Focus On Abuser, Not The Abused

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - March 11, 2009
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As I write this, the rumor is that entertainers Rihanna and Chris Brown are together again. That’s right. After a horrifying night of abuse that left Rihanna (real name Robin Fenty) bloodied and bruised, she’s apparently taken him back, and the two are trying to “work things out.”

A couple of weeks ago I urged parents to talk to their sons and daughters about it, to use it as a teachable moment about partner abuse. Now, of course, you’re dealing with their question: Why did she go back? And I have one thing to say: It’s complicated.

Well actually, I have a lot more to say, because this is still a teachable moment. The danger here is in the conclusions young people may draw from what is a heartbreakingly familiar scenario. The truth is battered women do go back to their abusers several times before they break away for good. That, more than any other aspect of domestic violence, mystifies well-meaning people. It may even outrage them. They question the victim’s motives and even her sanity. There is no hope for her, they say, if she’s stupid enough to take him back.

To those of you on the sidelines - meaning everyone who is not involved in an abusive relationship - I would say this: Don’t judge her. There is always more to the relationship than the violence.


Carol Lee, the executive director of the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says you can understand it better if you think about it from the woman’s point of view: “After all, she does love him, and he has a lot of wonderful qualities she fell in love with. She may blame herself for what happened. She believes his promises that he will change ... that it’s never going to happen again. And I think basically she’s not ready to give up on the relationship. She still has a lot of hope for working things out.”

So she will make excuses for him, cover for him and try harder than ever to make the relationship work. People who work with the victims tell us it’s important for family and friends to keep on offering support. Don’t abandon her. Keep on making information available. Eventually she will need it - and you.

So, yes, it’s complicated. People don’t always do what everyone else thinks and knows they should do.

But aren’t we ignoring another key part of this issue? Lee says focusing all our attention on the victim - no matter how misguided you think she is - distracts from an even more important point.

“Why do we focus on the battered woman? Why don’t we focus on what’s going on with him?”

If we put the focus back on the abuser, we would ask different questions. Instead of “why did she go back?” we’d ask why, if he’s serious about the relationship and really cares about his partner, would he go back before completing some sort of intervention program? Why would he take the chance of hurting her again?

And Lee says there must be punishment. Even if an abuser does enter a program, even if the victim resists or changes her mind about prosecuting, “We would hope authorities don’t let perpetrators off the hook. And I think what we want is to make sure the perpetrators have some consequences for the abuse and also that they get the help that they need.”

This combination of consequences and help, she says, is what is needed to make it possible for the abuser to live without violence in the future. Otherwise - and parents, this is something you should emphasize to your sons and daughters - the problem will get worse, not better. Lee says it is a sad fact that without intervention, the violence almost always becomes more severe over time. That means the woman who goes back will be battered again.

There are other questions we should be asking as well. Lee and other advocates would like to see more work done delving into the reasons why so many men grow up thinking it’s OK to use violence. What is it in our culture that breeds this kind of sickness? How can we root it out, understand it, educate our kids about it and prevent it?

In watching Rihanna and Chris Brown - so popular and so young - we have an opportunity to see firsthand the cycle of violence played out in full, graphic public view. It is not pleasant to watch, but it would be a shame if we all turned away.

Ignoring violence is the same as condoning it.

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