Abuser/signs.htm.)
So now you're in an established relationship. Maybe you've even gotten married. Still, that's no reason to stay. Most of us have broken up with someone, right? And a divorce isn't the end of the world.
Actually, it could be. Women are more likely to be killed when they try to report their abuse or leave an abusive relationship. If you try to leave, there's a chance things will get worse. (Check ncadv.org/gettinghelp/safetyplan.htm for information about planning an escape.)
If you have children, leaving could put them at risk. Batterers often use children to control their victims. He may threaten to kill the entire family, including himself. Many murder-suicides come from a history of domestic violence. Or maybe he'll simply fight for custody of the kids. Are you ready to risk losing your children?
If you leave, where will you go? (MSU Safe Place and EVE, Inc. both provide shelter for victims of domestic violence. Call (517) 372-5572 for information.) He knows where your family lives. He can find you at work. According to the American Institute on Domestic Violence, husbands and boyfriends commit 13,000 acts of violence against their partners at work every year.
Of course, there's a good chance you don't have a job. Batterers also use economic tactics to control their families. Many victims of domestic violence don't have the money to survive on their own. (Shelters often offer financial assistance, too.)
Many people tell me they'd call the police or get a restraining order. So how many of us actually know how to get a Personal Protection Order? (Visit ingham.org/pa/PPO2.htm for information.) Assuming you get one, will you trust your family's safety to that piece of paper? If he does attack you, the PPO means he'll face more serious consequences, but you could still end up in the hospital, or worse.
So you call the police. They might make an arrest. They might even arrest him. Or, if he convinces the police you were the aggressor, they could arrest you, instead.
Hopefully the officers will have seen enough domestic violence situations to recognize what's going on and take him away - for about 24 hours. Then, he's going to come back.
But maybe you get out before he returns. Maybe you get yourself and your children to a shelter where you'll be safe for a while. You've left your home and most of your personal belongings behind, you have little money and you're terrified that he'll find you, but you're out. You don't have to see him or talk to him. Not right away, at least.
Eventually though, you might. And here's the kicker: He's sorry. He tells you he was out of control, that he didn't realize things had gotten so bad. He promises to attend a batterers' intervention group. He treats you like a queen. He jokes with the children.
This isn't some villain from the movies; this is someone you love. Someone you want to trust. He's family. Are you going to put yourself and your children through more stress, even a divorce, because you can't forgive the man who wants to make things right? (You can see a summary of the cycle of violence at dvis.org/cycle_of_violence.htm.)
For most of us, it's easy to say we wouldn't take them back. But how many of us have broken up with someone, only to get back together? Even when we knew it hadn't worked, when we knew it wouldn't work - because we wanted it to work. Because we remembered the good times and blocked out the bad.
Instead of asking why women stay, perhaps we should be looking for ways to help those men, women and children who are still stuck in a trap that is far more painful and dangerous than most of us could imagine.
Jim Hines is the male outreach coordinator at MSU Safe Place. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.