‘She’ll Just Go Back to Him’ ~ Desperation, Safety, & Survival Calculations

This is not how your story ends. It’s simply where it takes a turn you didn’t expect.

Cheryl Strayed

Today I read a post, in one of the private groups I’m in, by a member who posted anonymously about being in the situation with the abusive ex of trying to reconcile, while already in court proceedings, because (among other reasons) she will be homeless if she doesn’t.

It’s very rare to have anonymous posts in this group. There are a lot of women in the group and we don’t always agree, but that space is one of the most loving, resourceful, supportive and full-of-grace places I’ve encountered anywhere. Not just on the internet, which is a barbed landscape of folks just trying to take whatever you say as offense. Anywhere.

Every woman in that group has done things she has been ashamed of and has probably told us about it. There are women in that group that I only know through names and profile pictures who take up real-life space in my heart and my mind. Children of theirs I’ve never met who I keep in my thoughts and make genuine hopes and prayers for them to have trauma-free days.

More than once, when I felt spun out and so hopeless and ashamed, like when x submitted old Instagram messages I sent a woman he’d tried to sleep with while we were dating in an official court document, my first reach – the very first way that I stuck myself out there to be grounded – was to that group.

Because they get it. They know.

In a way very few people do.

And the amount of grace given by these women is beautiful and raw and genuine.

Still, this woman posted anonymously. And prefaced her post by saying she didn’t need anyone to tell her what she should have done. She hedged herself throughout and explained, even more in the comments, about why she was doing what she was doing even though the post itself was asking for advice on a situation so common to those of us in the group.

One where the abuser is rough with our child – not enough that if we called for help they’d believe us – and then the abuser rants at us after, for so so long, about how our actions are the reason for their anger. And they find ways to berate us for comforting our children. For our children needing us to comfort them.

She posted anonymously, it seems, because she could already hear in her very own head the shoulds and so had to have that cloak to open herself up, even among these women who have been through so, so much of the same things.

Maybe because of that – because the judgment from those of us who have stayed out felt like something she just couldn’t bear. And yet she had to reach out.

When I first read the post in the morning, I took a breath in and then slowly exhaled it and closed my eyes and bent my head down, my chin almost all the way touching my chest. And then I exhaled again. Loudly.

I had a hollow feeling start to spread inside my ribcage – a familiar static-y feeling. One I hadn’t felt in a while.

I kept having short little sigh sounds as I exhaled and I would close my eyes with each breath out and hold my lids shut for just a couple of seconds each time.

I wanted to be in front of her. I wanted to put one hand on each arm, close to her shoulders, but not to shake her – no, not to shake her at all. I wanted to softly rest my hands there and lean my forehead to hers and just stand there, like that, for long enough to remind her that she is real and that she is a fully grounded body. Wanted to stand there with her long enough for her to feel gravity pulling from the top of her head, all the way through her body, and back down out the soles of her feet. For her to believe – feel it so she might truly believe – that she is not about to spin off the surface of the earth and spiral out into some movie-land outer-space where she is all alone and there is no possibility of a new life.

I wanted to say to her, quietly and full of grace, you know you have to find a way out, right?

Not as a command. Not as a should.

Just an echo. A kind voice to tell her what she knows but feels unable to do.

I’m at a critical point in my longer writing project. A place where I’ve stalled but now know why and how to move forward.

I stalled because what I need to do right now is go back and really slow down and write out scenes from in the relationship that I have boxed up and packed away inside of me, shelved them where the emotions are not so raw anymore.

I have a wall built. One I built to continue to heal, to survive, that I need to find a way through, safely, in order to process the rest of it now.

I have been trying to only write from the perspective of this side of the getting free line because to dip back into what it all really felt like while in it seems like choosing to put my hand into liquid glass. I need to write from within that before time but my brain kept trying to dip in from the now and not feel the then.

It’s scary. Just to try to feel that stuff again, not even live it. Every instinct in my viscera pulls away from going there, to the back when of paralysis and confusion and desperation and a loneliness so sharp it feels wide and endless.

The thought of having to try to reconcile with x for purely tactical survival reasons makes my stomach turn around and knot up. Literally. It hurts my shoulders and my jaw and my neck.

Today at work, a coworker was telling some story about a woman being stranded and needing a ride so bad she had to call her ex-husband to come pick her up.

I laughed and said, I’d walk. Barefoot. Over glass. It would hurt less. Literally.

Another coworker did a spit-take, because he knows x and knows that I’m not exaggerating. Or joking.

The point of sharing that isn’t to set myself apart from this woman trapped in trying to reconcile land. It’s the opposite.

My body understands how hard this all must be for her before my brain can even catch up.

She is in the barefoot on glass pain right now. Right now. And it’s not getting her anywhere.

She’s gone far enough into getting free that they are in family court. And she’s had to reluctantly step back in order to not lose everything.

She knows she deserves better and yet feels like she can’t quite get to the other side of that line.

That static in my chest. It feels bigger and bigger the more I think about her. And I can’t stop thinking about her.

I’ve seen (and heard) so many versions of Well, even if you help her, she’ll just go back to him anytime anyone tries to point out what changes we need in order to better protect and help women get (and stay) out of abuse.

Every time suggestions are made for reform or legislation or even just compassion.

She’ll just go back to him anyway.

Like helping her is a waste of time.

Like building better supports will be futile.

Like she deserves it.

Like she goes back because she likes the abuse.

Today, I’ve been trying to imagine what could make me have to do that with x. What would have made me have to do that.

And I land in a wordless place inside of me that is just fear and anger and short breaths.

I don’t want to betray the privacy of the group by giving details, but what she’s at the mercy of are lots of systemic issues and she has found that jumping ship when she did jump didn’t actually give her the safety she thought.

It’s like being on a sinking cruise ship and jumping overboard only to realize the dinghy was just a kids donut-ring for a pool and then climbing back up the side of the ship and hoping it doesn’t fully submerge before you can get on one of the real dinghies.

Or climbing back up not even sure that the ship has any real dinghies.

There is so much desperation in what she’s done.

But also so much survival.

It’s not a weakness that’s driven her. The strength it takes to climb the side of that ship in order to live is unfathomable.

None of her choice is about weakness; it is a failure on the part of every one of us to provide safe passage for her.

She’s not trying to drown.

She’s trying to figure out how to swim far enough to reach shore.

She’s making smart (and probably very accurate) calculations to protect her child.

How to make it to dry ground so she can take care of her child and not be tumbled so hard by the waves that she loses all of her oxygen.

But the ship.

Fuck, the ship. It is sinking and she knows this. But it is less dangerous for her at the moment – or it feels less dangerous – than being in the water.

That is survival right now.

She’s trying to walk steady on this sinking ship and he won’t let her.

They never do.

So she reaches out. Anonymously. With disclaimers and directives for the women in the group.

As though we are the general public.

As though we don’t understand.

We do. Which is why we know she has to get out. Which she knows we know.

But we also know she has to do it when she has everything in place.

We know and understand. That she would rather mitigate and placate than leave her child behind in that place.

She knows what the should have done is. She did it. But it didn’t make her safe.

What an insanely heavy burden for one woman all alone.

To do it again, she needs time.

But more than that what she really needs is a city, a state, a country where there are supports for women in these situations.

Real ones.

Programs in place that are funded to get someone in a home, help them with childcare so they don’t lose jobs over having to show up to so many court dates (because abusers abuse through the courts ad nauseum). Programs to assist with legal representation and courts that recognize an abuser doesn’t flip a switch and become the anti-abuser whenever their kids are with them.

Would people who don’t really need them use these programs? Sure. But I’m willing to pay for that in order to help the women who would be kept safe. Just like I will gladly pay for free school breakfasts and lunches for all kids, even though surely some parent who can pay for the food might overuse it, because it means none of the children are sitting in class hungry. Like I pay for public defenders even though they defend lots of guilty people.

I would bet my life that the number of folks who would use these services that didn’t truly need them would be nominal. Such a small waste in order to save so many.

If we had these programs then maybe the statistic that says it takes an average of seven times to succeed at leaving an abuser would become outdated and something referred to when we talk about how things used to be.

Maybe she wouldn’t just go back to him so many times.

It seems that the general public thinks that when women go back to abusive men, that we are just skipping back and dumbly turning away all the help that is out there for us.

There are lots of reasons – lots of things at play – when we return or try one more time – but they all have a shockingly strong undercurrent of desperation.

And survival.

It’s always because, for any number of reasons, we believe it is less scary than the alternative. It feels like the safest choice at the time. And maybe it is.

Sometimes it is.

This woman needs a lot of very real, tangible things, in order to get and stay free.

She needs to not be threatened with homelessness. Which would, of course, mean the court would not give her custody of her child.

She needs resources.

Ones backed by the government and with enough funds to have enough staff and options that will make it actually safer to stay free.


She needs to not already hear in her own head the public commentary of well, you went back to him.

I am where I am today because of a short (but important) list of ways that I was priveleged enough to be able to weather family court and post-separation abuse.

Still, there were lots of days (and even more nights) where I didn’t know how I could possibly make it through and how in the world I was going to protect my daughter.

Where I wasn’t sure I could keep my body going through it. That I could actually keep my muscles and bones moving for one more day in order to live free.

I call that post-separation time a gauntlet.

Getting out seems like the hardest thing until you have done it and you realize that as impossibly hard as that was, now you have to figure out how to live in the abuse you thought would go away but has actually gotten worse.

It gets worse.

I had to get through the gauntlet.

For me it was over two years of trudging through a reality I (thankfully, I guess) had never imagined. For some, it’s decades.

It doesn’t have to be so bad. But no one hears us and no one seems to care.

If the abuse is the frying pan and when you get out you are actually just sitting in the fire, then the frying pan can seem like a better option.

Not good, but better.

To survive. To live.

To not lose your child.

That static in my chest. Still.

It’s pulling me into remembering how afraid I was at the end. When I wouldn’t even say that to myself. The static is pulling me back into that fear in the same way that I felt it then: a dissolution, a cavernous space-field inside of me that threatened to take over and erase my whole body.

It’s making me press my palm against my breastbone. Like I used to do in those last days with x. To try to push some weight back into me. To feel my heart so I could prove to myself that my ribcage was not empty.

To prove to myself that I am real. A whole human.

Tonight, I am holding the image of group member and I standing close, forehead to forehead, my palms on her upper arms. We’re not talking. I am just a body holding another body to the earth. And I am praying, silently, trying to pray straight into her core, that she can get things in place to leave again soon.

It’s a dangerous place for her to be now that she has already left.

He is more dangerous now.

Those of us who understand know this and so we are scared for her.

There are things I want to say to her but I won’t, because I can’t risk that they add more weight to the burden she is already carrying. So I say them to the static in my chest and hope that they can save us all.

You are strong and you are brave and this is not something for anyone else to direct for you but please oh please be careful and don’t show your hand and know that we are all here for you and we understand. We understand that our understanding is not enough and so we are here to hold you up until whenever you can get out and stay out. We will prop you up and think about you and remind you, as many times as is needed, that you are real and only you know what you need and you do, of course, deserve better so we will hold you here for as long as it takes until you can find that place.

Published by UnGastheLight

I write to be able to live and live because I can write to make sense of it all.

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