Why our loved ones can’t ‘just leave’ their abusive relationships

ICT editorial team

Our traditions tell us that as good relatives, our role is to be there to love and support loved ones, no matter what

Mallory Black

StrongHearts Native Helpline

A few weeks ago, I woke up from a quick nap to that all-too familiar rumbling from my phone. This time, a text that read, "Sent my friend home on a bus. She was fleeing domestic violence. She promised, she won't go back."

The sender was a relative, a fierce Native woman with one of the biggest hearts I've ever known. She had recently run into an old friend at the casino. Her friend had shared that her boyfriend was abusing her; my relative was eager to do anything to help. She offered her friend money for a bus ticket to get away from her abusive boyfriend, but the money came with one condition: she had to promise she wouldn't go back to him again. 

Now, my relative isn’t a therapist, and she doesn’t have any training in the dynamics of abusive relationships: she is the mother, the grandmother, the auntie and cousin we all know — a strong Native woman who lives day-in and day-out for her family and protects those closest to her without a second thought. She is like many Native women who feel a responsibility — a duty — to ease the suffering of those around them.

Like my relative, I too feel this responsibility to help my people and community: I've served in my role at the StrongHearts Native Helpline for more than a year now, and while it’s been an incredible, life-changing journey, it’s never been clearer that the roots of violence and colonialism are tethered and buried deep. It will take time and effort, from all of us together, to unearth what lurks beneath. Although to begin that process of eradicating what has become normalized violence in our communities, we must stop putting the onus on survivors for the trauma and violence they have undergone.

No one intentionally falls in love with someone who hurts them.

No one asks to be hit, pushed or slapped.

No one asks to be criticized, put down or threatened.

No one asks to be abused. Period.

What my relative didn’t know — and what I have learned along the way — is that it takes seven attempts at leaving before someone will leave their abusive partner for good. While on the surface, it may seem simple: if you’re being hurt by your partner, then leave, right? Get out. Don’t look back. But reality doesn’t work that way and it’s not so simple: being in an abusive relationship is so much more complicated than it seems. 

Whether you love your abuser, have children together or are married, there are so many reasons why someone might stay with an abusive partner, especially if they fear what might happen if they left. Think of what an abusive partner might do to punish their partner for trying to escape. That’s a dangerous place to be.

After gathering my thoughts and a quick chat on the phone, my relative began to realize: maybe her friend’s situation wasn't so black-and-white after all. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to make a friend promise never to return to someone they love again.

I don’t blame my relative — it's nearly impossible to understand all the reasons why people stay in an abusive relationships, reasons that may seem to go against all logic or reason. But it's not our role to judge, because at the end of the day, it’s not about you or me. Our traditions tell us that as good relatives, our role is to be there to love and support our loved ones, no matter what. 

I reminded my relative not to get mad or be upset if her friend ‘broke her promise’ and went back to her abusive boyfriend. It happens. It's common. I told my relative that she might be that one person who makes all the difference—that one person her friend felt safe enough to reach out to, that one person who’s still standing by when no one else would. I was proud of my relative for not turning away, for believing in and supporting her friend. For wellness, I told my relative to burn some sage, not just for her, but for all of us.

The "all" I'm referring to are Native women, where four in five Native women have experienced physical violence at the hands of their intimate partners and are killed by their partners at 10 times the national average.

It is for all Native women who are too often forgotten in the greater conversation around violence against women, though I would be remiss innot mentioning that as a result of other movements taking place such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, it seems much safer for all survivors of domestic violence to come forward and speak their truth.

Every day is a promise to our ancestors that we will look out for one another. If someone you know confides in you and shares their truth, take a moment to be kind and speak with compassion, not frustration or judgment. Let your loved one know it’s okay to reach out for help. That’s one promise we all must keep, because our survival depends on it.

Mallory Black is Diné (Navajo) and communications manager for theStrongHearts Native Helpline(1-844-7NATIVE), an anonymous and confidential helpline for Native Americans experiencing domestic violence and dating violence. She is of the Bitter Water Clan, born for the Near to the Water Clan.

*If you need to talk abouthow you can support your loved one, speak with a StrongHearts advocate by dialing 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483) Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Central time to get help. Callers after hours will have the option to connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline or to call back on the next business day. All calls remain anonymous and confidential.