THINGS TO CONSIDER while dating: Do we both like Szechuan? Does he get along with my cat? Will he kill me?
For women, the chief relationship issue isn’t how to find one. It’s how to survive one.
If a woman is abused, beaten, or killed, it will most likely be by her husband or her boyfriend. Being hit—eventually—is a very real risk a woman runs when she agrees to go to dinner and a movie. It’s a risk she can no longer afford to minimize or ignore, because all of us, from the news media to the courtroom, hold her responsible for his behavior.
Over and over again, when domestic violence is discussed, victims, shelter staff, divorce lawyers, domestic court judges, police officers, and psychologists are asked the same thing: Why do women stay?
Here’s a revolutionary question: Why do men hit?
Women are asked to justify why they continue to live in their homes, stay in their neighborhoods, and keep their jobs after their partner has hit them. The implication is that the only way to make a man stop hitting is to move out of his arm’s reach, and that truly healthy women should be willing to lose everything to achieve this.
Why don’t we ask men to leave?
Citizens are not required to identify criminals, know when they are dangerous, and avoid them in order to prevent crimes. That is, unless we’re talking about domestic violence.
Then, that responsibility falls to the woman.
There seems to be an assumption that grown men cannot behave in a humane, human, legal manner. When men are naughty, women must discipline them by withdrawing from relationships.
If the emphasis was placed correctly, this would never be the woman’s responsibility. It would rest squarely on the man.
Until we ask why men hit, we can’t begin to cope with the problem of domestic violence.
As a society, we are reluctant to expect men to refrain from killing the women they love. Instead, we hold women responsible for getting out of the way before they become gun or knife or fist fodder. Our judgment that she should leave ignores statistics that indicate her chances for survival are better if she stays, and just gets beaten. If she leaves, he buys a gun.
When women stay, they are blamed, and assigned unattractive character traits and neuroses. Beaten women are supposed to fit a pitiful stereotype.
I don’t fit that stereotype, and a man hit me. No self-esteem? Please. I’m a classic eldest child overachiever. No money? Made more than he did, in a good month, and would not have starved without him. Desperate for a man? I enjoy men, always have, but never believed my success or identity depended on having one of them on the other side of the breakfast table. Nowhere else to go? I have a wonderful family and supportive friends with whom I was close before, during, and since my own 911 incident, when he ripped the phone from the wall, threw objects around the room, terrified the children, slapped me, punched me, said he’d kill me, and did a few other things I’ll spare myself the retelling. We had not fought. There was no disagreement. He just walked into the room ready to hit.
The man who hit me was a highly educated, successful professional with Ivy League credentials who was charming and funny during courtship and who became an angry, erratic, irrational man after we moved in together. I didn’t cause it. I was just the thing he hit one day when he got mad. I don’t know what he hits now; I’ve been gone for years.
I don’t know, and I don’t think he knows, why he thought it was just fine to hit me. He only stopped because the judge told him next time he would go to jail.
By not asking why some men hit, we’re implying that all men are capable of committing violence and none capable of analyzing, controlling, or avoiding it. If I was a man, I’d be furious at this considerable disrespect. We are aiming our judgment at the wrong end of the fist.
Perhaps it’s time to turn our cheek and look the other side of the problem in the face.
A version of this appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune March 9, 1995.