Finding the Why

By: Mary-Margaret Sweeney, Director of Community Engagement, DVN

When I reflect on the time I spent earning my Master of Social Work, it often feels like the tornado scene at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz.” It moved fast, you could often find me scared and clutching my dog, and in the swirl of the storm, prominent tropes passed by the window long enough for me to know they would be important later in the story. One of these plot points that hovered in my view and continues to impact my journey as a social worker is this phrase uttered by a professor: “People always do things for a reason.”

My professor knew after years as a therapist that we would all encounter many clients who made choices against their best interest. They would say one thing but then do another. They would break our heart as they neared the end of a successful treatment plan by taking a major step backward. Agency break rooms are full of social workers banging their heads on tables, lamenting to their coworkers, “I have no idea why my client did this!” “They aren’t making any sense!” “Why would someone do this?!” Why, indeed.

One of the questions I field most when I’m out in the community is why someone would stay in an abusive relationship. People become enraged when children are involved. “Why would you put your children in danger like that?” they want to know. “If you want to put yourself in danger, fine. But not kids.” And I understand that. I really do. As a case manager I have worked with youth living in violent homes. My own father grew up in domestic violence. I regularly train Central Indiana service providers and domestic violence survivors on the effects of children witnessing DV. But thanks to that professor, I also pose to my training attendees that people do things for a reason.

“I couldn’t find a place to stay with my kids. It was either stay with him or literally live on the streets with my kids, in a Chicago winter. He never hit them, and they seemed physically safer indoors watching me get hit than out in negative temperatures.”

“My spouse told me that they would get the best divorce attorney money can buy and win custody. At least now I’m there with them to protect them.”

“I have a mental health diagnosis and no judge will give me full custody. I’m afraid my abuser will get full custody because of my health, or his parents will, and then I’ll never see them again.”

“Culturally, I can’t leave. My small ethnic community in the city will work to ensure I don’t see my children again. They will side with the abuser. He’s prominent in our community.”

“I did try to leave with my kids. I’ve done it twice. My abuser violated the protective order, stalked us, and until I save up enough money to move us far away, it honestly feels safer to stay.”

These are just a few of the (paraphrased for privacy) quotes I heard during my time in direct service social work. They are the reasons someone would behave in a way you may not imagine yourself behaving. I have even heard people who work in domestic violence services share these very opinions. It’s because we want what is best for everyone, especially innocent children. Indeed, in our roles we are even mandated to intervene and report violence a child is experiencing. And we must uphold that mandate. But as we speak with victims, or about them when they are not present, we can pair that obligation to protect with nuance, understanding, and grace. We can apply this to so many areas of our lives to achieve better communication and awareness. Our toddler isn’t crying for no reason, though it seems that way. They want something from us and have not developed the language or coping skills we have. A co-worker with a short temper may be showing us that they have some personal life situation that is clouding their work time. Someone struggling with mental illness may show erratic behavior but if a provider drills down with them, there is usually a reason that makes perfect sense to the individual–I had a client whose mental illness told them that if they set a fire, it would rid the world of one evil person each time they did it.

Our work happens in the grey areas. In the nuance. Our work is to figure out a survivor’s “why.”

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney, DVN’s Director of Community Engagement