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The Wrong Question to Ask Abuse Victims: Why Didn't You Leave?

How did the popular lexicon get it so wrong?

Key points

  • Asking a victim of abuse why they didn't leave their abuser is a popular question, however it's a damaging one.
  • Lenore Walker's 1979 tension‐reduction theory claims abuse occurs in three cyclical stages, however it has been criticized for potentially furthering victim blame.
  • It is difficult to imagine why a person who has suffered seemingly horrifying mistreatment would stay in a situation of danger.
Siermachesky Shutterstock
Source: Siermachesky Shutterstock

In mid-February of this year, FKA Twigs, a British singer-songwriter, filed a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend, American actor Shia LaBeouf, alleging domestic violence and severe abuse. In the CBS interview that followed, seasoned interviewer Gayle King pointedly asked: "Why didn't you leave?"

FKA Twigs' response, which was largely praised by media outlets, summarized perfectly why we need a new lexicon to support those who disclose abuse: "I think we have to stop asking that question. The question should really be to the abuser: 'Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?' People say it can't have been that bad, because else you would've left. But it's like, no, it's because it was that bad, I couldn't leave."

Without an understanding of abuse psychology, or if one has fortunately never been in an abusive situation themselves, it is difficult to imagine why someone who has suffered seemingly horrifying mistreatment would stay in a situation of danger, distress, and degradation. Out of human curiosity, the question is a natural and logical one, however, the reality of abusive relationships is important to understand to conceptualize why it is a damaging question to ask and to further honor the bravery of victims who come forward and to receive their disclosure with the compassion and support they deserve.

According to a popular understanding of abuse, which research and clinical psychologists now see as a biased theory based on limited experiences, psychologist Lenore Walker's 1979 tension‐reduction theory claims abuse occurs in three distinct and cyclical stages:

(1) Tension Building

In this stage, the abusive partner feels stressors that may or may not be related to the relationship. For instance, the abusive partner may be experiencing increased pressure from work and as the intensity of the stressful feelings grows, it spills over into the relationship. Through time, as the cycle repeats, the victim may begin to feel anxious, as though they may be walking on eggshells when his or her partner begins feeling increased stress.

(2) Incident of Abuse, Acute Battering

In this stage, the abusive partner releases his or her tension and stress through a myriad of abusive strategies, which may include verbal abuse (insults and name-calling), sexual or physical assault, emotional manipulation (inducing feelings of remorse or guilt or making threats), breaking objects, or attempting to control the victim through various means, like not allowing them to see friends, for instance.

Here, the abusive partner may also blame the victim or suggest they are deserving of the mistreatment or that it is their fault.

(3) Honeymoon Phase

After the abusive incident, the abusive partner often engages in over-the-top gestures in apologizing for the abuse, entering the relationship into a honeymoon phase, as he or she showers the victim with attention, kindness, gifts, and other acts of love, along with false promises to never allow him or herself to act in an abusive way again. In this stage, with the victim feeling reassured the abuse is unlikely to return.

Over time, however, the cycle repeats, with each phase becoming shorter and shorter.

Can you spot why the tension-reduction theory may further attitudes of victim-blaming and for questions like why didn't you leave? to arise?

To see the response and how you can better support abuse victims, see Part II here.

References

Sanchez, C. (2021, February 19). FKA twigs wants us to stop ASKING Survivors why they didn't leave their abusers. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a35535551/fka-twigs-gayl…

Wilson, J. K. (2019). Cycle of Violence. The Encyclopedia of Women and Crime, 1-5.

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