By Rachel Miller, See the Triumph Contributor
I’m a football fan, a very big football fan. Football Sundays at our house are sacred. I am also a survivor of domestic violence and an advocate, so needless to say, what has been happening within the NFL recently involving domestic violence has been of particular interest to me. Watching Inside the NFL Tuesday night, I was curious to see how the hosts would approach this very sensitive issue. What struck me most was former Ravens safety, Ed Reed’s, very obvious struggle with how to reconcile who he believes Ray Rice to be, a friend, former teammate, and, as he said last night, a man of “integrity,” and the man he saw brutally assault his then-fiancé, now wife, on that tape. My heart went out to him, in all honesty, because his struggle is a common one.
The statistics tell us that 1 in 4 women will be affected by domestic violence during their lifetime. If you are on Twitter and have been following the #WhyIstayed #WhyIleft feeds, you can see survivors, including me, talking about our experiences and see just how many of us there are. Someone you know is or was in an abusive relationship. While that truth, in itself, can be hard for people to accept and deal with, what appears to be even more challenging for people to acknowledge is that these statistics also mean someone you know is an abuser.
Yes, you know someone who abuses their family. Someone you believe is a good person, fun to hang out with, someone you’d trust your secrets to and kids with, abuses their family behind closed doors. I say family because children who witness domestic violence are also victims, and a large percentage of those who abuse their partners also eventually target their children. Believe it or not, abusers look just like you. They may hold a good job, go to church, coach little league, live in a nice house, drive a nice car, dress well, have a great sense of humor, and even volunteer at the local homeless shelter. The image they present, and the image the family presents, tell you nothing about the dynamics of their relationship with their intimate partner. If abusers looked evil or were awful to everyone, no one would ever have anything to do with them in the first place.
Domestic violence and abuse are not only about the act of physical assault(s) on a partner. They are not about a lack of ability to manage anger, nor about a momentary loss of control. Domestic violence encompasses a pattern of behavior that is about gaining or maintaining power and control over an intimate partner or family member. What this means is that what happened to Janay Rice in that elevator is very likely only the escalation of the abuse she was subjected to prior. Most domestic violence starts as emotional abuse. Tactics such as intimidation, denial, blame, isolation, humiliation, gaslighting, and many others create a dynamic of fear within the relationship. It’s not even always fear of physical abuse—fear of retaliation in other ways can be just as debilitating. An abuser can keep a victim under their thumb without ever raising a hand to them.
With this understanding, we need to look at how we interact with those who choose to abuse, because that is what they do, they choose to abuse their supposed loved ones. Only they are responsible for their behaviors, and until every person, in every community, begins holding them, and only them, accountable, they will continue to hide behind our silence. It can be challenging and uncomfortable to have to view an acquaintance, friend, or family member in this light. I do get that. No one wants to confront a friend or family member about how they treat their partner or what may be happening in their home, but if you don’t, who will? If you don’t question why they think treating someone they claim to love in a harmful way is okay, why would they ever think it’s wrong?
I heard every one of the Inside the NFL hosts say “I just can’t believe this from Ray Rice” or something to that effect. They may not be able to see the man they know doing this, but that doesn’t change the fact that he did. If those closest to Mr. Rice, or any abuser, don’t sit him down and tell him his behaviors and beliefs about how to treat his partner are wrong, why would he think he needs to stop or change? I understand that no parent wants to think they raised someone who is capable of abuse. I understand that no one wants to think their sibling, cousin, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, or friend could ever do something so awful. I understand many will want to say that what happens in someone else’s home isn’t their business. I even understand that having these types of conversations with someone is a little scary and very uncomfortable, especially if you have a hard time reconciling the image of the person you carry in your head with the kind of person who abuses their family. What I don’t understand, and never will, is how so many who know, suspect, or have been told that someone they know is abusive stay silent.
Not only do most stay silent, they often choose not to defend the victim when the opportunity presents itself. This may manifest itself in remaining friends with an abuser despite being told that what they have done, or refusing to choose sides when a victim finally finds the courage to leave. It may be in allowing the abuser to badmouth their ex or even believing that just hanging out with them once in a while or grabbing a beer doesn’t mean you approve of what they do or did. Until abusers have to pay consequences within their own circles and communities, they will continue to believe that their behavior and beliefs are acceptable. Until the shame is shifted from the victim to the abuser, domestic violence will continue to be a pervasive problem within our society. What many fail to realize is our willingness to broach the subject with an abuser not only aids the victim, it also helps the abuser, who usually functions in the darkness of silence and secrecy, by turning the lights on and aiding them in confronting their own issues.
If you found out your friend was child molester, would you not take the side of the child? Would you think it was acceptable to hang out with him at the local bar? Would you remain indifferent to the child’s suffering? Would you ignore the fact that they need get help? Somehow I doubt it. Yet when it comes to domestic violence, the reaction is often exactly that. I hear things like “Well, there are two sides to every story.” “No one knows what really happens in someone else’s relationship.” “Maybe she’s just saying that to get back at him or to get the kids.” The problem with these attitudes is that they are not only victim-blaming, they falsely assume that most victims are making it up or exaggerating. The number of false domestic violence allegations is low, very low. In fact, domestic violence and abuse are widely under reported. If someone tells you they are or were abused, they are probably only giving a glimpse into the reality of what they suffered.
We need to be willing to tell abusers they need to get help. We need to be willing to end relationships with those abusers who refuse to see the wrong in their behaviors and get help. We need to be willing to stand on the side of victims regardless of whether or not we can “see” the person we thought we knew abusing. I don’t pretend this is easy or simple, but every time we do, we make it safer for victims to come forward. We make it harder for abusers to live among us. We show our children that abuse is not acceptable in any form and that it is okay to stand up and say so. What we tolerate will repeat itself, so we need to stop pretending like we aren’t tolerating abuse because we are. It is easy to sit back and say intimate partner violence is wrong, or I would never hit a woman. It is much harder to put your money where your mouth is and do the right thing. If you know someone who is or has been abusive to their partner, in any way, emotionally, physically, financially, or sexually, and it is almost a guarantee that you do, I urge you to speak up. Tell them they need help, provide them with resources to get it and if they refuse, be willing to stop tolerating the presence of abusers in your life.