The most common question I get asked when people find out I come from a background of domestic violence is, “Why didn’t you just leave?”.

Leaving domestic violence

Now the answer is complicated and obviously I can only give you my answer as everybody’s story is different. I always (and I do mean always) take exception at the word “just”. Imagine for one minute leaving your home only with what you could fit in a car. All the memories and treasures you had worked hard for a lifetime for left behind. That is what it was like for me. The day I left, I couldn’t find my jewellery including the gifts I received for my 21st and the necklace my Nan left me. There was no time to look for them, I had to get out quick.

I had years of being told I was useless, stupid that I couldn’t cope without him. I had two small babies and no money. I had to go to a refuge. I couldn’t even trust the people that loved me, how on earth was I supposed to trust people I don’t even know? I was scared, almost paralysed with fear.

Although all of the above are true, they are not the reason it took over a decade and six attempts to leave him.

For me I can sum it up in two words: learned helplessness.

Let me explain a bit about my experience with learned helplessness. It was a slow process where my partner became both my abuser and my saviour. I had been put down, isolated and abused for so long, I genuinely could not cope with the smallest of tasks — just going for milk could leave me in a state of anxiety. My ex would become annoyed and tell me that my being so pathetic was exhausting. The tension would build and build until he would explode as he explained if only I could learn to put the dishes in the dishwasher properly everything would be ok.

The demands and the violence continued to grow, so I would leave, but then this charming man, the one I met, would be so kind and loving. I figured that he was helping me because my anxiety around little things didn’t go away just because I left him. So he would swap roles from my abuser to my saviour. I needed to believe he loved me, because he would save me.

I stayed because I thought things had to get better

It didn’t start out like that. It started with little things, insignificant to point I hardly noticed but they were slowly but surely stripping me of my confidence and independence. Each one making me a little more helpless and a little more dependent. So in the end I was completely dependent on the very man that was abusing me to keep me safe.

What I didn’t know then was that if I could survive the daily grind of being abused and still find the will to get myself out of bed to look after my children and do normal things like go to playgroups, cook the dinner, and function in any way that appeared normal to the outside world, it meant that I had within me the very resources I needed to leave.

I stayed because I hoped that this time he would change and I really could lead the happy family life of my dreams. The thought of all that I had endured would end up with my having to leave and go to a refuge was at the time intolerable. So I would vow to try harder to make my marriage work and this time it would be different.

I was scared to stay, I was scared to leave I was terrified of everything. So now imagine leaving everything you know when you are at your weakest and most vulnerable, feeling completely broken, nothing left to give, yet you have to do something that takes so much courage most people can’t even imagine it?

What to ask instead

So, please next time you ask a survivor of domestic violence “Why didn’t you just leave?”, think about changing that question to “How did you find the courage to leave?” It is an easier and more empowering question to answer.

For those trapped behind the walls of domestic violence, remember the courage you need to leave is right there inside of you, you use it every single day.

First step is to reach out to the right people for help.

In Australia you can call 1800 RESPECT.