When leaving isn’t an option
It’s a seemingly simple question, but the answer is fraught with complexities: If someone in a relationship is being abused, why doesn’t that person just leave?
“There’s a variety of reasons,” says Maureen Curtis, LMSW, MPH, associate vice president at Safe Horizon, a New York City victim assistance organization. “Probably first and foremost is fear. Most domestic violence is about power and control. If the person decides to leave, then [the batterer] loses control, so it places the victim more in danger.”
Another reason is money. Without financial help from a partner, it can be difficult to support oneself and a family, Curis says.
Victims of abuse can flee to domestic violence shelters, but that might not provide a permanent solution — in New York, for example, stays in emergency shelters are capped at 135 days. From there, victims can apply for transitional housing or enter the homeless shelter system.
The victims who choose not to leave “learn how to manage their risks so that they’re able to stay there, keep a roof over their heads and their children’s heads,” Curtis says.
“I remember one time this woman came into my office and she was really upset because her partner had been arrested. She told me that a year ago she was homeless, living in the streets with her three children, and this man took her and her children in. And while he was abusive, she said that it was worse living in the streets with her three children. She felt she could manage the times that he hit her. And it puts it into perspective. She’s making a difficult decision.”
Recognize the signs
“When you think of domestic violence, you think of that classic battered woman who is beaten, who’s bruised, who wants to avail themselves of all the services and is ready to leave — and that’s not the reality,” Curtis says.
Keep an eye out for the following signs, which she says are all hallmarks of abuse:
Physical marks: “If you see bruises or cuts that seem explained in ways that don’t seem legitimate, that’s something you should look at.”
Excessive jealousy: “It’s one thing to be jealous, but it’s another thing to be jealous to the point of possessive. [Look for] controlling behavior, where that person wants to control everything that their partner does.”
Isolation from friends and family: “They could have had the highest self-esteem and now they’re so isolated,” Curtis says. “And this is the one person that tells them that they love them.”
Should you intervene?
You may think that an outsider’s relationship is none of your business. But when it comes to matters of domestic violence, Curtis says you absolutely should get involved.
“I think that domestic violence is so pervasive because many people have the attitude that it’s not my business,” she says. “If this is somebody that’s very close to me, I may talk to them about what I’m seeing. … [If] I’m not the type of person to approach you, then maybe I’m gonna do something behind the scenes. Maybe I don’t know [my neighbor] so well but I hear yelling at night and it sounds threatening — maybe I’ll call 911. You can do that anonymously. You can take steps that are direct and you can take steps that are indirect, and any one of these can be extremely helpful to that person.”
But if your concerns get brushed off, which very well may happen, Curtis says you must accept that.
“You cannot force yourself on this person,” she adds. “The best thing you can do is be supportive, let the person know that you’re here if you want to talk. Because if that person thinks that you’re judging, they’re not gonna come back to you.”