Ask the right question: #whydoesheabuse?

As the country reels after another stunning high profile story of domestic violence hits the media, I am moved to tears reading the brave stories of #whyistayed and #whyileft. Everyone should take a moment and go read them. Thousands of people have shared their reasons for staying and leaving abusive relationships, and more are added every day. I hope that this campaign leads to greater understanding of the complexities of living in and leaving an abusive relationship. It’s not as simple as “just leaving.” I hope greater understanding breeds more support, resources and better systems for survivors.


sorry beverly goodenwhyileft

I can’t put into 144 characters my reasons for staying in and leaving an abusive marriage. Like many survivors, this is extremely hard for me to write about. I fear judgement. I fear discrimination. But mostly, I still fear him.

While I am glad that people are telling their stories and raising awareness about the complexity of this question, I am sad. Sad that this is the question to which people want answers. That we live in a society that cares more about answering the question – “Why didn’t she leave?” than it does about even asking the question – “Why did he abuse her?”

This needs to change. This is victim blaming. This is rape culture. This reinforces violence. This is wrong.

It seems that people are always looking for a way to blame the victim. To Monday morning quarterback (or running back) the situation and claim that we know what we would do if we were in her shoes. Believe me, before I found myself in an abusive relationship, I did it, too. I think most people don’t want to believe that domestic violence exists, so they try to find way to explain it away, to rationalize it, to dehumanize victims or make it something about her or her poor decisions. Because, if there is something flawed about her or her choices, then it’s not something that could happen to me.

A county prosecutor specializing in domestic and sexual assault told me that he generally doesn’t want to go to trial, because juries will find any reason to disbelieve. Even when faced with incontrovertible evidence. Even when the victim is trustworthy, honest and did all of the “right” things during and following her attack. This means that many abusers are not held accountable. This means that they may get off with a lesser charge, a small fine, an ironic slap on the wrist. Because our culture can’t come to terms with the real problem and find solutions. Fuck.

10690266_550293505101377_4407660208085605756_nSo, how do we change our culture? How do we start asking the right questions and start working on solutions? How do we create a world where victims get help, feel supported in leaving and get justice? Where people who abuse their partners are held accountable? Where there is more shame in abusing your wife than there is in admitting that your husband abused you? Where people simply don’t abuse their partners in the first place?

Where do we start? 

  • Let’s end the silence. Get to that uncomfortable place where we acknowledge that domestic violence can happen to us or someone we love. Domestic violence happens in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our families. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. It does not discriminate based on race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status. It happens to people you know. People who look like you. It can happen to you.
  • Let’s provide support rather than judgement to survivors of domestic violence.
  • Let’s lead by example. Work to create a culture that rejects violence. We can all speak up against messages, comments or jokes that say violence or mistreating women is okay. We can all say – that’s not funny when people make a joke about domestic abuse or comment that she must have been “asking for it.”
  • Let’s raise our children to respect others, understand consent, find nonviolent ways to resolve conflict and to know what healthy relationships look like.
  • Let’s speak out. Participate in anti-violence events and tell our elected officials that we want them to support domestic violence services, programs and policies that work to prevent domestic violence and hold abusers accountable.
  • Let’s hold abusers accountable, by asking – Why does he abuse? rather than laying blame on a victim for not leaving. Let’s put pressure on our communities, justice system and those in power to create comprehensive, collaborative prevention strategies that work.

Update for clarification: A note about gender. I don’t use “he,” because I think that all perpetrators are male, I use he because the vast majority of them are, just as the vast majority of survivors are women. I recognize that domestic violence happens in homosexual relationships and that women can be abusers. I apologize for seeming heteronormative. It wasn’t my intention. Perhaps a better hashtag would be: #whydotheyabuse.


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. I’m using a pseudonym because of the personal nature of things discussed. I agree with 95% of what you said here. The only thing I disagree with is that “why did she stay?” is always driven by the assumption that the abuse is the victim’s fault. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking for someone on the outside to watch someone you care about be repeatedly hurt. Growing up, my dad’s temper would erupt unpredictably, resulting in yelling and sometimes breaking things. I don’t know if this counts as abuse. I just know he was making my mom miserable, and I wanted her to leave him from a very early age. (My dad wasn’t manipulative; I don’t recall any makeup period. I think he has PTSD from his own abusive childhood.) Maybe because I was a child, I never thought of asking why he did it. It wasn’t in my power to fix him. The way to fix our situation was to leave, (though that didn’t happen). I saw it in my sister’s marriage, too. I couldn’t talk her out of marrying a guy who reminded me way too much of my father, but eventually things got bad enough that she left him. Bottom line: when I see someone I care about in a bad or abusive relationship, I don’t stop to ask why their S.O. is being an asshole. All I can think about are ways to get my loved one out of harm’s way.

    In recent years, I’ve gained a much more nuanced understanding of domestic violence. I started to understand things like manipulative behavior and financial constrains. I’m more ready to have the conversation about societal influences that enable abusers. I fully support all of the suggestions in your call to action. We also need to recognize that women can be the abuser in heterosexual and lesbian relationships, and that abuse also happens between gay men.

  2. My post has more to do with changing our culture, not asking an individual to explain the actions of their abuser. I think our society cares to much what she/he did to deserve abuse or assault. As for gender. I totally agree. I use he, because we know that the vast majority of domestic violence involves men abusing women and because that was the case in my personal experience, not to discount the experiences of people in other situations. Thanks for sharing your story.

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