By Gretchen Gibbs
Ray Rice is still in the news, a court having reinstated him in the NFL. His wife, Janay Palmer, made the front page of The New York Times the other day, saying in support of her husband that anybody can make a mistake.
From the beginning of the elevator incident, commentators have cringed at Janay’s positive statements about Ray. We all think we wouldn’t stay with an abuser, but maybe we don’t know ourselves so well. Working with domestic abuse victims, I have seen a number who would never have imagined themselves staying, but who have.
Other prominent athletes who have abused their wives keep being outed. Driving home from New Jersey a few weeks ago, I heard an interview with Kristin Barnes, wife of a former NFL star, Ricky Williams. She related her experiences of abuse, and one of the questions the interviewer asked her was why she thought Janay Palmer stood by Ray Rice.
Kristen Barnes said that she also had stayed with her husband in spite of his abuse because of the other things that she loved about him. She said that if the woman chooses to stay, then she wants her partner to have a successful career. She feels that Janay does not want Ray Rice to lose his employment, because of both the financial and psychological consequences.
I began thinking more about why Janay supports her husband, and came up with some other possible answers.
— She is impressed by his fame and accomplishments, and wants to align herself with him. Not necessarily out of greed, but probably coming from a lack of self-esteem, she wants a man who can be the dominant member of the partnership. A little abuse may be a price she’s willing to pay. Successful athletes in general don’t have problems finding women.
— The Cycle of Violence. Domestic violence programs teach about the cycle of violence, that after the abuser really hurts the woman, he tends to feel guilty and showers her with love, gifts and promises that there will never be another incident. (Abusers can be women, and victims men, and there can be violence in same sex relationships; for the sake of convenience and because it fits with the Rice case, I’m identifying the man as the abuser.) Gradually, however, the honeymoon ends, and some minor “transgression” of the partner will trigger anger and escalating abuse. Many victims are persuaded by the perpetrators’ assurances that they’ll change, and the perpetrators may believe them as well. The fact that the couple went to counseling may have intensified Janay’s belief that Ray will never abuse her again.
— Janay actually played some role in her abuse. The only predictor of who is abused in a domestic relationship is past abuse. We tend to repeat our interactions with others according to what we are comfortable with, even if it’s not pleasant. Freud called it the repetition compulsion, and even though he was wrong about many things, he was right about the patterns that people get caught up in with their relationships. We all know women who only date married men, or men all of whose women are dominating like their mothers. Janay may know that she provoked Ray. Certainly she yelled something at him in the elevator right before he hit her. Was it the one thing he told her never to say? Had she provoked him in other ways? If she knows she provoked him, she may think it excuses him, even though of course it doesn’t.
— She feels sorry for him. In spite of being controlled and abused, many victims of domestic violence feel that they are the stronger member of the couple. The victim may know about her partner’s own past experiences of abuse and trauma, and believe that she can help him overcome it.
— She fears for her life. Janay need only look at what has happened to other high profile abusers and their victims. We all know about OJ, but the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner with the artificial legs, is also chilling.
Pistorius shot his girlfriend to death, saying he thought she was a burglar, but neighbors had heard screaming arguments and others described earlier incidents of violence. Pistorius, like OJ, got off on the murder charge. He’s expected to serve 10 months of a five-year sentence for culpable homicide and reckless endangerment.
There are other possible explanations for why Janay stays, and there’s no way of knowing what she really feels. It’s just important for us to avoid that first reflex judgment that the only choice for any victim of domestic violence is to leave the relationship.
Gretchen Gibbs is a psychologist, teacher and writer.