Why does she stay? It’s a phrase I remember saying several years ago, before I began working in the field of domestic violence, after hearing the news of another celebrity whose wife was standing by him after video of him assaulting her was released.

Around the same time, a close family member began to open up to me about some problems in her new marriage. I remember what I told her then: read a marriage book, try counseling, make it work; stay. She later told me that was the same advice she got from her friends, her pastor, and other family members. What we didn’t know at the time was that the root of their problems was not just marriage issues; it was abuse.

So why do women stay in abusive relationships? They stay because, like what happened to my family member, abuse starts slowly. He comes home upset sometimes, he says he’s stressed about work, he makes excuses when his anger gets the best of him. But he always says he’s sorry and he even changes for a while. So she stays.

Why else do women stay? Because he’s the father of her children. Because she wants to keep their family together. Because he’s the sole provider for their household. So she stays.

Why do women stay? Because the person that everyone sees on Sunday mornings is very different than the one who strangles her on Sunday nights. Because when she opens up to her pastor, he tells her she needs to submit and pray for her husband. Because he’s told her over and over that no one will believe her. So she stays.

Why do women stay? Because he just hit her once, but he’ll never do it again. Because one moment of anger doesn’t cancel out a thousand moments of happiness. Because after he hurts her, he’s the only one who can make her feel better.

When a woman does leave an abusive relationship, she is often told that he is a good man; he regrets his anger. Her children need their father. She can’t provide for her family on her own. Her divorce isn’t biblical. She didn’t try hard enough. She didn’t stay long enough. She needs to make this work. She needs to stay.

So where should she draw the line? When is enough, enough? When he comes home angry is it worth leaving if it means sleeping in the car? When he starts in on the kids is it worth leaving when it means uprooting them from their only father?  Is it worth leaving over a black eye when he said he’d kill her if she ever left him?

What would you do? When would you leave? Why would you stay? Without any good options, sometimes it’s safer to maintain the status quo than to take a risk and maybe risk your life.

Once we understand the complexities of domestic violence, we can begin to respond to abuse by supporting women rather than questioning them in the midst of a path they didn’t sign up for and they never dreamed they would walk.

That’s why I’ve changed my question. I’m no longer asking why she stayed. I’m asking how I can help.

Here’s how you can help support women in abusive relationships:

  1. Make her emotional and physical safety your priority, not the status of her relationship. The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is the moment that she leaves. Help her begin to make a plan to stay or to leave as safely as possible.
  2. Support her whether or not she chooses to leave or to stay. Women often leave an abuser 6-7 times before they leave for the final time. Remember that the abuser is already pressuring her to do what he wants her to do. She doesn’t need pressure from her family and friends also.
  3. Look to her as the expert on her own life. Women experiencing domestic violence are already doing a lot to keep themselves and their children safe. They are the experts on how to keep themselves safe in the future.
  4. Refer her to Genesis. Women who have experienced domestic violence can seek help in many ways at Genesis including receiving shelter, safety planning, advocacy, and counseling services.

By Brooke Allen, Women and Children’s Therapist at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support