Abused Women: What the court doesn’t understand

I have followed the Oscar Pistorius case with great interest, and I was so shocked to hear that he was granted bail. In South Africa, apparently this is a huge strategic benefit for him before trial, because it will be much, much easier for him to have time to meet with his attorneys and craft the “perfect” defense.

As a family law attorney representing women exclusively, I see abusive situations all the time, and I can’t help but feel like there are many, many Reeva Steencamps out there. I’ve represented a few women in protective order cases, and occasionally I get cases that are even more serious. In a few rare cases, I’ve even seen things like assault, battery, stalking, and attempted murder.

Often, though, even after there has been some pretty serious domestic violence, the woman eventually goes back to her abuser. In court, the other attorney will try to make an argument to the judge that the woman wasn’t actually all that scared of him—because why else would she go back again and again? I’m always amazed by these arguments, and by the readiness with which they are accepted in court.

If the human heart could be so easily explained, I might feel differently. But the truth is that there are a number of factors at play here. Love is one part of the equation. Certainly, a lot of these women are desperately, dangerously in love with a person who is just bad for them. That happens. And just because you go back, hoping that this time he’ll make the changes he’s promised he’d make, doesn’t mean that you’re any less scared of how things could go down.

There’s also a different kind of fear. Not just fear of actual, physical bodily harm, but there’s also fear of what will happen if you’re NOT together anymore. What happens if you’re alone? How will you pay your bills? There are tons of ways you might reasonably feel like you “need” someone to be in your life, and it’s understandable that you may feel tempted to ignore red flags because the thought of going forward alone is just so incredibly intimidating.

Psychology is another reason. We’ve all heard of things like battered woman’s syndrome (though I think these days its battered spouse syndrome) and learned helplessness. I’m not a therapist and am therefore unfit to diagnose or treat any of these conditions. I do know, however, that why we stay or come back to relationships we know are abusive and self-destructive is extremely complicated.

I see so many reasons that women return to abusive relationships, and it seems so strange to me that, in the eyes of the court, it is sufficient to have opposing counsel argue that she returned and therefore she must not really be afraid. Or, worse, perhaps she actually had it coming because she should have known better.

This type of attitude is ignorant and untrue, and it perpetuates violence because it makes women in these situations feel as though they are to blame for the treatment they receive. If you, like many women before you, find yourself in an abusive relationship, I hope you won’t be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help.

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