Why it’s so hard to just leave

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Sensitivity Warning: This article contains some details of a domestic violence incident.

For the last few days, a video released by CNN has been in heavy circulation on the news and online. The video shows Sean “Diddy” Combs, a hip hop artist and business mogul, assaulting his then-girlfriend, Cassie Ventura, an artist who was signed to his record label. Last November, Ventura filed a civil suit against Combs claiming years of abuse. For Combs, who had at first claimed innocence, the video was undeniable evidence supporting Ventura’s claim.

The suit was quickly settled, leaving many to suggest that she was only interested in money. Others thought she was lying. For those who believed her, some still wondered how she could have put up with being abused for so long or why she didn’t just leave.

In the now infamous video, Ventura was seen rushing barefoot down a hotel hallway with a small bag. She hurriedly pushed the button for the elevator before Combs was seen running down the hall after her. She was leaving the best way she knew how. Despite her best efforts, she was literally dragged back into a clearly volatile situation.

It was heartbreaking to hear people question Ventura’s motives for coming forward with her lawsuit — especially when it takes so much courage to speak up.

Years ago, I used to be a member of the “why can’t they just leave?” chorus. I thought it should be simple to pack your bags and get out of a situation that was clearly harmful. I was wrong. It’s hard to leave, sometimes even impossible.

Until I met survivors who were willing to share their stories, I could not begin to understand. When I sat in their homes and looked in their faces and heard their pain, I slowly started to get it. What I learned was that most of the women I met deeply loved their partners and just wanted their relationships to be better. They, like many of us, wanted peace in their homes. It was often hard for them to make sense of how the person they cared for could want to hurt them. They had hoped things would get better. It rarely, if ever, did.

“Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence,” according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “One study found in interviews with men who have killed their wives that either threats of separation by their partner or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that lead to the murder.”

I have heard firsthand from survivors who escaped or attempted to escape their abusers. Sometimes, they left with just the clothes on their backs. They left with a friend or loved one or all alone. They left afraid or distraught or in a state of confusion. They left in the rain or in the snow, on foot and without transportation, with their children or without their children, with a bit of money or without a penny to their name. Some left with a plan or a place to stay. Some did not. In other words, they left the best way they knew how.

The more I heard, the more knowledge I gained, and the more I could see why it was just so hard to leave. It was not a matter of strength, social status or self-esteem. Abuse has no demographic. It can happen to anyone at any time.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are specific “tactics abusive partners use to keep survivors in a relationship.” These include intimidation, isolation, emotional manipulation, making light of their partner’s concerns, guilt, withholding money, not allowing their partner to work, coercion and threats. 

The judgments targeted toward survivors are both inaccurate and harmful. When a person’s life hangs in the balance, that is when they need support the most. Carrying doubt and shame from others should be the least of their worries. Their safety quite literally comes first.

Advocates are needed in this space. The voices of those who understand, empathize and care need to be louder than those making people feel ashamed or guilty. The accusations against survivors who come forward discourage others who have not yet been able to seek help.

The chorus of support needs to be heard loudly and continuously. No one should ever be made to feel too ashamed to get help because it is not easy to just leave.

If you or someone you know needs assistance, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).