Shifting the Dialogue: Considering Ray Rice and Intimate Partner Abuse

Sep 17, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Thema Bryant-Davis, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and an associate editor of the journal Psychological Trauma. Bryant-Davis is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee who studies the intersection of trauma and culture. 

A distressed patient hugs a medical assistant during a meeting.

The assault perpetrated by Ray Rice, which ended in him dragging his unconscious fiancé, Janay Palmer, off an elevator, has captured wide public attention. Unfortunately, most of the dialogue has focused on blaming and shaming Ms. Palmer and other victims of intimate partner violence for staying in abusive relationships. There has also been an attempt to build sympathy for the perpetrator by questioning whether Rice’s punishment, which went from suspension for two games to permanent dismissal from his team, was fair. The most important questions have received far less attention. Why do abusive partners like Ray Rice abuse their spouses? Why does the public support intimate partner abuse either directly with words and actions or indirectly with their silence? What are the consequences of intimate partner abuse? And how can we stop intimate partner violence?

Partner abuse is an action not caused by the victim’s behavior, substance use, mental illness, or biology (being male).  People choose to abuse their partners emotionally, physically, sexually, verbally and financially to exact control over the person and because they believe they have the right to do so.  

People are hesitant to condemn intimate partner violence because many people have been abused and/or have been abusers. They believe such violence is a normal part of relationships. People also have the idea that perpetrators of violence are mean-intentioned, horrible people. Since they rarely see themselves, loved ones or public figures they admire through that lens, it is hard for them to accept that the perpetrator can also be charismatic, warm and even loving.  As Judith Herman, PhD, notes in her book Trauma and Recovery, it is easy to side with perpetrators because all they require is our silence. Siding with victims requires voice and action.

The public health consequences of intimate partner abuse are significant. The emotional consequences can include depression, anxiety, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. Add to that the cognitive consequences of shame, maladaptive thinking, difficulty focusing/concentrating, difficulty with problem solving and loss of meaning.  The social and behavioral consequences can include isolation, distrust and, in some cases, increased dependency, substance abuse, cutting, eating disorders and engaging in high risk behaviors.  

The path to stopping intimate partner violence is by first raising awareness with appropriate language. When people say intimate partner abuse or domestic abuse, they often think of a gray area where the public should not get involved. We need to be very clear that what was captured on that video was not just a personal argument or private incident between a couple. It was a crime.  It was an assault. We also need to embrace and endorse victim-centered policies and laws that are multi-systemic and culturally responsive; this should address the police department, mental health agencies, agents of the court, and hospital staff. Next we need more visible, engaging and age-appropriate public awareness campaigns that debunk the myths about violence.

Finally, to shift the conversation away from victim-blaming I propose three interventions.  The first is that instead of questioning ‘Why did she stay,?’ we should use the word escape.  When we frame the exit from an abusive relationship as an escape, it forces us to take in the reality that one is living with real danger and risk.

The second thing is to help the public understand the emotional weight carried by victims that keep them in abusive relationships. The reasons range from fear of increased abuse, including death, to love for the abuser or hope that the person will change and the abuse will stop. Economic dependence on the abuser, and a diminished sense of self and agency as a result of the emotional abuse, also take a heavy toll on victims.

 We can shift the conversation around victims by honoring the ways in which they have shared their stories as a powerful third intervention. Despite the victim-blaming and inappropriate jokes about intimate partner abuse online, social media has also been a platform by which survivors have been able to disseminate their stories. A hashtag went viral recently that was started by a survivor and it was, simply: #why I stayed. By participating in this and other online conversations, victims are able to find their voice, access support, and foster greater clarity in the public discourse.  

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.