Ray Rice and Johnny Depp: Victim Blaming and Why Women Stay

Monday, September 15, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have recently hit the news media for something other than illegally bringing their dogs into Australia: Heard has alleged that Depp abused her. Immediately following these allegations came the public retaliation: Heard is a gold digger. Heard is making it up. Let's be clear: I don't know much about this particular case. The issue that concerns me is that our first response to domestic violence is generally: "She probably deserved it."

Other abused woman out there aren't looking at whether Depp is innocent. They're seeing a society that won't believe them if they do come forward. That's a problem. And the issue hasn't changed since the first time I wrote about domestic violence, when it was Ray Rice beating his partner in an elevator.  

As a therapist, I spent years running domestic violence groups with both women and men as the perpetrators (though the vast majority of the women were victims of abuse as well and were arrested when they finally retaliated). But this article isn’t about injustice within the system or about what causes someone to finally fight back. This is about what makes women put up with emotional or physical abuse until they finally lose it and get tossed into a police car. This is about a steady stream of commentary in recent weeks saying things like, “These women are asking for it by being there,” “They should just leave,” or my favorite, “If it were me, I would have…”

Right. Because it’s always so easy to see from the outside. No one ever sees things differently once removed from a situation.  

The victim blaming has got to fucking stop. Women get hit because someone hits them. But we should understand her side too. And while I can't cover everything here, and not all of these points will be applicable to everyone, let’s at least look at a few of the reasons why women might stay in abusive relationships. Because while many "outsiders" will remain convinced that they would not allow it to occur, “if I were her,” it is critical to have these discussions. There is a reason it's so easy for me to write characters like Hannah Montgomery in Famished (get it here you haven't already.) I've seen this victim cycle four million and thirty nine times. And almost all of these vulnerable women feel misunderstood and alone. 

Listening matters. Understanding matters. For as long as we judge her for staying, she’s not going to seek us out for help. And people like Ray Rice and Johnny Depp will get to keep beating the shit out of their partners until they get divorced or happen to raise their fist in a very public elevator. 

So why do women stay in abusive relationships?

Women Stay Because It Feels Normal 

Say I came from a home where I watched my mother being hit by my father (more on that in How To Create Codependency). Over time, I come to see those behaviors as normal, as a way to express love and passion. It might not even occur to me that there are homes where people don’t hit one another, just as it is hard for some to picture a home that doesn’t have television. 

Now this is not to say that women think the hitting is okay, per se, nor are they fans of the psychological abuse that comes with it. Most abused women are well aware that these things are wrong on a logical level. But those with troubled early experiences are more likely to stay in the face of these issues based on something beyond logic (though some without troubled pasts stay as well). We cannot escape early modeling. It is not as simple as understanding what is “healthy” or “correct.” We feel normal in our bones based on what we saw in our earliest experiences of relationships.

And abusers perpetuate those cycles and beliefs, affirming their beatings as passionate. ("If only I didn't love you so much.") Even mantras such as "Spare the rod, spoil the child," are sometimes used in domestic violence cases, aimed at women as opposed to children. ("I'm trying to teach you because I love you so much, baby.") Then there are the psychological abuses, the name calling or controlling behaviors like not allowing her to work. ("I just want to take care of you, honey.") Plus, we have romanticized versions of love to contend with that include obsessive or controlling traits, as anyone who has read Twilight can attest. 

"If I can't have you, no one can. And if anyone tries to take you from me, I will murder him with my sharp, sharp fangs. I'll wait here and watch you sleep just to make sure." Because, fucking romantic.

Women Stay Because Some Might Be Subconsciously Attracted to Violent or Controlling Traits

Now, first things first: WOMEN DO NOT DESIRE ABUSE. Let's not make that mistake. Women desire safety. Period.

But violent or otherwise volatile early experiences may open us up to specific under-the-radar fantasy elements, leading us to be attracted to a certain “type” in order to heal past hurts3 (discussed more here in Can Fantasy Be Useful? Fantasy Roots, Functions and Fifty Shades of Awesome). The gist is that we are driven, often subconsciously, to be attracted to those with whom we can act out past traumas and come out on top. A woman with a violent past may be attracted to strong men similar to a childhood abuser because of a subconscious notion that if she can prevail this time in her grown up state she might finally feel safe in her own skin. 

And indeed, she might, if these men were actually gentle giants. But often the men women end up with are the embodiment of what they are trying to escape, leading some to bounce from one abusive relationship to another, seeking a safety that will not be found in any of them.  

Women Stay Because of Shame and Self Blame 

Those with troubled or codependent childhoods, who never fully leaned how to regulate their emotions through their parents, may revert back to this type of thought pattern more readily than those with secure attachment patterns. For a child, it is far easier to accept that they have done something to cause upheaval than to accept that a parent is not stable. After all, if something is wrong with your parent, your ability to live is threatened and not just your emotional state3. In blaming ourselves for making a parent act out, we also feel more in control. After all, if it’s your fault, you can do something about it. You can make it better. Your parent is still stable, your home is still intact, and you can stop doing whatever you’re doing to make the abuse stop.

Children carry these tendencies toward self blame into adulthood. It doesn’t help that many abusive partners push this notion of blame, reaffirming that “I wouldn’t have to hit you if you’d just…” Other tactics like gaslighting—or messing with a partner’s perception, even making them doubt their sanity—are also used to encourage the notion that things are the fault of the abused. And victim blaming at the national level, i.e., “She should just leave, she shouldn’t have been there, she shouldn’t have worn that,” do little to assist women in their quests to rid themselves of shame and leave abusive relationships. 

The point here is that these women often really, truly believe that the abuse is related to their actions, and they feel guilty about that. And even violence won’t convince you otherwise if you grew up being told that it was, in fact, your fault.

Women Stay Because It Is Not Always Bad

There exists a misconception that those in abusive relationships are constantly being hurt. This is quite blatantly false, though many still endure emotional abuse or smaller slights even in good times. 

But most of those in abusive relationships experience cycles of abuse instead of daily injuries. It usually goes something like this: abusers lavish the victim with love, support and kindness. This instills the idea that things will be great, that there is hope for the relationship, that, “I’ve finally found the love and adoration I have been seeking.” And it is during those long periods of love and peace that women believe the relationship is worth salvaging. Within this oxytocin-induced attachment, they begin to rebuild their hopes and dreams, and envision their lives with their partner again. 

But this happiness doesn’t last forever. The romance might last weeks, months or longer but eventually the psychological slights and violence emerge again. But when the violence starts, it tends to be present for a shorter amount of time than the happy times. This is especially true if women overlook small slights and emotional abuse, or see those things as normal. And of course once the violence is over, there are lovely make-up periods—called the “honeymoon phase”—where romance and sweetness are in high gear, reaffirming attachments once more with roses and, “I’m sorry.” All of this has the added benefit of making one think that this time was the last time. After all, he’s so remorseful this time, he surely won’t raise his fist again. 

The takeaway? It is harder to find reasons to leave when the good days outnumber the bad. If it were all bad, if it were all pain, it would be easier to escape from. But many women see themselves as having great relationships outside of “this one little thing.” It keeps them coming back, keeps them believing in the future. And hope can be difficult to beat out of someone when the beating occurs between back rubs. 

Women Stay Because They Feel Stuck

Women often feel handcuffed for economic reasons, which is especially prominent when the couple has children together. Not only do those with nowhere else to go risk losing custody of their children to their abuser, but the fear of not being able to provide for a family alone can make a women believe that she and her kids might be better off remaining in the home. This is a viable concern as women’s economic standing does indeed tend to go down substantially following divorce while men’s greatly increases, both with and without children2

Fucking patriarchy.  

However, there are programs available to help battered women get back on their feet following domestic violence (some are listed here). And despite financial concerns, women and children alike tend to have far better emotional outcomes in the long run being away from an abusive partner or parent. That’s something you can’t put a price on.  

Women Stay Because of PTSD, Dissociation or The Idea That Things Are Not That Bad

There are those who lie and downplay injuries in order to protect their abuser, tactics often seen in those with a history of codependent traits or from disturbed early environments. But women who are being abused may also dissociate, report feeling numb or experience depersonalization (or feeling like they aren’t really there).  While these symptoms can also be present in other conditions like anxiety and depression, trauma makes these issues more likely. 

In domestic violence groups, I often saw women with severe injuries downplay the severity and really mean it. 

“It’s just a scratch.” 

Um…it required thirty-six stitches. It’s more than a scratch. However, trying to push this reality on one who is traumatized, particularly if they are removed enough from the situation that they can’t fully feel the pain of those injuries, can be either fruitless or flat-out cruel. Because some are so traumatized that parts of the event itself are still blacked out, an inability to recall based on self preservation. This experience during and after traumatic events is an evolved mechanism in place to reduce our suffering. And if you try to force reality too soon, you will end up the bad guy and push her right back to the person who did it in the first place, a person who is more than likely in a honeymoon, “Baby, I’m so sorry,” phase where he will show her all the love she needs to heal until he does it again. Healing or even recognition in these cases often occurs after one is out of the traumatic environment, making it a very difficult thing indeed. 

Women Stay Because It Is Less Dangerous (at least in the short term)


This one will come as a surprise to most, but we need to talk about it. Because while around half of women will one day leave their abusers, they are up to 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks following that move than at any other time in the relationship1. Seventy fucking times. 

Let me tell you a story.  

I treated one woman who threatened to leave her abusive partner, the father of her child. She dropped their eleven-month-old off at daycare and went to work to make plans. Her partner picked the child up, took him home, strapped the baby into his high chair, and murdered him with a grilling fork while the police tried to break down the door.

I understand this is uncomfortable and possibly triggering, but we need to talk about the reality of some of these situations, particularly the more violent ones. (Though please understand that baby killing is not the norm, nor is outright murder). I bring it up here because those on the outside need to see that it’s not as simple as just walking out, or taking the stairs instead of an elevator (I’m looking at you Fox and Friends). And if you think it is, you don’t get it.

When a woman says, “I’m afraid to leave,” she fucking means it. And while some argue that she ought to be more afraid to stay there, she’s more afraid of what he might do if she takes off, and she should be. This pain she is familiar with. This pain she can handle. The unknown is far more dangerous, because it likely will escalate beyond what she has experienced thus far. And she knows it. 

In terms of immediate, life-threatening danger, your brain is programmed to find any excuse it can to go with the safer of the two options. It’s like telling someone that they might eventually die on a desert island, but there is more abundant food and assistance on the mainland. All they have to do is swim through shark-infested waters to get there and they should be home free.

Get your snorkel Fox and Friends, and strap on some flippers. I’ve got a job for your ass.

Now does this mean that abused women should stay in these relationships? Hell to the no! These relationships tend to get worse over the years, as boundaries degenerate further and abusers get more comfortable in their domineering behaviors. This can increase risks of bodily harm as time goes on. Despite understanding why women do it, most fair better when the relationship finally ends.

Getting Out of an Abusive Relationship

Relationships that involve domestic abuse and violence need more calculated removal strategies than, “just call a cab,” particularly if you are dealing with a psychopathic or antisocial personality.  Many women open new, secret bank accounts and switch their mail to a PO box. Many keep a record of the abuse through police reports, or keep other photo evidence which may help in obtaining restraining orders. Some pack items little by little and store them at friend’s homes, in a safe deposit box or a storage facility. Many talk to lawyers, particularly if there are children involved and file papers to be served after they are in a safe house and the children are otherwise protected. Most all change their passwords and block their ex on social media as soon as they have escaped. And some just grab their prescriptions, their driver’s license and other papers and what cash they have on hand and shove it into their pockets. Because there are times when planning is trumped by more immediate needs for safety.

But in this leaving process, many women don’t say one word about it before they walk out. And that walking out usually needs to  happen when their partner is sure to be away from the home to avoid violent retaliation. 

Even with tips like this, women often need more help. And while loved ones may be able to assist, professionals in this area are usually beneficial in making a game plan. If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233  or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). They have people on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week who can offer support and lists of resources in your area. There are also women’s shelters listed here by state. For more insight into this issue, check out Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling MenYou Can Be Free - An Easy To Read Handbook for Abused Women, Getting Free: You Can End Abuse and Take Back Your Life, and  Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and Murder-Suicides (Social and Psychological Issues: Challenges and Solutions). The last book discusses traumatic bonding that occurs between abusers and their victims and outlines additional safety plans for those in trouble.

It’s not your fault. Help is available. Get out, but don’t go it alone.

Related Posts:

  1. http://www.dvipiowa.org/myths-facts-about-domestic-violence/
  2. https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/files/iser_working_papers/2008-07.pdf
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Arousal-Secret-Logic-Sexual-Fantasies/dp/0312302428

Topic-Relevant Resources

Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and Murder-Suicides (Social and Psychological Issues: Challenges and Solutions)
Great sociological perspective on domestic violence. This book also discusses traumatic bonding that occurs between abusers and their victims and outlines additional safety plans for those in trouble.

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men
A great read, this book seeks to answer the question women in abusive or controlling relationships ask often: WHY?

Getting Free: You Can End Abuse and Take Back Your Life (New Leaf)
Important tips for those in abusive relationships on taking back your life.

You Can Be Free: An Easy-to-Read Handbook for Abused Women
Simple, yet effective, a handbook for getting out and staying out.

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the nature of relationships and the journey towards self discovery

I Can't Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors
This book includes examples of numerous different types of trauma along with tactics to work through each.

Famished: An Ash Park Novel
Everyone's hungry for something. Some are more famished than others.