I’m pretty sick of the awful way that people have been talking about Rihanna for being back together with Chris Brown, her allegedly-repentant and reformed batterer. I get it; you think this is the wrong decision. So do I. But you know whose decision it isn’t? Mine. Yours. Anybody’s but Chris and Rihanna’s.
See, that’s the thing about domestic violence. One of the things abusers say to their victims is, “Nobody cares what happens to you. Nobody feels bad for you because they know you brought this on yourself. You deserve it and everyone knows it.”
So naturally a bunch of people completely external to Rihanna’s life decide to express their opposition to domestic violence by echoing the exact lines that abusers feed their victims to keep them from leaving. Thanks, y’all. You’re a great big god damn help and I’m sure Rihanna is very grateful.
Here’s something you might be missing, though.
Leaving an abuser isn’t actually that god damn simple. Even setting aside that physical abuse only happens when there’s enough of a brutal mind-game to support it and shelter it, making it psychologically complicated, it’s not often socially or financially or legally simple either.
So no, not all victims of domestic abuse leave once and call it done. Lots of people go back because people who’ve been abused are human beings whose brains work the way human brains work. People who go back to their abusers probably never saw themselves as the kind of person who’d do that either… until the mind games really kicked into high gear. Abusers use variable interval reinforcement because it works, it verifiably has been scientifically proven as a conditioning tool whose impact is very difficult to undo, and having it work on them doesn’t make victims weak, or enablers, or stupid, or DESERVING OF ABUSE; it makes them the owners of human brains.
It’s very easy to stand outside a situation and declare one course to be obviously correct and those of us who think Rihanna should leave and stay gone forever may even be right. But you know what victims of domestic violence don’t need? They don’t need one more person telling them, “Do what I think you should or you deserve any abuse I heap on you.”
Some people should come with warning labels that read, “My support for you as a victim of violent crime is completely conditional on you responding to violence precisely the way I want you to,” so that nobody makes the mistake of looking to the wrong people for help.
Just last night someone trying to pose as an enemy of domestic violence told me that Rihanna is Chris Brown’s enabler, which is a pretty damned ironic thing to hear from somebody who is telling abuse victims exactly what their abusers make them afraid they’ll hear.
“This is your own fault. Nobody feels bad for you because they can all see you deserve this.”
If you actually want to be helpful, go learn how to do it right or shut up so you don’t make everything worse.
There’s a certain amount of contempt that creeps into the way we talk about abuse victims. We ask “Why does she stay?” or “Why does she keep choosing people like this?” instead of “Why did someone claim to love her and then turn around and treat her so terribly?“ If you’re coming into work every day and getting the most recent Darth Blotter of Unconscionable Acts, you might find that contempt creeping into how you speak to your friend and speak about her. People get really mad when they offer help and/or advice and the other person doesn’t take it, like now that they’ve put in the time to listen and give the benefit of their perspective the other person owes them a certain course of action. If these feelings and attitudes are coming up for you (they are kind of seeping around the edge of your letter, like, we all LISTENED but she STAYS with him NOW WHAT), you can help your friend by examining them for what they are and not treating her like she owes you something. (…)
Don’t tell her how she should feel. Don’t tell her what to do. Remind her that she is smart and capable, remind her that you respect her work and like her a lot. At work, talk to her about work and treat her like a capable adult who does good work, and don’t let her personal travails bleed into your perceptions and treatment of her. Yes, I mean that even if she is bringing them up all the time. I mean that even if you cannot understand why someone would stay with someone who treats her so badly. Smart people get blindsided by emotional things that they can’t defeat with intelligence all the time.
You can’t stop her cycle and you can’t save her.
You can like her for who she is. You can gently offer a reality check when it’s asked for. You can show her that normal is when someone likes you and respects you, they treat you well all the time and it isn’t really that hard to manage.
It isn’t that hard to manage, and it’s important.
So manage it or shut up.