All problems are easy to solve as long as they’re somebody else’s. Every impoverished person has heard a well-off stranger say, “Why don’t you just get a better job?” Everyone suffering from depression has heard some version of “Why don’t you just cheer up?” This is true even if your situation is both awful and depressingly common, like domestic abuse. You’ll hear plenty of “Why don’t you just leave their sorry ass?”
People who ask that question might mean well, but they’re usually coming from a place of enviable ignorance. Statistically, abused partners return to their abuser multiple times before leaving for good, mainly because getting out of this situation can be a long, tangled nightmare for which all of society’s solutions range from imperfect to impossible.
We talked to “Chelsea,” “Ivy,” “Susan,” and “Fred” about why getting out is never easy. We don’t normally do trigger warnings here, but we’re giving you one now.
Help From The police Can Be … Inconsistent
Lots of domestic abuse victims never call the police, and studies show that many of the ones who do wind up regretting it (25 percent of the victims in this study say they wouldn’t call in the future). The reasons range from a fear of not being believed or enraging their abuser, to even that they’ll be the one who gets arrested (which happens, we’ll get into it shortly). Not that cops like these calls any better. Domestic disturbance incidents account for around 15-40 percent of police calls in the U.S., varying by city and department. Statistically, that means that every cop deals with this stuff on every single shift (these calls are also the ones most likely to result in an officer getting killed).
“Chelsea” never called the police on her abuser, which meant also making excuses when he put her in the hospital. This was largely because she didn’t want her family finding out about her situation (abuse-induced shame isn’t just prevalent — abusers count on it). Also, he was an ex-Marine who had guns in the house as well as severe PTSD, and she knew that a restraining order or a night in jail would just piss him off. Oh, and he was dealing drugs out of their house, so she assumed she’d be entangled in whatever charges resulted from the police discovering that. “Ironically,” she says, “my new brother-in-law is a police officer. Even he admits that it might have made it worse in the long run … There were so many reasons to not get them involved, and I don’t regret not calling them.”
“Ivy” did call the police, and frequently, but it didn’t always go well. To understand why, you need to get some context. When it comes to domestic violence calls, an arrest is only made about 36 percent of the time in the U.S. (12 percent if the victim is male.) Less than half of those arrests result in a conviction because the victims will later withdraw or recant their testimony, often at the “encouragement” of the abuser. This has been a long-running issue in law enforcement, as police have a reputation for declaring the situation resolved once the aggressor has cooled off. (It was once common to show up and the tell the accused to “take a walk around the block.” To this day, they often won’t take further action if the abuser has left the scene before they get there.)
As a result, some states have passed mandatory arrest laws which require or strongly encourage police to haul somebody to jail. That’s the case where Ivy lives. The problem is that, absent clear physical injuries, there’s nothing stopping an abuser from claiming to be the victim … and Ivy’s ex was very good at acting like the calm, rational party. “I called [the cops] the night he threatened our baby and then kicked me over when I bent down to pick the baby up. And then they came out and arrested me.”
The ex did later go to jail, and kept turning up outside her house once he was out, at which point the police would come by, do a brief search, and leave again … only for him to immediately return. “I had to call them back out, and they acted annoyed.”
Not that all of the cops she dealt with were dubious or apathetic: “There were three police officers who were complete angels to me and offered to chat whenever I need to, and told me I definitely need to leave and that he is the problem. When I was considering dropping my divorce, one police officer looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘Are you sure that’s what YOU want to do? Please be very sure.’ He said this right in front of my ex, and at the time it stung, but it held a lot of weight and makes me feel comfort now.”
Restraining Orders Often Don’t Keep An Abuser Away
If you’ve never been in this situation, the phrase “I finally had to get a restraining order” sounds like the end of a story. Like it’s a magical Circle of Protection spell, cast as a last resort. The reality, according to a meta-analysis of 32 studies, is that restraining orders are violated about 40 percent of the time on average (individual studies showed rates much higher than that). That’s bad enough, but 21 percent of the time, the order is followed by even worse behavior, as the abuser becomes enraged at the victim for having the nerve to try to protect themselves. Ivy was one such case. “The order definitely triggered worse behavior. It caused him to act desperate in trying to get me back while simultaneously hating and destroying me for leaving.”
Just to be clear, statistically, it’s better to get some kind of order of protection than to not get one. In many cases, it’s enough to signal to the abuser that any further bullshit will have consequences. In Ivy’s case, police did start arresting her ex when she reported him for violating the order … but he was usually out in less than a week (violating a restraining order is usually a misdemeanor).
This is also another situation in which enforcement is hit and miss. If you call the cops in the middle of the night to say that your ex is at your door in violation of some kind of order of protection, they can’t make an arrest without verifying that the order is genuine … and many U.S. states they don’t have any kind of database they can instantly check, or the one they have is poorly maintained. Even if the victim has a copy of the order on them, it often doesn’t matter.
There are thus plenty of horror stories of abuse victims being murdered despite having a restraining order in place, and in a recent court case (Castle Rock v. Gonzales), it was actually decided that police departments can’t be sued for failing to follow through (feel free to read the details if you want to ruin the rest of your week).
What a restraining order does is establish a paper trail that serves as evidence when an abuser keeps turning up. It can be hard to prove abuse (as we mentioned), but much easier to prove the abuser showed up at your workplace in front of witnesses. But obviously, if an abuser already doesn’t respect laws against beating up their spouse, why would they respect a piece of paper and five paragraphs of legalese?
Shelters Can Save Your Life … But May Make It Impossible To Stay
Of the four survivors we interviewed, three were able to get hotel rooms or stay with family when they needed to get to safety. But Ivy — like many of you reading this — wasn’t lucky enough to have either of those options. Yet her efforts to get into a shelter were frustrated at every turn. She called hotlines listed for every shelter in her area, and says this is how it usually went:
“You have to do a 30-45-minute assessment about your traumatic experiences, and most times when you’re done, the hotline attendant will then tell you the shelter is full and offer other numbers to call that you have already tried. That is extremely discouraging, and also exhausting. I also had one shelter offer me to come from [a two-hour drive away], and if I couldn’t get there within the hour, they would not take me. They told me, ‘We could be saving someone else’s life,’ and hung up on me.”
If you’re wondering why, it turns out overcrowding at shelters is a problem nationwide due to a lack of funding. You can see how victims might get the idea that while some kind individuals absolutely care about this issue, the system as a whole could not give less of a shit.
Even the shelters that did have room for Ivy and her child were not viable options because of various rules that their residents had to follow. These rules are well-meaning, intended to protect the security of the shelter and help keep it running smoothly, but they can also make it prohibitively difficult for survivors to hold a job and get on their feet financially (a critical aspect of escaping).
“The rules were that I could not leave during certain hours. They worry that if someone’s being stalked or followed, the location of the shelter is not kept safe. One shelter in the area did not allow cellphones, and I know another did not allow WiFi in case cell phones were being tracked. They expect you to participate in group therapy all day and different classes of sorts, so trying to maintain work while being in such an ‘inpatient’-type format wouldn’t work out.”
Excessive or overly strict rules can also trigger survivors’ traumatic memories by stripping of them of their agency in the same way their abusers did (a trend which is, fortunately, beginning to change). Also, this wasn’t a problem for Ivy, but many shelters don’t allow pets. That may seem frivolous (mainly to those of you who don’t have one), but pets can be an important source of psychological comfort for survivors, especially kids. Also, the fear of abandoning a beloved pet to bear the brunt of an abuser’s vengeance keeps a lot of people from leaving their abuser if no alternative pet home can be found.
Again, the people who keep these shelters running are heroes who save lives. The point here is that in each of these cases, abuse survivors get shamed for the choices they made, or failed to make. “Why didn’t you just get out of there?” is an easy — and somewhat accusatory — question you can ask only if you’ve never been in such a situation.
Divorce Is Expensive, And May Not Go Your Way
On average, getting a divorce costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $30,000. Imagine having to work at GameStop for an entire year, only instead of getting a paycheck, your biweekly reward is that you get to take one more baby step away from the monster who likes to break dishes over your head while screaming that you’re a piece of shit. That figure can go much higher if the divorce is contested — which it often will be, because abusers aren’t usually keen to give up control over their victims. On top of that, it’s difficult to keep a steady job when your spouse is a controlling prick who won’t let you leave the house, makes you too stress-crazy to do your job properly, or keeps putting you in the hospital.
Our male abuse survivor, Fred, was at a major disadvantage throughout much of his divorce proceedings. This was partly due to bias stemming from the fact that abuse is more commonly seen as male-on-female, but it was also because his wife’s attorney was a friend of her family who was willing to work pro bono and was available almost all the time. That flexibility enabled them to pull a lot of nasty procedural tricks, like filing unnecessary motions and venue changes to force Fred to spend more time and money responding, adding more stress to an already hellishly stressful situation. And that was the point; they were basically operating like a tiny Church of Scientology.
Susan’s ex — an unemployed alcoholic who was prone to drunkenly sexually assaulting her — made out like a bandit in their divorce, because her state calculates alimony according to how much money each party made during the marriage, and isn’t concerned with little details like whether one of them was a physically abusive gaslighter (some states now do factor in abuse). “Paying alimony to your rapist is a monthly kick in the gut,” she says. “We settled with him getting 60 percent of our assets, which was financially devastating for me. I lost almost all of my retirement savings, and took on the obligation of paying for our kids’ college costs … I got the house, but it needed a lot of work to make it sellable, and I put about $50k into that.”
Ivy had to fight like hell to get full custody of their child. She’s Dominican, which to racists falls into the category of “Probably some kind of criminal.” Her ex and his lawyer made her out to be a gangbanger, and the judge fell for it for months. “It wasn’t until [her ex] caused internal bleeding and threatened me via text that they granted full custody,” she said. “Imagine going back to court several months later to that exact judge and showing him what’s happened since he allowed custody, and having him never verbally admit he made a mistake, but seeing the realization on his face.”
Oh, and remember how Chelsea didn’t report the abuse because she didn’t want her family to know about it? Well, her ex repaid that favor in divorce court by playing up his veteran status and his PTSD, and shaming her for wanting to leave. “His lawyer painted him as a misunderstood combat veteran who was just trying to find his way in the world, and painted me as the angry wife who was unwilling to compromise or help him. He knew I wouldn’t bring up the physical abuse, and he manipulated that to his advantage … ”
So there’s a case where an outsider could say, “That’s why you call the cops and get the abuse on record, damn it!” but remember, she had equally valid reasons for not doing that at the time. Generally, if you see people avoiding “obvious” solutions, they have a reason for it.
“The worst part was the way he hugged me the last day I saw him, in front of everyone, with his nails digging into my shoulders,” says Chelsea. “That hug was like everything else he did — outwardly a kind gesture, with just a touch of threat.”
You Can Get Them Out Of Your Life, But Not Out Of Your Head
In the movies, leaving an abusive spouse is a huge moment of triumph, and it’s all smooth sailing from there. The woman (it’s never not a woman, according to Hollywood) walks out of the house with her head held high, hails a cab, and takes it straight to a new life of happiness, success, and probably Ryan Gosling’s dick. In real life, the constant dread brought on by years of abuse don’t just vanish overnight, or even necessarily ever. Even when things are so bad that you restructure your whole life around escaping, the damaged part of you still insists you’re making a huge mistake.
Chelsea moved and changed her appearance to make sure her ex couldn’t find her. He hasn’t, but she still has nightmares about him appearing over her bed with a gun, and seeing someone who even looks like him can induce a panic attack. And part of her still feels responsible for his shitty behavior. “I have so much guilt that circles around him, that sometimes I still wonder — had I done something different, been better, been more diligent, would I somehow have been able to help him?”
She’s also taken up kickboxing. “I like feeling strong, like if there was someone who wanted to hurt me, I would be able to at least put up a fight.”
Ivy hasn’t fully escaped yet. She still has to see her ex sometimes, and despite the broken restraining orders, she puts up with it out of fear for her child’s safety. “I’m afraid the stalking would get worse, or he’d seek revenge in a really sick way. I’m afraid he would try to kill me or hurt my child … He can’t stand the thought of me being with someone else, and I truly believe it could drive him to kill. I also do love him still, in a sense. I fear regretting my decisions.” He’s also facing prison time for unrelated charges, and she’s hanging on in the hopes that she’ll be able to get clear of him for good once he’s safely behind bars.
That said, it is possible to move on and have a fulfilling life. Fred is engaged to someone new and awesome. Susan is big into scuba diving now, and she’s also in a healthy relationship. Happy endings are possible.
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