The implication behind all the outside advice Sarah got was that this problem was somehow a communication issue, and if they could just listen to each other, it would be solved. You know, kind of like how you need to let your spouse know that you don't actually like their meatloaf, and that you've always eaten it to avoid hurting their feelings ("Well shit, honey, why didn't you say something before?"). But that's naive; what abusers want/need is control, at all costs. Even if you can get them to give up certain behaviors (say, threatening to call the police if they get violent again), getting them to give up their need for control requires fundamentally changing who they are as a person. It's not that this kind of change never happens, but you sure as fuck can't count on it.
But don't take our word for it. Experts recommend against going to couples counseling at all when the relationship is abusive. There's no point. Usually, the abuser will see the counseling as one more way to get control (for instance, by using the sessions to put all of the blame on the partner) or as a threat to their power (in which case, they'll stop going the moment the counselor recommends any meaningful change, often claiming they were the victim of bias).
That means that, yes, leaving is often the only choice. But ...
Leaving Doesn't Magically Fix Everything
At the end of the movie Waitress, the hero faces her abuser down, threatens him, tells him she wants a divorce, and that's it. She gets to move on and live her life in peace (it's basically the end of Sleeping With The Enemy, except instead of Julia Roberts shooting her husband to death, Keri Russell wins a local pie-baking contest and opens a diner). And as wonderful as that sounds, no one we spoke to got to close this shitty chapter of their lives so easily.
"Two weeks [after I left her], she called me, threatening to kill herself," Dean told us. "She had just had sex with someone and had been kicked out of that house ... she wanted me to calm her down, and I did. After that call, we've talked a few times, off and on. If she called me tonight after this interview to calm her down, I'd do it again."
Will's situation was more antagonistic. "I wanted a week away ... some friends invited me to stay with them. Within two days of my being there, she sent them a letter telling them I was mentally unstable, so they asked me to leave. Now, I always feel like everybody wants to get the jump on me. What if they are trying to manipulate me?"
Vincent Giordano/Hemera/Getty Images
Though we can't help but feel that the person mailing unsolicited mental
evaluations might not have the most credibility in that department.
But at least he had somewhere to go. When Diane left, she ended up living in a homeless shelter. "I started thinking that maybe he was really right. Maybe I am all the terrible things he told me I was," she said. "I'm just alone, by myself, with nothing, on the street." For that month, Diane joined the 63 percent of homeless women who have suffered domestic violence. She left the shelter because "I felt like I didn't deserve to be there. I was out of place. There were people who were in worse places than I was that needed a bed more than I did." So where in a movie, this would be the part where the credits rolled over an upbeat song with hopeful lyrics, Diane ended up moving into her car with her cat, only for the animal to die shortly afterwards. If you think it was a downer for us to tell you that, well, try living it sometime.
Except don't, because no one deserves that.
As for Sarah, she says that to this day, the abuse she suffered has changed the way she interacts with men. "It makes me really anxious to be around healthy couples. I'll be around my friends in healthy marriages, and when the woman is being blunt or ribbing her husband or joking around, it really freaks me out. Because what if he gets mad? I had a friend who said 'Go get the baby, he's crying,' and I panicked. 'Oh my gosh, you didn't say please go get the baby. He's going to think you're telling him what to do.'"
Today, Sarah has rebuilt her life and is raising her daughters, still having to interact with her abuser, due to the children, but now with a home of her own and good relationships. Yet she still can't forget, or go back to seeing the world the way she did before. "No one really understands it when I explain it to them. But knowing that there are so many women who will spend their lives in these situations -- women who don't know they should leave, women who aren't allowed to leave -- it makes me feel guilty that I was able to."
Victims of domestic violence can visit TheHotline.org or call 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224
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