In the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to talk to more Baltimore Ravens fans than I ever knew existed. Some of them were reaching out to offer support, others because they needed to talk. When someone we admire and care about, even from afar, commits an act of violence towards their partner it challenges us. It brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings and difficult questions. If we ever thought about domestic violence before (which many of us try not to), we usually think that it isn’t something that affects us. At most, we can open ourselves to the possibility that we might know someone who has been abused. We can see ourselves trying to support someone who has been hurt and is looking for help. But we rarely think that we might know -let alone care about- someone who has done the hurtful and abusive behavior. When an athlete or celebrity that we respect is capable of being abusive, it can make us start to question if someone we know and respect personally is capable of doing the same.
This is a really uncomfortable thought, so in cases when a celebrity we admire is accused of domestic violence, we try to do the opposite. We blame the victim. We accuse the victim of lying, exaggerating, and manipulating the situation to get attention or money. It’s easier that way; we get to believe that someone we respect is incapable of such a heinous act. But when a video showed Ray Rice striking his wife unconscious, it became harder to pretend it didn’t happen. Harder to turn the other way. Some still tried to say she provoked the violence. Many asked the question, “Why did she stay – and marry him?”
The Why Do They Stay Question. The question I am asked the most when providing a training in the community about domestic violence. An important question, no doubt. But who does the question focus on? That question itself holds the victim responsible for the abuse. Instead, why don’t we ask: “Why Do They Abuse?”
In order for us to really prevent domestic violence, we need to ask some difficult questions. We need to talk about the issue in a way that holds the abuser accountable, rather than blame the victim. We need to let go of the myth that abusers are monsters that we would never know or care about, and realize that just as there are survivors of domestic violence in every community, there are also abusers. They are not lurking in the shadows; they are standing right in front of us. They are colleagues, relatives, maybe even a friend. They may seem like a perfectly nice person. We may notice some behaviors in their relationship that look like acts of jealousy, possessiveness, or controlling behaviors. We may want to shrug it off as not a big deal to avoid an awkward moment, but our silence gives them permission. Our silence says it’s okay.
If we break that silence, what we say and do matters. We can let a friend who is being abusive know that their behavior is not okay and can have serious consequences. So many abusive and controlling behaviors are portrayed as normal or even romantic in the media that we need to be specific when we describe which behaviors are abusive. When we have time alone with a friend who is being possessive or domineering and demeaning we can share observations such as, “When you tell your partner who they can and cannot talk to, you are controlling their behavior and that is abusive.” We need to have these difficult conversations in a way that shows them that we still care about them and want to support them to make a change. We want to speak to them from a place of concern rather than judgment, and we need to have this conversation in a private, safe space. Having these conversations can be really difficult and scary, and it is important to know that there is support available to you.
It’s time we stop being silent and start being honest. It’s time we start talking about abusers and how we can interrupt abusive behaviors and hold the people we care about accountable. Many of us are calling on the NFL to develop policies that make it clear that the League does not tolerate domestic violence. Can we come together and do the same in our own lives and communities?