I really did not understand why she would not leave. [the complexity of domestic violence]

In Politico by Carlissa Shaw2 Comments

It was my sophomore year in college and I was attending a house party. I am partying, dancing, having a great time and suddenly I hear a pump, thump, and thud in the next room. I heard yelling and cursing but I could not make out exactly what was being said over the loud music. I went into the next room to see what the commotion was all about but the situation was already over. I didn’t see much, but from what I heard and the appearance of her room, obviously some form of physical altercation had taken place. It was late. I did not know what to do. My friend was noticeably shaken. Her boyfriend was gone.


My job that night was to calm her down. She decided not to call the police. The situation was seemingly over, still I decided to spend the night with her to make sure she was okay. The next morning I asked my friend what happened  and she answered, “we got to fighting.”

Her tone, her words, her “matter-of-factness” about the situation all haunted me. Although she was pretty strong, there was anatomically no way that she, “got into a fight” with this man. Just no way. I attempted to discuss the matter with her and she brushed it off. I was so confused about why she was, “allowing this to happen” or “why she just did not leave.”

I quickly realized that as much as I loved my friend I did not know how to be an advocate for her in this space. I honestly do not recall pushing the issue too hard because she was sure that she wanted to stay in a relationship with him. I felt helpless but I knew my friend loved him dearly and saw him as a broken person that needed a little more love. However, I saw him as a loose cannon that hurt my friend physically, spiritually, emotionally, and financially.  

I was a college student. I was young. I was dumb. I had no idea what it looked like to advocate on someone’s behalf. I did not advocate for her. I watched her suffer and the only thing I could offer her was the occasional,

             “girl, fuck him.”

Fast forward a few years, my friend is STILL in a relationship with this man. Only now they have a baby together. One night we are on a three-way phone call with one of our mutual friends. All of a sudden we hear the phone seemingly drop and a verbal altercation ensued. The verbal altercation quickly escalated into what sounded like a physical altercation. This situation predates FaceTime, so my friend and I literally did not see anything and had no idea what to do. We were all three in different states and did not have our friend’s exact location. I was scared to my core. I was just praying that she wasn’t somewhere hurt or worse. It was so bad. I was overwhelmed. I was sick of her being in this situation.

A few weeks after this situation I went to visit my friend. I needed to see her to make sure that she was okay.  I remember this situation like it was yesterday. I walked in her apartment and the baby was in a swing and she was wrapping Christmas gifts. I asked her what she was wrapping and she told me a gift for her boyfriend. I LOST IT!

I called her stupid for  wrapping a gift for someone who the week before decided to hurt her. At that time, I did not understand domestic violence and how it manifests itself. I was frustrated with her. I left her apartment that night and stopped talking to my friend for about a year. I was exhausted trying to understand why she just wouldn’t leave him. I did not feel like I could fight for her any longer. So I left her.

I abandoned her in one of the most vulnerable seasons of her life.

During my time away from my friend I worried constantly. I wondered if she was okay. I hoped that she would eventually find a way to walk away from him. I prayed for her, but the reality of the situation is I abandoned a friend when she needed me the most. I abandoned her because I need not have the knowledge or resources to support her properly.

Fast forward a few years- I am practicing criminal law at a prestigious law firm with a large volume of cases. Typically, we did not accept domestic violence cases but on occasion, we would. In this space, I truly grew to understand the complexity of domestic violence. We would often have potential cases where the alleged victim would attempt to hire our firm to represent their loved one, the defendant. It is in this space that I was introduced to the statistical data regarding domestic violence.

According to the CDC, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. Between 2003 and 2008, 142 women were murdered in their workplace by their abuser, 78% of women killed in the workplace during this time frame. The statistics are particularly devastating for black women.   A 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that Black women are four times more likely than White women to be killed as a result of domestic violence.

Suddenly, the question of “why doesn’t she just leave” didn’t make much sense. The better question is how can we advocate for our loved ones and keep them safe.

Tips from a Lawyer:

  1. Domestic violence is a crime. In most jurisdictions, the crime is referred to as domestic assault. Domestic generally means some form of family relationship or intimate partners. Unless otherwise provided by law, domestic assault is usually a misdemeanor.
  2. If you see it, report it. Make sure that even if your loved one does not want to call the police you do it if you witnessed the crime. It is very important that there is a well-documented history of police reports and incident reports for the purposes of a potential order of protection.
  3. If your friend calls the police support them at any and all court hearings. If at all possible, avail yourself as a witness if you witnessed any violent behavior. Usually, the issue with domestic violence prosecutions is that a witness fails to appear and testify to the alleged factual basis of the case.
  4. Petition the court for an order of protection. An order of protection is a legal document which is signed by a judge that creates legal consequences for persons committing acts of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and stalking. In order to be granted an order of protection a victim must present proof to a judge stalking, abuse, assault, or harassment.  
  5. The most important thing that an advocate or friend can do is be there when the person feels safe enough or ready to leave no matter how many times it takes them to get to that point.

Hindsight is 20/20. Thankfully the situation with my dear friend did not end that way that it does for hundreds of women a year in this country. It is so important to be educated about domestic violence and to learn how to support people through the complexity of abuse.

I recently happened upon the hashtag #whyistayed. I would urge anyone who ever asked that question of a loved one to search the hashtag and read the responses.


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey! May we all learn from our past and become advocates for those suffering.

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