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Justice Education Department Discusses Domestic Violence

| Thursday, September 25, 2014

Saint Mary’s professors and students discussed the complexity of domestic violence in a lecture titled “Why Don’t Women Just Leave,” held in the Student Center on Tuesday.

The discussion was sponsored by the Justice Education Department and led by Dr. Adrienne Lyles-Chockley, associate professor of communications Marne Austin, and Saint Mary’s senior Meredith Mersits alongside YWCA advocate Mary Smith and YWCA victim services attorney Kristine Burggraf. The five women discussed the complications of leaving an abusive relationship.

Smith, a YWCA advocate for victims of domestic abuse, said leaving an abusive situation is a process which can take months or years due to the emotional dependency formed during the relationship.

“We develop what we call co-dependency, meaning we become the caregiver,” Smith said. “We are living through that person. We don’t know — we don’t care about ourselves anymore. We breathe, we eat, we think, we love them.”

Smith said the disengagement process requires that victims overcome their fear of the unknown in order to escape.

“We have the fear of not being able to make it because you don’t believe in your potential,” she said. “Because you have been somebody else’s, you have lost yourself. You don’t believe in the potential. You don’t believe in what you are capable of doing.”

Smith said ending an abusive relationship gives victims freedom and endless opportunities

“‘What if?’ there are many ‘what-if’s’ in life, but if you make the courage to do it, and you get the support you need to, you will be able to make it,” Smith said. “It is a beautiful thing to learn who you are and what you want in life.”

Mersits, a survivor of an abusive relationship, said she remained in the relationship because she was in denial and felt she needed to stay.

“I continued to rationalize my experience,” Mersits said.

Mersits said she convinced herself that her situation did not compare to the stories of others who had endured relationship abuse.

“I would continue to say, ‘Oh that’s not our relationship. He loves me. If it was like that, I would definitely be getting out. I’m strong enough to do that.’ But no, I wasn’t until I was actually able to get out,” Mersits said. “It is just not what you think. It’s way harder then saying, ‘I’m going to get up and leave.’ … I felt like I was confined to this relationship.”

Austin said she struggled to leave an abusive relationship because she could not see the abuse for what it was.

“There is a particular term called ‘gas lighting,’ which is when you are in a situation, you think that you are crazy — you literally think you are going crazy — because things that an abusive partner says to you, that negates what you see as your reality,” Austin said.

Burggraf, YWCA victim services attorney, said there are many reasons why women do not leave, including familial ties, lack of financial support or simply not being ready.

“Our program is awesome, but our domestic violence program is 45 days,” Burggraf said. “That’s not enough time to get [victims] out of that situation and back on their feet so they can survive. A situation may be horrific, and some of them are, but they feel they have no other option. And then, sometimes we get where the women just aren’t ready to leave. They’re just not there.”

Mersits said as personal as relationship abuse is, more people need to get involved to provide support and resources for potential survivors.

“I know this conversation is us telling our personal stories, but it’s not really about me,” Mersits said. “It is not about Marne; it is not about Adrienne. It is about all the women out there and what you can do — what we all can do.

The Justice Education Department plans to continue the discussion of domestic violence with a day-long event in Rice Commons on Nov. 20 titled “A Symposium on Domestic Violence and Intersectionality.”

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About Kiera Johnsen

A SoCal native majoring in communications and political science

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