#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. It’s not just a Twitter meme

Why? On Ray Rice | Mom-101.com
Abuse of women takes all forms. It is often where and when you least expect it. It is not the realm of the weak and emotionally compromised. It is not limited along socioeconomic lines. It is not always logical.

You may know this. Or, you may say it out loud, but deep down you ask yourself or whisper in hushed tones to like-minded friends, Why would they stay? I know I sure wouldn’t.

Because I used to be that way too.

The Ray Rice abuse video was extremely hard to watch yesterday, because I could imagine so many more familiar faces appearing there, above Janay Palmer’s shoulders. 

Since separating more than a year-and-a-half ago, I have been privy to a whole new genre of abuse stories that have poured out from friends and acquaintances I know–and even some I barely know. School parents. Neighbors. Colleagues. Childhood friends. It seems that once you split up, you find yourself (willingly or not) in this sometimes needy, more often incredibly comforting club of splitter-uppers; and suddenly every woman who’s going through something awful feels safe enough in your company to pull you aside and confess her most horrible secrets and stories of Oh my God, he did what??

In my experience, these have mostly been well-to-do women. On the outside seem to “have it all.” Some are stay-at-home mothers, some work high powered jobs. They may be from so-called good families. They may “know better than that.” They may seem wildly well adjusted in every other way.

And yet, some have escaped (or have yet to escape) lives peppered with shocking physical abuse–pushing, hitting, slapping. Sometimes worse. But far more suffered torturous emotional abuse, private disparagement, public humiliation to debilitating degrees. Many of them were mothers forced to pull themselves together and keep the family intact while keeping a strong face for their children and the outside world in general. Some of the psychological warfare used by their emotional abusers you’d think would be reserved for military interrogators.

It’s been very painful to hear.

Control Wheel of abuse

It’s also been challenging to acknowledge that this is not a “problem for other people.” It’s a problem with women you know. Women you personally know. I guarantee it.

These women are often strong, confident, successful and beautiful. They are not scared little sheep. They are not gold-diggers. They don’t “deserve it.” They often stayed in an abusive relationship because they felt they had to do everything they could to preserve their families for their children. Or because they truly believed the man would revert to the man they thought they fell in love with years ago. Because they thought they could fix it. Because they thought it was a phase. Or because sometimes the decline happens along such a slow grade, that you hardly even notice that the guy who used to snark at you in good fun has become a full-on abuser, preying on your weaknesses and exploiting your insecurities to compensate for his own damaged soul.

Often, women are too scared to leave. Too emotionally compromised. Too invested in the success of the relationship. Or simply too embarrassed to call a relationship quits; as if they are admitting some personal failure.

Shame is that powerful an emotion.

For anyone who has glanced at or gawked at or watched in horror at the full Ray Rice abuse video on TMZ like I have, I can only imagine that you–because the readers of this blog are thoughtful, compassionate and reasonable–would be moved. Or mortified. Or angry. Or determined to do something about it, whether speaking up on social media against the NFL, condemning Ray himself, blasting an overall culture of domestic abuse.

Of course this being the internet, plenty of responses are not any of these things at all. I see men accusing the victim of staying because Rice is rich. I see men accusing the victim of asking for it. I see men saying that it’s appropriate for “women to get checked when they get out of line.” I saw the damn NFL team tweet that Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident, because God forbid a man who beats a woman unconscious then drags her limp body face down across the floor, halfway out of an elevator take full responsibility for being the worthless douchebag that he is.

I was going to post some infuriating comments from the original TMZ Sports thread but screw them. They don’t deserve the bandwidth. They are trolls, or sadists or psychopaths, or simply stupid. Probably a combination of all of those things. And I hope nothing like this ever happens to their own sisters, mothers, wives, daughters.

However what has stayed with me more than the hate and the idiocy is the confessional outpouring using the #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed hashtags. I find some of them even harder to stomach than the original video, to be honest. So many stories that need to be heard.  So many comments that need to drown out those of the ignorant or foolish.


I hope they help the people they need to help. And that includes women like me, who once would have silently asked myself, why wouldn’t she just leave him? 

Now I know. There are so so many answers.

Karen from SubMommy tweeted this TED Talk from Leslie Morgan Steiner on why domestic violence victims don’t leave.

National Domestic Violence Hotline is open all day and night, and it’s not just for physical abuse: 1-800-799-7233

And to any woman who has ever shared a story with me about abuse, to any woman who has ever kept one to herself, may this in some way throw open a huge, rusty door and help the healing begin.


Top Photo Credit: Good Eye Might via Compfight cc


NOTE: Please excuse the technical difficulties with my site right now. We’re working on it!  (Grrrr stupid WP 4 upgrade.)


47 thoughts on “#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. It’s not just a Twitter meme”

  1. Very powerful post, Liz, thank you.

    I so wished that by 2014, violence against women would be a thing of the very distant path.

  2. It’s amazing that victims of abuse are blamed publicly and worse of all blame themselves for all they endure. Thanks for speaking up.

  3. Thank you for expressing what’s been rolling around in my head the past few days. 5 Octobers ago, a preschool teacher at my kid’s school left her abusive husband. She took her three year old twin daughters and got a new apartment. But things were in that insidious phase where, though she knew she couldn’t be with him, she thought maybe he could still be a good dad. As I’m sure you know, drop-offs and pickups and the time right after a woman leaves her abusive mate are the most dangerous times. one evening, she thought she was picking up her girls, but instead, he knocked her out and torched the home they had shared- with them both inside. They both died. The girls were safe at his parent’s house. Now they live with extended family. Sometimes, that’s what happens when you leave. NOT that I think anyone should stay in an abusive situation, just that sometimes, it’s so much more complicated and dangerous to leave than can be imagined from a place of safety. Thanks, friend.

  4. I’ve been mesmerized by these too, Liz. I found myself open to yet another thought process yesterday too. After watching the video – horrified and seeing the rest of the day unfold, my initial reaction was GOOD! when the Ravens released Rice. I was seeing much of that same sentiment in my social stream. While I was disappointed the decision was coming too late, I didn’t think he deserved to stay on the team, but then I saw my lovely friend Alexandra Rosas say on FB that instead of feeling relieved, as herself, once a victim of domestic abuse, she FEARED for Janay Rice – as abusers often blame the victim when they are punished….. and my perspective shifted. Having never experienced that level of abuse, I can’t imagine the depth of fear or the way she (and so many others) must feel.

      1. I saw the same thing and THOUGHT the same thing. I can’t imagine how much it must hurt to be re-living the experience so publicly and for yesterday (and today) to have unfolded as they have. It is clear from her statement that she feels so isolated. It breaks my heart.

  5. I remember one night asking him to leave my college apartment. He did, without argument, but as he passed on the balcony he lifted his hand, made splay gun with his hand, looked at me and shot the gun. A week later, back with him, he placed a gun under my pillow with his hand on it. He told me it was a Sig Sauer, which was Greek to me. I understood the message. I remember thinking, “This doesn’t happen to people like me.”
    It did. He told me I’d never find anyone else. He told me I’d end up with women. He told me I was always going to be short of good enough.
    Months later he waited outside of my apartment, he pounded on the window and called me a whore. There are so many more stories. I fight every day to not be ashamed of the four years I lost, then I remember that I’m alive.

    1. Liz, your words are always a refuge. I love you for that. Amanda, that you’ve come away from those years with so much beauty to share…well, it’s amazing. Thank you for being open about an experience no one should have to go through. Ever.

  6. I keep hearing this lyric from Nine Inch Nails in my head: “I was up above it. Now I’m down in it.”

    Inertia is a powerful force, and we all wear blinders to some extent. What we may think is a clearly defined line gets wider and blurrier. Leaving may bring it into sharper focus, but it’s never cut and dried, black and white.

  7. Wow, Liz, just wow. My mom stayed with my abusive father for 40 years until she finally had enough and the courage to leave. She is the most courageous woman I have ever met. #WhyIStayed is such an important hash tag that pulls the strings of my heart.

    1. One of the most profound things I had ever heard in response to women who stay in abusive relationships “for the kids” is that no child ever grew up to say “thanks for staying in that miserable marriage for me.” If anything, they become angry that the parent who stayed didn’t do anything about it. Kudos to your mother’s bravery; I can only imagine the courage and sacrifice that took.

      And now…she’s got one awesome daughter to show for it.

  8. I had to come to the harsh reality that the abuse would only get worse and it did. I wanted to fix everything. I wanted to be capable of everything. It’s hard to be capable when someone is calling you names, slapping you around, and spitting on you not to mention the worse of it. Much love to you ladies. I hope more of us escape that life <3

  9. I read posts like this and wonder to myself what I can say to my girls to help them know how to avoid being mired in such a situation. I’d like to think we’ve taught them that they are cherished and deserving of respect, but we are all in the end at the mercy of our own internal narrative, and my girls will have to write those for themselves. It scares me. I feel on firmer parental footing with my son, being able to teach him how to respect and care for others. Respecting and caring for yourself can be so much harder.

    1. You’re right Korinthia, mothers of boys have their work cut out for them. Julie Marsh pointed out that Chuck D on Twitter was asking, “where is her father in all this?” Her father? How about his father?

      1. yes.
        this is an enormous responsibility as a mother to boys.
        its not just sexual responsibility we have to teach, but respect for a woman, her body, mind and soul.
        its crushing at times – the weight of it.

        and thank you, liz. as always, you are profound, strong, brilliant and an advocate for so many.

        aack, that last tweet has the tears pouring out of me.

  10. Thank you for writing this. There are so many reasons why people stay in emotionally and physically abusive relationships. When I worked in a high school, I saw the grooming behaviors of current and future abusers. Having a cell phone constantly available makes it even more terrifying, much like bullying for teenagers.

    The time immediately after leaving is also the most dangerous time for women. It’s one of the reasons there is federal legislation trying to work its way through a stymied House and Senate that both opens up the definition of domestic violence to include stalkers and dating partners (which isn’t true in all states) and keeps those with temporary restraining orders from being able to keep or purchase firearms.

  11. I still sometimes hold my upper arms and can feel and see the bruises and welts that he would leave. I still feel like yesterday, that night that he threw me over the couch and onto the table and then the floor before he grabbed my hair to drag me down a flight of stairs. How he told me he’d kill me. How it still took me another two years to leave. And what those two years looked and felt like. And how 16 years, a new and good marriage, and three kids later – is still not enough to dull that fear, that pain, or that worry. And how, if ever, will I ever tell this story to my daughters.

    1. Tracy, my heart is with you. I’m so glad you’re in a safe, loving place. I hope that dulls the pain at least somewhat.

  12. Fellow divorcee here. I know what you mean about how your friends suddenly start confiding in you after you split up. When I was recently separated, I had a divorced mom friend who warned me about it. She called it The Curse of the Overshare – your friends all think it’s safe to confide in you, because surely you’ll understand. I have been privy to some truly horrible stories that I wish I didn’t know.

    I’m thankful for the fact that I have nothing to contribute to this hashtag. My marriage broke up for probably a hundred reasons, but abuse wasn’t one of them. I wish the same was true for others.

  13. I cried reading this, Liz. Thank you. I am Janay Rice too, and I can imagine how she feels, because I have been in her shoes.

  14. This is why I no longer watch the news. Before I was a stay at home mom, I worked for an organization that helped child sexual abuse survivors. A fantastic organization, but the stories…. Oy! And now, having kids of my own, my heart just can’t take it. And once I see it and hear about it, it stays. I can’t get rid of it. So I’m a little embarrassed to say that this is the first I’m hearing of this story. It just makes me sad for everyone involved. And instantly I was reminded of Susan Still, a woman who was on Oprah probably 10 years ago. Her young son was made to video tape her abuse by his father. They showed probably 10 minutes of footage of a 5 hr tirade…which was a blip on the timeline of years of abuse she endured.

    I don’t think I can read the twitter feeds…although I think having a forum like that is one of the best sides of social media. Great post, as always, Liz. And thanks to so many commenters for sharing their stories. Telling is such an important part of the healing process….

    1. I am in awe of people like you who can hold jobs like that. I have trouble working on PSAs at ad agencies sometimes. Thanks for contributing to the conversation Heather, even (and especiallY) because it’s so hard.

  15. Liz, this may well be the best thing you’ve ever written and you’ve written a lot of great things. I cried reading it, because I was this person, too, and for the longest time I didn’t even know it. It is insidious, how his behavior changed. And even now, it sometimes feels overly dramatic to say to some on who asks “why did you get divorced” that I was married to a mentally and emotionally abusive narcissist. That is what society does to delegitimize such things. In my head, it is the only the physical manifestations–he punched a hole in the wall, he threw something–that make it feel objectively “provable.” Ridiculous thinking, but that is what our society does when it comes to this type of thing.

  16. I stayed with my ex for 7 years and he abused me every way possible. I left him when kids were 3 and 1. Was told I would never live to see child support so we split kids. I got 1 year old daughter he got 3 year old son. We ended up with domestic violence order right after divorce was final because he wanted daughter and we couldn’t agree on set time. He proceeded to threaten me over an answering machine. That got me a reprieve for 3 years. We had no set visitation. Which sucked for not seeing my son but worked good for my daughter. When my daughter was 6 he sexually abused her by making her touch him. She didn’t tell me this until last February and she is now 12. We are now in process of prosecuting him. She hasn’t seen him since she was 9. We got visitation of my son in May and he told me that his dad had been physically abusing him so with that I got full custody of him. So now the part that worries me is no longer has control. We all know abusers don’t like losing control. I just hope prosecution happens quick.

    1. Kristie I can’t thank you enough for being willing to share this. I hope that piece of shit gets everything coming to him. I am sending all good thoughts and white light to you and your family – may you all find peace , healing, and a brighter future in your new life together.

  17. It’s so much easier to criticize things you don’t understand I suppose. I blocked a handful of people today on Facebook for their victim-blaming bullshit.

    1. Your post is going to stay with me a long time Jennifer. If I were you I’d be blocking everyone too. Keep yourself safe and well.

  18. Thank you for your post. I was one of the women saying, “Why would she stay? This kind of behavior does not happen to people that I know.” Then I read this NYTimes article written by a woman that I grew up with: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/fashion/the-view-from-the-victim-room-modern-love.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1410387734-5QbZnUZ2mEOpJxp3XSPbNg

    I had no idea that she had been in an abusive relationship. We grew up in upper-class suburbia. She is brilliant, beautiful, funny and an incredible poet. She lived on my street. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to, “US.” It was shocking to realize that it does. It could have been me, or any of us.

    Thank you for using your gifts of authenticity and writing to create a platform for the exposure and awareness of the Domestic Abuse issue. I believe that women can only gain strength and courage thanks to your candor and supportive responses to reader’s comments.

  19. I left an abuser when I realized his drug use was out of control, that his total control over me was out of control. I was 19, he was 36. As I said to him, “I’m leaving, I can’t take it anymore, goodbye,” he grabbed me, threw me into a wall, picked me up by my throat, pushed my face into the sofa, and whispered, “It’s a soundproof building, bitch. No one will hear you scream.” I managed to get away, get home, and call the police. Years later I would leave a husband who, after a year and a half of emotional and verbal abuse turned physical abuse, drunkenly admitted to killing one of our cats and an unnamed human being. It’s been 27 and 19 years since I’ve seen or spoken to either one, and the retelling makes me shiver.

  20. My daughter. #WhyILeft

    Thank you for this. The story is just sad. Every part of it more maddening that the part before. And yet, posts like this remind me that more people care out there than just the loud voices on TV, radio, newspapers, etc. I hope that, at the end of the day, Janay Palmer finds strength to do what makes her happy, healthy, and thriving.

  21. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the universe for being in a relationship where I can raise my voice. That’s not to say that I enjoy frustration and argument, but that I know it will eventually lead to a new sense of clarity instead of a blackeye.

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