Ever since video footage of NFL player Ray Rice viciously punching his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer into unconsciousness and then callously dragging her body out of an elevator was revealed by TMZ, I have been stunned by the number of people choosing to either downplay the incident or not take it seriously because Palmer still chose to marry him.
"If she can't be bothered to walk away after that, why should I care?" has been the prevailing logic and repeated reasoning among the Twitter folk apparently unmoved by the image of a 200-lb running back punching a woman out cold.
"She's just staying for his money," people unclear on the concept of marriage entitling the partner to half of one's assets, are tweeting.
"She started it by spitting on him. That b*tch crazy," was some of the wisdom found on social media.
"Some women sure know how to ruin careers," tweeted another, choosing to put the focus on Rice who will -- alas -- no longer be able to chase a football for this poor, lost Ravens fan's entertainment.
"Why doesn't she just pick up and leave?" was a common question asked or implied repeatedly on my Facebook wall, by well-meaning (male, usually) friends, that left me exasperated and angry after a few hours.
Why didn't Janay Palmer just pick up and leave?
Because it's not that simple. And to think that it is simplifies an issue that is as complex and multilayered as human nature itself. To choose to see it in simple shades of black and white is to choose to forget about the million shades of grey everything becomes once you are part of that co-dependent, abusive equation.
Domestic abuse is a long and complex pattern of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, which slowly but inevitably chips away and erodes a person's self-esteem and self-worth. When a person is continuously victimized and abused, they lose all perspective of who they are, what they deserve, what other options exist. They feel locked in to something they don't have the power -- or are too fearful -- to flee from. And it's not as simple as just "walking away."
Blanket statements judging women for being too weak or not morally strong enough to walk away do a real disservice to abuse victims, because they victimize them all over again. First off, many women who find themselves in unhealthy abusive relationships have grown up in households where similar dynamics existed. They often confuse intense jealousy and rage with love and being needed. They are unable to see the difference.
Do not underestimate the long-term corrosive effects of emotional abuse on its victims. It renders them helpless in many instances, and it greatly diminishes their judgement, leaving them in a constant state of fear and stress. Abusers often isolate their victims from friends and family, leaving them with no sounding board, no one to talk to. Left all alone, they start questioning their own reality. Sometimes they are the first to justify and attempt to explain away the abuse. Particularly when they are in love with their abuser.
Remember, abusers in most cases are charming. Often, they are extremely likeable and social, successful and popular with many. They work that charm and use it to their advantage. When they repent, they promise to never do it again. They cry, they plead, they beg. They may even be genuinely sorry about the hurt they caused.
"The average batterer is more likable than his victim, because domestic violence affects victims a lot more than it affects batterers. Batterers don't lose sleep like victims do. They don't lose their jobs, they don't lose their kids." In contrast, "a lot of victims come across as messed up." ("A Raised Hand" - Rachel Louise Snyder)
To these women (eager to externalize or rationalize the reasons for abuse) this isn't just the monster who kicked them down the stairs or told them they were worthless. He's also the man who romanced them and won their heart, the man they sleep next to, the man they make love to, the man who may be the father of their children, the man they build a life with together.
I have seen really smart, confident, powerful women put up with really stupid things for love. I include myself in that list. It is very easy to explain away what you don't want to see or feel when you are head over heels over someone. It's not an excuse for allowing someone to hurt you (emotionally or physically) but it is an explanation of why it often takes so long for victims to walk away. To walk away from him is to walk away from the good moments, from the dream of that life. The possibility of what might have been, if only he could change and see the light.
The light rarely appears, of course, because change does not come without relentless hard work and therapy, and most abusers are in denial, aided by a society that prefers to look away or downplay what they do. And "walking away" is rarely a moment, but mainly a process of failed attempts and repeated heartache, until one day the pain or the fear becomes too much to bear.
Factor in there, pressure from family members "to work it out" and "not give up on the marriage," the fear of being alone, the fear of not having the financial means to be on your own, the fear of escalating violence on you and perhaps your children if an attempt to leave is made (statistically, abused women and their children are in the most danger when they try to escape the violence), the shame and humiliation of everyone finding out you were a victim of abuse (because what our society often does best is re-victimize the victim), and one suddenly sees that "why doesn't she just walk away?" isn't the question we should be asking, but rather "how do we make it easier for abuse victims to walk away?"
If I am referring to male abusers and female victims in this article, it's not because I am not aware that a significant number of male victims exist. Physical and psychological abuse is wrong; regardless of the gender (although men, because of their physical strength, can inflict much more damage to women than the other way around).
The reality is that the facts and figures clearly point out that is most certainly a women's issue. According to "A Raised Hand," a compelling New Yorker article worth reading to understand the complexities of domestic violence, 88 per cent of reported abuse victims are women. That number is actually thought to be closer to 95 per cent, but so many are hesitant to report the abuse. Over half the women killed in Canada are murdered by their husbands, or boyfriends. Not by strangers, but by the very people they loved and trusted.
If you want to truly understand why so many women have such a hard time leaving an abuser, read this compilation of tweets gathered under the #WhyIStayed hashtag. The tweets are revealing, heartbreaking, and often brutal to read. They gave me goosebumps.
Or read this amazing testimony from a domestic abuse survivor as she outlines the reasons. It's edifying to read.
It's simplistic and quite dismissive to assume that you would never find yourself in such a situation, and that those who do must obviously suffer from some sort of moral failing. Abuse victims didn't "ask for it" or "like it" or "cause it." They are victims, and asking "why didn't they just walk away" -- whether unintentional or not -- blames those victims.
We can do better.
Toula's writing on women's issues and feminism routinely appears on HeadSpace. This blog post originally appeared there.
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