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Gender Block: why didn’t she leave?

Hillary Di Menna

It wasn’t easy leaving my abusive ex. He was cooler than me; people liked him. Girls were jealous of me because he was good-looking. No one believed me when I shared only a fragment of what was happening behind closed doors, and if they did, they would remind me if it were that bad, I’d leave.

So I did. And then I was faced with more discouraging questions: Was I sure I wasn’t exaggerating? I got through court dates and the gossip. I re-grouped, and I had help from some family members and Luke’s Place, an amazing Durham Region-based organization that helps abused women get through the court process.

But why did I need help? It sounds simple: If someone is hurting you, you leave, you certainly don’t continue an intimate relationship with the person. As the Canadian Women’s Foundation points out, however, it isn’t that easy:

Domestic abuse is often a gradual process, with the frequency of assaults and seriousness of the violence slowly escalating over time. Since abusers often express deep remorse and promise to change, it can take years for women to admit that the violence will never stop and the relationship is unsalvageable. The long-term experience of being abused can destroy a woman’s self-confidence, making it more difficult for her to believe that she deserves better treatment, that she can find the courage to leave, or that she can manage on her own.


Band Back Together, a weblog maintained by “a band of survivors,” describes emotional abuse as brainwashing: “it erodes a person’s self-esteem, confidence, and trust in their own judgment.” In other words, if you’re abused your thought process becomes hardwired with doubting. You ask yourself questions like: “Am I sure what is happening is abuse?”

This is hard to shake off. (In many cases, people won’t let you shake it off.) In my life, no matter what accomplishments I’ve made since, there will always be people who are certain that I am incapable of making any healthy decisions. Maybe it is out of a place of concern, I’d like to think, but I also know better: if you want to help an abuse victim feel like they are competent again, telling them what to do and questioning their life decisions does not help.

Violence Against Women, a section on a U.S. site,  says you can’t rescue an abused friend: “Support her no matter what her decision.”

If you have a friend who cannot leave, or are being abused and are struggling to leave, know that this does not make you a bad person—it just means your abuser is very good. It just means that leaving an abuser is incredibly difficult. provides the following Dos and Don’ts:

Do: ask if something is wrong, express concern, listen and validate, offer help, support his or her decisions.

Don’t: Wait for him or her to come to you, judge or blame, pressure him or her, give advice, place conditions on your support.

Half of all Canadian women have experienced physical or sexual violence. This isn’t a problem regarding poor choices, it is an issue that deserves more attention and victim support.

A former This intern, Hillary Di Menna writes Gender Block every week and maintains an online feminist resource directory, FIRE- Feminist Internet Resource Exchange.

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