Skip to Content

How To Understand Why Victims of Abuse Don’t Leave

How did a jingle singer become a therapist?

It took years.

I began the journey by volunteering at the Battered Women’s Shelter in Dallas. I was singing jazz at the Fairmont Hotel bar. My night would end at 1:00 am. The shelter needed someone for the 2:00 – 6:00 am crisis intervention line on the Sunday morning shift.

I was up. So it seemed like a great fit.

I began what would change my life forever. I ended not only manning the crisis line, but training other volunteers.

How To Understand Why Victims of Abuse Don't Leave: domestic abuse

I got to know the women.

I watched a really great woman with a broken leg go back to her husband. He had thrown her out of a pickup truck, going full speed down the highway. I listened while men screamed, “Quit protecting that whore of a wife and tell me where the damn shelter is. I’m coming to get her.” She would stay a few days, get a sweet call from the same man, and return home. I heard the shelter director talk to women who were going back about how to protect themselves from the worst of what could happen to them.

I talked with others that swore this was it.

What is so hard about leaving?

To help potential volunteers gain understanding, we would go through an exercise. By this time, we had all had spent the day together and had built a kind of camaraderie. We had told our own stories and knew the reasons we were invested in helping victims. We felt a bond.

It might be interesting for you to actually try the exercise while reading.

First, write down the three most valuable things in your life. Put them on three separate pieces of paper. It could be your faith. It could be a child or a pet. It could be your integrity or your honesty. It could be a partner or spouse. But it has to be your top three.”

And we would wait a few minutes.

“Now, imagine that you are on a boat, with all the other people sitting in this room. You have been told it is a safe boat, and you are traveling a long way. So you have three pieces of luggage with you – symbolized by those three pieces of paper in your hands.”

“But the boat is in trouble. It is too heavy. Not everyone will survive – unless you throw one piece of luggage overboard.”

Some people would gasp. Some might smile a little nervously.

“So please fold up one piece of paper, and throw it away.

Different things might happen. Sometimes all would be able to throw at least one piece away. Sometimes someone would refuse.

“Remember, you will be responsible for all these people losing their life – if you don’t throw a piece of luggage overboard.”

When we repeated the same instructions – but for the second piece of luggage – there was usually out and out mutiny.

By the third? Tears. Shock. Demoralization. Rage. Submission.

And this was a conceptual guided visualization. Not real life.

Victims fear that they will lose things that are dear to them – in order to leave. Their emotions run deep as they consider how or when. They have been told, over and over, that they are at fault. They are ashamed they didn’t leave the first time it happened. Or the second. Or the third. And if they go, they will feel responsible for everyone’s life changing, and perhaps getting worse.

Some of you who are reading this are in emotionally or physically abusive relationships. If you are, please consider that there is another way to live. I have worked with women, who have been screamed at and belittled, knocked around, pushed, shoved, and slapped. They quietly go about getting things in order. They develop an exit plan. And they leave. (Click here for more information on exit plans.) I have worked with men, whose wives have spit out terribly cruel words, and violently raged against them. They leave after years of this domestic abuse.

It is possible.

But it’s far from easy.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence shelters usually run groups that are open to the public. Find out the number for the shelter in your area. Call and attend a group. If you can’t do that, call the local abuse hotline or the National Abuse Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE.


Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford has been in practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over 20 years. She began blogging in 2012 with the website “NestAche”, and following with in April 2014. Her work can be found here on Midlife Boulevard, as well as the Huffington Post, Boomeon, WeWantMore, BetterAfter50 and Arkansas Women Bloggers.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
TwitterLinkedInGoogle Plus


Thursday 22nd of October 2015

This is amazing. The exercise is something ALL humans should participate in. It really does help clarify.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 22nd of October 2015

Thanks Michelle. I have remembered it all these years because I thought it was so powerful.


Thursday 22nd of October 2015

I did the exercise as I read. I picked my three kids as the most important items. In the exercise, I couldn't throw them overboard, but I had to in real ex/narcissist has custody.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 22nd of October 2015

That sounds very painful Daisy. I would wonder if the exercise in some ways triggered some of those old feelings for you. Please take care of yourself.

Comments are closed.
Read previous post:
How Siri Ruined My Dinner

This post first appeared on Mona Andrei's personal blog, Moxie-Dude. I don’t usually like to start posts sounding paranoid but...