The Third Rail of Domestic Violence

Posted: Sep 12, 2014 12:01 AM

As the occasional abuser will do, Ray Rice has done us a favor. He has given us the opportunity to engage in frank discussion on a topic too often hidden: the shocking number of men who beat the holy stuffing out of the women they supposedly love.

When the attacker is a famous athlete, there is additional opportunity to explore the treacherous world of privilege and protection in big-money sports, where huge money plus spotty morals often equals horrible behavior.

Unlike many modern discussions (like our never-ending and largely fruitless navel-gazing over race), moments of domestic violence awareness tend to be fairly constructive. They remind us that far too many men are abusers, and may as a result prod a few men away from that behavior. When rich athletes are involved, they remind us of the perils of raising kids into young adults with no personal accountability. As a result, maybe some coaches will try to instill additional values, and maybe some young men will try to live by them, even if they are cashing seven-figure checks.

But there is one vital element of the domestic violence dialogue that ignites torrents of unwarranted disapproval: an examination of the dynamic of the women who stay with, and even defend, their attackers.

Attempts to explore what leads otherwise smart women to remain in injurious and possibly fatal relationships is met with bizarre condemnation. A popular reaction has been that this somehow “blames the victims.”

Blames them? This is an attempt to save them.

This is particularly peculiar criticism in view of the fact that there is actual victim-blaming to be found. Amid the week of reaction to Rice’s decking of his then-fiancée, there has been a smattering of observations along the lines of: Did she provoke him? Wasn’t she aware he had a short temper? Shouldn’t women navigate their irascible men with greater skill?

Now that’s victim-blaming, or at least an attempt to pass onto women some responsibility for preventing their own clobberings. It is, of course, nonsense.

But how do we get to a place where it is frowned upon to ask about the abundance of women— some of whom can be found in cemeteries— who keep themselves available for repeated beatings?

Perhaps we are in no mood to impose anything on victims that even looks like an obligation or even a strong suggestion. More likely, we are hesitant to wander into delicate territory in this era of reflexive, contrived offense.

But we must.

We have a societal responsibility to deliver a message to men that women are never, ever a proper target for physical violence. (If this is the place where we must make an exception for the rare overwhelmed man about to be killed at the bare hands of a crazed Amazon wife, fine. Consider it done.) But there is also a vital signal that must be delivered to women: Get out.

This is a message that must be delivered with an understanding of its complexities. Getting out is not always easy. Before we get to the mental pathologies that compel some women to stay willingly, there are plenty of women who would love to make an escape but cannot, at least not immediately.

Their kids are in the house. They have no money of their own. There is no trusted friend or relative nearby. We should always know that our advice to get out of an abusive relationship is fraught with possible obstacles, including an enormous elevation of risk.

The men poisoning these relationships are often unhinged control freaks. If living with them on a daily basis is a hazard, imagine the consequences when the woman decides she’s had it and hits the road. If the exit is foiled or the wayward woman is found, the results can be unspeakable. So let’s not just say “get out” and walk away satisfied with our wise advice.

Just as we (sadly) have to actually educate young men not to grow up to be abusers, we must empower women to make smarter decisions at the courtship level.

Ladies, there are two kinds of men: those who will hit you and those who won’t. If he hits you once, the chances are overwhelming that he has done it before to someone else and will do it again. To you. If you have not married him yet, the sound he should hear is your tires squealing out of the driveway.

This is the part of the Ray and Janay Rice story that tests our limits. Six weeks after hitting that elevator floor, she married him. Today, she defends him and apologizes for her role in the whole affair while blaming the media for reporting on her victimization on video at the hands of her famous husband. That is twisted on top of twisted.

We need to caringly, carefully, constructively blanket our world with messages to women that this is not a path to mental health. We have rallies to teach men not to hit. How about holding a few to teach women not to gravitate toward men who do?

The mechanics of this behavior can have deep roots in psychological dysfunction. Sometimes women stay because abuse is the only treatment they have ever known, or because they lack the self-worth to assert that they deserve better. Those cases require more than suggestions from friends and relatives or PSA campaigns.

But no matter the confounding source of the behavior, are we not a wiser society if we consistently inform, encourage and assist women along the path of extricating themselves from environments of great danger? How in the world is this discouraged as an affront to them?

We do well to examine the dark motivations that lead some men to be abusers. We also do well to learn what compels some women to stay with them or even seek them out.

As we progress on both tracks, it is vital to realize that not all abusive events are alike. The Ray Rice punch heard ‘round the world has sparked a broad (and appropriate) national discussion about abusive relationships of every type.

But he may not be a habitual offender who has struck a dozen women. He may not have pummeled Janay before February 15, or since. There are events and there are patterns. If this was an event that is not part of a longer series, there could well be hope that this couple can work through their challenges and emerge strong, committed to move forward on a Godly path. That should be our prayerful wish.

But if the Rices are to enjoy future stability, both must look into a difficult mirror. He must examine what led him to think he is ever entitled to hit a woman, and she must commit to beat back the syndrome which led her to tolerate it to the point of sharing blame for it.

Whether Ray Rice ever plays football again, he can now be an example of how to improve himself by suppressing violent urges. What a valuable example to young men, especially those with an athletic gift. What we also need are women unafraid to step forward as examples of courageous souls who saved themselves by bolting from men who have no intention of such improvement.

This cannot happen if worthy advice for women is met with misplaced offense. It takes two to make abusive relationships. We should do all we can to help both parties engage in behaviors that can reduce their frequency.