And round we go again on this
When I would get into fights with my emotionally and occasionally physically abusive ex-boyfriend, he would often say to me, smugly, “If it’s so bad, why don’t you leave?” It was a rhetorical question, the intent behind it to remind me, as I was often reminded, that his treatment of me was my fault, that someone who was smarter or less emotional or whatever it was that day would command better treatment. Someone who could leave didn’t have to, apparently. I guess then it was also a challenge—be worthy enough to leave, and things will work out the way that you want them to.
Linda Hirshman objects to my statement about how badgering women in abusive relationships to just leave is doing the batterer’s work for him. I meant it in a pretty straightforward manner—when you echo the very words that batterers often use to tear down their victims, you’re doing their work for them. “Why don’t you just leave?” is another way of saying, “How stupid, weak, and miserable a person could you possibly be to put up with this?” It’s the grand catch-22 of abuse, especially when you’re in the thick of it. You need self-esteem to leave. But it’s hard to develop when the fact that you aren’t fighting for yourself means that you’re obviously not good enough to deserve to get out (something the abuser will happily remind you of if he thinks you’re getting uppity).
What I needed was to believe that I’m good enough, despite the piling up of evidence to the contrary, both out of the mouth of my ex and in the fact that I put up with it. Having suffered through that, I tend to be a little too quick to defend my good-enoughness in the face of slights from people in my life, but I figure I’ll take that over the fear of slipping back without realizing that’s what’s happening until it’s too late. I’m lucky, too, that I get a lot of outside validation, have friends, and have some pretty good evidence I could point to if anyone ever tried to tell me I’m not good enough again. So reading Linda’s article didn’t affect me emotionally, but I can imagine that if I were in the low point you get in when you’re stuck in the hamster wheel that is an abusive relationship, it would have made me feel like a piece of shit who didn’t deserve to have a better life because I’m obviously too weak to fight for it. But it’s hard to fight for yourself when you don’t believe you have anything to fight for, with exhibit #1 being that you’re too worthless to fight for yourself. Perhaps for some women, the fantasy of the rogue comes into play. Probably lots. But mostly it’s not feeling like you deserve to ask for more, and remember, the whole world is out there to tell women they’re bitches if they ask for anything.
Focusing the criticism on what makes abusers abuse is critical, because abusers blame the victim, and the victim often believes them, as apparently does the world. You’re all but hitting yourself, just by being so hittable, from standing there when you should be fleeing or being nagging, needy, stupid, what-the-fuck-ever. If we could get it into victims’ heads that no one deserves to be hit, that it’s 100%—120%—his fault, then maybe we can break the cycle of he hits me because I don’t deserve better/you can tell I don’t deserve better because I don’t leave. No, he hits you because he’s an asshole who likes hitting women.
I will say that I’m glad that this recent bout of writing and discussion on this topic is making people get into the particulars, because I think vague generalities don’t really do a good enough job of explaining why telling the victim it’s her fault he hits her because she puts up with it (with all the implications that you’re a stupid bitch that brings to the table) is not helpful. Because victims need to believe they’re not stupid bitches in order to say they don’t deserve this treatment. You’re not helping when you imply that yeah, you agree with their batterer that they’re kind of stupid.
That’s all I have to say on this subject. Hilzoy has a much better post.