With Chris Brown and Rihanna releasing two remixes together and rumors of them seeing each other flying, it’s understandable to feel disappointed in Rihanna. It’s hard watching anyone step into such an obvious trap, especially when she’s been warned repeatedly of how dangerous it is. Add to that the fear that Rihanna’s choice to forgive Brown sends a signal to young fans that domestic violence is no big deal, and you have more than enough justifications to be upset with Rihanna.
But if you sincerely want to reduce the incidence of domestic violence in our society, I beg you to refrain from judging her. Strange as it may sound, judging women who return to their abusers only makes the problem worse.
Rihanna’s reaction is actually quite common amongst survivors of domestic violence. Eighty-five percent of women who are abused return to their abuser at some point, and many victims leave seven or eight times before they make a clean break. Unless you believe most women are weak or stupid, numbers that high should eliminate the “victims are weak or stupid” argument when trying to explain why they return to their abusers. Unfortunately, it’s far more complex than that.
In order to understand the cycle of domestic violence, it’s important to turn away from the easy task of victim-blaming and do what our culture is often far too uncomfortable to do: look at the abuser’s choices instead. Chris Brown, like the majority of seriously violent abusers, is male, so this post will focus on men who abuse. These men who commit acts of domestic violence are often portrayed as if they had poor tempers and the inability to stay in control of their emotions. In fact, the opposite is true. Abusers actually tend to be control freaks who beat women because, on some level they like it, and because it gives them a greater sense of control. As journalist Emily Bazelon chronicled in Slate, abusers consciously make the choice to beat as much as they feel they can get away with and no more; that’s not the behavior of men who are “out of control.” An abusive man tends to see a woman as an object for control and violence as an acceptable way to control his property.
Abusers are also master manipulators. In Chris Brown’s situation, it’s easy to see this. He’s an expert at turning on the charm when the occasion arises, fake-weeping during his Michael Jackson tribute in order to elicit sympathy, and “losing” his temper in targeted ways (such as his window-smashing appearance on “Good Morning America”) that prevent people from asking him unpleasant questions he doesn’t want to answer. Abusers often isolate their victims socially while simultaneously wooing all the couple’s friends to their side, so that the victim feels she has no sympathetic shoulder to lean on. It’s not uncommon for loved ones who are supposed to be supporting her to imply, or even directly say, that she likes causing “drama,” is too emotional, or even crazy. This kind of feedback only rewards the abuser, allowing him to feel he’s more justified and in control. This again was evident in the public reaction to Brown, with most people, including the Grammy producers, making a huge defensive stink out of supporting Brown.
So you have to ask yourself, if a manipulative abuser can win over his social circle or, in Brown’s case, the public at large, despite being known as a man who beats women, then why is it such a big surprise that he can also win over his victim? Indeed, experts in domestic violence often point to the deep toolbox of manipulation that abusers use to keep their victims in their lives. That gift you always wanted but never got? Hot sex all night long? An opportunity to record a duet that will top the charts? These are the sort of things an abuser will produce to a victim that he feels is slipping away from him to get her back. These acts are about convincing the victim that she’s actually loved by the abuser, and to forget the abuse or characterize it as atypical of her abuser.
These kinds of tactics work well on victims in no small part because victims feel isolated. Not only are they isolated because their abusers have often pushed them away from their friends, but the shame of being abused can often cause a victim to isolate herself. She doesn’t want her friends or family to see her as a victim. She doesn’t want them judging her and saying, “Why did you go back to him, if he hit you?” She feels that the best way to look strong and capable is, perversely, to stick by her abuser rather than leave him permanently and admit that it was all a terrible mistake. If a victim feels isolated enough, in fact, the abuser can often work that in his favor. He tells her that he’s the only person in the world who understands and loves her and without him she’ll be all alone. To her, that might just look like the truth.
As strange as it may seem, the best way to encourage women to leave men who abuse them is to refrain from judging them or shaming them for the times they stayed. Doing so just sends the signal to victims that they deserve what is happening to them and that no one understands them. Only by extending our sympathy and understanding can we make them feel loved and comfortable enough to leave. When we see a public figure like Rihanna stuck in the cycle of domestic violence, by expressing sympathy and understanding, we signal to the women around us that, if they are ever caught in such a cycle, they are not alone. That they can come out and be loved and heard instead of judged.
So please, instead of asking, “Why does she stay with him?”, start asking instead, “How can we make it easier and safer for victims to leave?”
Amanda Marcotte writes for Slate, Pandagon, the UK’s Guardian, and other publications. You can follow on her Twitter at @AmandaMarcotte.