I’ve been reading all the posts about Chris Brown and Rihanna and “how dare she” and “what kind of message is she sending to women?” and “man is she stupid” and “damn he’s still the worst human being ever”, and I’d like to present yet another perspective.
I used to make my living as a couples and family therapist, and one of my earliest jobs was as a Domestic Violence Advocate. My singular task was to be in court for domestic violence cases, talk to the victim (usually a woman), and assure her that testifying against her partner was the right thing to do.
But my real job was to talk to the victims after the hearings and offer them emergency numbers “just in case”, because 9 out of 10 times, the victim would recant her testimony on the stand and claim that her man did nothing wrong. Sometimes she’d still have the bruises, yellow-brown, on her face. Sometimes she’d leave arm in arm with her man. I didn’t ever get to know any of these women, as I only had about 10 minutes with them- my time was spent just psyching them up for a tough task, and then hurriedly giving them resources if things went bad again.
I originally thought that all battered women would jump at the chance to put the person who abused them in prison, but with this job, my feelings got darker: I started believing that women who were abused were idiots. Not at fault, mind you, but just brainwashed and weak. This was not a helpful or accurate way to think, and at its worst, it was what I call an “cognitive NPR error”, which is when your privileged upbringing and education make you feel pity for people, rather than empathy.
My supervisor realized this and decided to wise me up by putting me in a group of batterers- court ordered therapy for men convicted of domestic violence. There I spent time with charming men, monster men, professional button-down men, white trash men, funny men- all abuser men. Almost all of them believed they were in love. Some weeks, their women would be required to come into the group as well, and I would get to know them both.
Slowly, I learned that domestic violence is not as black and white as I thought. What you’re dealing with is a fully-formed relationship between two people, and by default, all the baggage they’ve dealt with through their lives. It’s a full universe of emotions for any two people, but even more so when violence comes into play. We don’t need to romanticize it, but it would help to be understanding of it. Saying “Well the instant he gets physical, the woman has to leave” is both condescending and unrealistic, as it doesn’t take into account security, history, financial issues, substance abuse, coping skills, self-esteem, options, and a million other things. We’ve all been in relationships with people who are not great for us, but if the person isn’t physically abusive, it’s not public domain for judgement. Imagine if you were judged so condescendingly for your shitty boyfriend.
Please hear me: I am not even slightly condoning domestic violence, or its perpetrators. It is heinous and a miserable way to try and keep control over another human being, and it desperately needs to end. All I’m saying is that it can be a complex issue, and I don’t want to blame the victim, because that only fits into the cycle she’s already found herself in.
Sometimes it can be easy to resort to a problem solving method like abuse when it’s the only method you’ve seen, or the quickest solution, or the only one your mind has room for. Most of the abusive couples I worked with learned to see their patterns of abuse, and learned new tools for coping with their emotions, their disappointments, and each other. Some of them went on to flourish, and some of them were back in the system within months. Each of the couples was unique and faced their own challenges. Before this experience, I would have thought that all abuse happens because men are angry.
There are a million reasons why domestic violence occurs, and none of them are justified. And also, none of them are the same. We have to stop treating domestic violence as a thing that happens to someone else, and a thing that we’re too good for. We have to start understanding that it happens in relationships just like yours and mine, and then we have to start working side-by-side with the victims, rather than shaking our heads from above.
And besides, if all we do is shame Rihanna for rekindling a relationship with Chris Brown, what tools are we using?