by Tapati McDaniels
"Why don't you just leave that jerk?"
Haven't most of us thought or said this when we've heard a battered women's story? It seems so simple, doesn't it? Just leave, and you won't suffer anymore. Just leave, and your problems will be solved. What do you see in him (or her) anyway? Can't you see what a jerk he (or she) is?
I admit, I've thought the same things and bit my tongue more than once to keep from saying them. I have reminded myself many times that a little over 15 years ago*, those things could have been said about me. It is the perspective of my own recovery from battering that keeps me from preaching the just-leave gospel to battered women. I remember how it was, and how those words would have shut me off from avenues of support that I desperately needed.
Behind those words is a judgment, the judgment of all would-be fixers. "I can live your life better than you could; I have all the answers and you are too feeble, too simple-minded to ever figure it out without my help." The condescension inherent in "codependency" is almost never recognized.
The fact is, we can't make those choices or learn those lessons for someone else. The revised version of the twelve steps written for Codependency Anonymous begins, "We admitted we were powerless over others..."
The root of this desire to fix is a need to stop the pain of watching someone suffer. We don't do it for the battered woman. If we asked ourselves what she really needs, we might see that she needs time and space to find solutions for herself.
In my own case, I was a young woman with very low self-esteem when I met my ex-husband. He soon saw to it that what little self-esteem I had was extinguished by his verbal abuse in the form of relentless criticism. When I became pregnant with my son, his physical abuse increased in severity and frequency--which is not uncommon.
I first tried to leave him when my son was six months old. I had friends in another state that would take me in until I found a place to live. I had never lived alone, but I tried to make myself go through with it. I got as far as leaving with my stuff, but in the night before my scheduled plane flight I was suddenly filled with terror at the thought of being on my own with a child to support in a place I had never seen. I couldn't go through with it. I returned home, to the familiar, to the known.
Things were better for a brief time and then the abuse escalated again. I was pregnant with my daughter when an incident happened that I felt could have threatened her life. Again I left, this time for a local friend's home. I stayed there until I found someone to share an apartment with. I was surprised my husband didn't try to abuse me when he visited the kids, as he'd said he would kill me if I left. I guessed it was hard to tell which men really meant that and which were just making idle threats.
Eventually I was lured back by my husband's continued good behavior and promises that he'd learned his lesson. I think it's important to understand that most batterers are not brutal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They'd be easy to leave if that were the case.
I think of abusers as being like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll can be very, very nice and considerate. Mr. Hyde can be terrifying indeed, but seems like an aberration. The wife thinks of Dr. Jekyll as being the real person, the person she fell in love with. An important part of the process a battered woman goes through is learning that these two are inseparable and that she's never going to have one without the other (unless he does a great deal of hard work in therapy).
For over a year, after I returned, he did not hit me even once. However, the verbal abuse continued, and he would storm through the apartment and throw things, yelling and stomping around in a threatening way. The implication was that if I didn't do what he wished, it would be me next--bouncing off the wall.
I remained on guard with him, not entirely trusting his good intentions. It was during this period that I began to read a lot about battering and about becoming assertive. The seeds of my independence were being planted.
When he began abusing me again, I left and took our two children back to my family in Iowa. This was a last resort for me, since my family was also verbally abusive and manipulative.
I relented enough to tell him I might return if he got it together financially (we were homeless), and we corresponded. I had my independence, but with the illusion that we were still officially a couple. I guess it was sort of like riding a bike with training wheels.
He visited me in Iowa for a few months and I got to compare living with him to living without him. I began to consciously weigh the benefits of each. I realized the only concrete benefit of him being there was free babysitting.
I also realized that even if it were true, as he often told me, that no one else would want to marry me--I would be much happier living alone than living with him.
It took a few months to come to this conclusion after he left for the west coast, and it was very much an internal process. I did not discuss it with anyone, and from outside it may have appeared that I was as dependent upon him as ever. Nevertheless there came a day when I was able to write the letter to him that freed me forever from the life of abuse I had led. Knowing that I had given the marriage every chance to succeed, I was never haunted by doubts or guilt about its end.
Recovery does not stop with the act of leaving the abuser. I had to learn how to rebuild my self-esteem from the ground up, and I would say that I continue to recover to this day. I see it as a life-long process.
What does a battered woman need from her supporters? She needs for them to be willing to honor the ups and downs of her process, to be reminded from time to time that she does not deserve abuse, that she is worthy of love and respect, and to provide the assistance she requests when she is ready to leave, no matter how many times she goes back.
*Published 1994 in La Gazette