10/25/2013 11:29 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2013

Don't Underestimate Battered Women

Leaving a relationship is not something that happens in a vacuum and it is not always the safest or best option for victims of domestic violence. We owe it to them to figure out something better than "why don't you just leave?" We owe it to victims everywhere to understand the risks battered women face, and the ways women have coped with violence.

One woman understands that by staying with her abusive partner, she gets to raise her children without an expensive and uncertain custody battle. Another is protecting her ageing parents, who are unable to relocate, while another is thinking about her beloved dog, the only steady companion she has. Yet another woman is a devout member of a church staunchly opposed to divorce for any reason. For many women, the threat of being stalked and hunted, too, hangs over any thoughts of ending a relationship.

"Why doesn't she just leave?" fails all of these women as an attitude and especially as a treatment plan. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it is time to widen our lens and view battery for what it is: a complex problem that affects each victim differently, depending on the other realities of her life. Data shows, for example, that the majority of distressed couples seeking marital therapy report at least one or two physically violent incidents -- pushing and grabbing are the most common -- and sometimes these do not escalate to severe incidents. Sometimes the "cycle of violence" is not a cycle. There have been several treatment studies and a few long-term studies of abusers that show, under some circumstances and with the right kind of help, that some violent partners are able to change, especially those who perpetrate less severe violence. Such complexities need more attention by shelters, police, advocates, counselors, and the general public.

Additionally, the incredible creativity and resilience of battered women is little recognized by some who work with victims of domestic violence and much of the general public. Many battered women engage in protective strategies and actively cope with the problem of victimization. In fact, counter to some stereotypes, nationally representative data shows battered women in the U.S. seek professional help from law enforcement at rates similar to other crime victims, and seek professional help from advocates and counselors at rates similar to those with other psychological problems.

But professional helpseeking is not the whole story. It is just as important to appreciate that battered women also seek help and support from family and friends -- particularly when looking for a safe place to stay, rather than domestic violence shelters -- and rely on their church communities. Yes, sometimes religious leaders or congregations can give unhelpful messages that blame women for their own beatings; helpers and providers in all disciplines, including police, therapists, and physicians, sometimes give poor counsel. But it is important to recognize that many church communities offer tremendous support and assistance to battered women, from providing safe, free activities for children, to helping pay the electric bill. Churches also can help women sustain the courage and spiritual strength they need to deal with battering. At a time when access to social services is increasingly difficult, requiring more paperwork and longer waiting lists, churches provide some of the best and most easily available social services in the country.

Safety planning for domestic violence has been around for more than 20 years -- the shelter movement for more than 40 years -- and these essential services have changed little since they were first introduced. We should stop blaming battered women when they choose staying as the best option under the circumstances. Almost all battered women are considering and balancing multiple risks and multiple coping options, and we do them a disservice when we force a simplistic and inaccurate framework on their complicated problems and complex lives.

The good news is that momentum is building for a strengths-based, holistic and comprehensive approach to helping victimized women. Several new approaches offer comprehensive analyses of the full spectrum of risks and the full menu of coping strategies. Secular, pro-divorce treatment options are important and should, of course, be available, but these should not be the only options offered to women. We need to re-define "surviving" domestic violence as more than just leaving a relationship. Battering is a complex problem and like any complex problem, it will often take time to solve and require multiple strategies. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let's honor all of the paths to survival that women choose.


Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. is author of Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know.

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.