Why doesn’t she just leave? Understanding the complexity.
Imagine feeling like a hostage in your own home, unable to come and go as you please; always worrying about the next attack, even during times of relative peace. This fear is based on the awareness that there will be another attack. I am not referring to what life is like in Israel or other terrorist laden countries. This constant feeling of fear and dread is the experience of victims of domestic violence.
Domestic abuse is a very complicated and sensitive topic. We are not describing a stressful period in a marriage or even a long-term dysfunctional marriage; this is an experience of fear that permeates a relationship, with no balance of power. A basic definition: domestic abuse is a pattern of coercive behaviors that one person in the relationship uses against the other to obtain and maintain power and control over the other person. This can happen through a variety of ways. Often the abuser will use emotional and verbal abuse. They will also use physical, financial, sexual or spiritual abuse to control the other person.
Community members historically would shy away from dealing with this issue- we do this out of fear, ignorance, pain, denial or even, disbelief. Our community has come a long way and we no longer deny the existence of domestic violence. But it remains hard to understand the experience of living within such a marriage.
When we do hear about a neighbor, family member or friend in this situation, it is natural to jump to quick conclusions about her decision to stay or leave or her capacity as a wife/mother. Often the first question asked about all victims is “why don’t they leave?” or in other words- “why do they stay?” (Perhaps we should be asking, “why does the abuse happen?” but that is a discussion for another time.)
Relationships are deep and complex and there isn’t one right answer for every situation. Why victims stay within an abusive relationship is a complex question for all victims, in particular for an Orthodox woman or man, there are many layers to this answer, many stemming from the close-knit and deeply religious nature of our community.
It’s important to be sensitive to some of the dynamics that impact individuals facing this difficult circumstance. Here is a partial list of why it is so difficult for someone to seek help.
The four “S’s”
1. Shalom Bayis- From an early age frum women are taught about the importance of shalom bayis and often feel it is their primary role and responsibility. In an effort to maintain family harmony, women often go to extraordinary measures to “manage” or “fix” these complex situations on their own.
2. Shanda- in Orthodox communities, women describe that their shame reaches a profound level. We live in close proximity to one another, within tightly-knit communities; being part of a community has great strengths but brings challenges. For instance, having the police show up at one’front door feels like a compounded disaster- not only does the victim have to deal with the violence but also the aftermath of circulating gossip. Thus, another reason people remain silent.
3. Shidduchim- one of the greatest driving forces for this secrecy is fear that a tainted family name could impact the children’s chances of finding a good marriage partner. Many women seek help only when their youngest child is out of the house and married.
4. Our Society & Frum life: Frum life is busy with many wonderful and meaningful lifecycle events. It is hard to imagine a Friday night without a husband to make kiddush (prayer for wine) or someone to take children to shul. We expect to have family around for the Peseach seder, sing zmiros, and light the menorah. We also want to have all of our family together at the simchas (bar mitzvahs, chasunas).
Community members also worry about the concept of mesirah, (reporting another Jew to secular authority), which often prevents individuals from calling the police or obtaining protection. Women also express a fear that will never receive a get (Jewish divorce). This threat is often serves as yet another weapon in the game of power and control and immobilizes women as they make decisions.
In addition, women express;
Financial concerns: The expenses of having a frum family can be overwhelming even to a two-parent family. Additionally, many women marry young, with limited working skills and experience, and the mere thought of leaving a marriage and having to provide financially can be immobilizing. It’s daunting to consider leaving an abusive home if that means entering the cycle of poverty.
Not knowing themselves: After living in a relationship in which they are degraded, disrespected and controlled, victims often internalize this negative view of themselves. They see themselves as being incompetent and incapable, making it even more difficult to take the difficult steps to leave the relationship and rebuild their lives.
An overwhelming sense of fear: Individuals fear many things—they fear for their survival, or being alone, or losing their identity, of losing community status and standing. Perhaps the victims will not be believed, or will be blamed. Victims dread having to go to court. They are worried about losing hope, negotiating the change and starting again.
And LOVE-: Relationships are never black and white- and, an abused woman has personally invested a great deal into this relationship. At one point, and perhaps still now, she loved this person deeply, and despite everything these feelings are very real.
There are many factors that go into a decision to face painful reality, recognize the need for help and whether or not stay in a relationship. Each year, agencies and private clinicians treat hundreds of frum people (both men and women) for issues related to family violence. We, as a community, need to better understand the deep complexity and pain of these families. Without judging, we must offer support of victims of family violence in whichever decision they may make. We can and should encourage victims to seek professional help to empower them to make the decisions. Our community has resources available to support victims as they move forward, at their own pace. Instead of jumping to conclusions, let’s remain compassionate and be aware of the many issues that individuals are confronting. We are all together- as Jews, responsible for one another, Kol Yisroel Arevim Ze B’Ze- and can work together to ensure safety, stability and support for our community.
If you, or someone you know, need help- The Shalom Task Force has a confidential hotline that is available internationally to assist victims in connecting to resources, developing a safety plan and offering a supportive listening ear. The hotline is available at 718-337-3700 or 1-888-883-2323. More information is available at http://www.shalomtaskforce.org/
Met Council’s Family Services Program is able to help victims NYC (all 5 Boroughs) with clinical case management, safety planning, practical assistance and advocacy – the helpline is 212-453-9618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
 For the purpose of this article, masculine pronouns will be used when referring to perpetrators of domestic violence, while feminine pronouns will be used in reference to victims. This should not detract from the fact that there are many male victims and female perpetrators, however, this language reflects that according to the Center for Disease Control, the research reflects that nearly 1 in 4 women (22.3%) and 1 in 7 men (14.0%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.