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Domestic violence is trapping women in more than just bad relationships

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

Getting away from my abuser was only the first step in escaping

There are moments in my life that I can return to easily. I don’t have to close my eyes or envision the surroundings or what it smelled like. It might be a moment I can sit in effortlessly because that was what I was doing — sitting on an old love seat. My daughter and I had just moved in to a little place that was part of a row of cabins that made up the homeless shelter in Port Townsend, Washington. I had $100 dollars, no job and no self-worth.

Mia, my daughter, was already asleep in her Pack 'n' Play, and I had a book open in my lap. It was required reading for anyone seeking services at the local Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services. I’d only gotten it yesterday and was already halfway through. Lundy Bancroft was like a voice of reason, but also left me with quaking realizations. His book, so aptly titled, Why Does He Do That?, showed me, gently, that I’d been in an emotionally abusive relationship for the last year and a half with my daughter’s father. More importantly, he showed me I wasn’t crazy.

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I entered my new life as a single mother having not worked for a year, and without savings, since he’d spent the few thousand I’d blindly put into a shared account. This is often the case with women running from abusive relationships, where they escape with the clothes on their backs and not much else, if they’re lucky. Getting out puts the victim in the most danger, or the choice to leave is often from a climactic event where she feels she doesn’t have a choice, and flees in fear. But abusers can still have control and use that power, keeping victims in a financial state of uncertainty and poverty.

Sixty-four percent of domestic violence victims report that abuse kept them from working all or some of the time. Causes for their decline in productivity were "distraction" (57 percent); "fear of discovery" (45 percent); "harassment by intimate partner at work (either by phone or in person)" (40 percent); fear of intimate partner's unexpected visits" (34 percent); "inability to complete assignments on time" (24 percent); and "job loss" (21 percent).

“I think the important thing here, and the thing that society tends not to fully recognize, is that domestic violence isn't just about physical violence,” said Erica*, a single mom to two girls and domestic violence survivor, in a recent interview. “Domestic violence is a means of power and control, and there are so many different ways of exerting power. And so in my case, this power and control, though not absolute, was intense enough to keep me from having the resources I needed.”

Erica’s story began when she was young. “I entered into the relationship with absolutely no resources, no work experience and no college under my belt. I got pregnant within a year.”

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By the time Erica’s husband left for another woman, she had a 4-year-old and 1-year-old and nothing to her name. The divorce left her with a car and some pots and pans, but that wasn’t the end of her legal battles.

“He took me to court eight times in five years,” she said. “I came out of all my court battles with $60,000 in debt for my lawyer's retainers, court-mandated mediation and expert testimony that I once had to pay for in a particularly nasty court case.”

Legal fees are only one aspect of the financial cost of abuse that keeps survivors in poverty, or struggling to make ends meet. Victims could have mounting medical costs for physical and mental health. They could live in fear from being stalked, or from threats of violence, and it keeps them from work. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, women stalked by an intimate partner averaged the largest number of days lost from paid work. “U.S. women lose nearly 8.0 million days of paid work each year because of violence perpetrated against them by current or former husbands, cohabitants, dates and boyfriends,” researchers note. “This is the equivalent of 32,114 full-time jobs each year. An additional 5.6 million days are lost from household chores.”

After the homeless shelter, I moved into transitional housing and started doing part-time landscaping work. When I tried to get extra hours on the weekends, he refused to help me out, and said it just like that. He stole things off my porch, he blamed me for our then toddler’s illnesses, he recorded our conversations, he called me, screaming about me wanting more child support. I started to have full-blown panic attacks, and at one point saw three therapists at once.

Amanda, also a single mother to two children and a survivor, speaks of the same issues. Her children, like Erica’s, were also young when she left. “Multiple court appearances to continue the restraining order, adjust parenting time, child support, were bad enough,” she said. “But then he abused our children, so in addition to our trauma, there were three therapy appointments a week, CFI evaluations, CPS visits... I was responsible for all of their transportation during this time and he got to dictate when the therapeutic visits would be, so holding down a job full time would have been impossible for a period of a couple of years.”

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“It is difficult to consider where I might be in my life if I hadn't had those financial obstacles to overcome,” Erica laments. “And it makes me angry all over again to think of the ways he exerted control over me even after our divorce.”

Erica just completed her graduate studies, but still lives under the poverty level despite working three jobs. Amanda was lucky enough to find resources to help with the legal costs, but she added, “I'm tens of thousands of dollars in debt due to things he was supposed to pay and didn't. My credit is shot. I'm only recently off of medical and food assistance.”

If you or anyone you know may be experiencing emotional or physical abuse, please don't hesitate to contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

Getting away from my abuser was only the first step in escaping
Image: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images

*Names have been changed.

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