Rihanna has spoken publically and candidly about the domestic abuse she experienced in her relationship with Chris Brown. In the aftermath of the publicity surrounding it, it was noticeable how much scrutiny there was of Rihanna’s decisions, specifically about her decision to pursue the relationship.
As an onlooker, it can seem as though there are clear choices that victims of abuse should be making. The emphasis can quickly shift to holding the victim accountable and even blaming them if they in some way don’t fulfil the expectations of ‘how a victim should act’. You hear ‘I wouldn’t let him/her do x to me. Why does she/he put up with that’?
But if we’re honest, because we love and hope we all sometimes put up with much more than we ever thought we would or should.
And for most of us this will be in small and largely inconsequential ways. And unlike Rihanna we won’t be under a media spotlight with the world moralising on How We’ve Let Down the Side through the choices we made.
And it’s easy to say from the outside what you’d do; how do you know until you’ve been there? An abusive relationship will start in the same way as a healthy one; so when would you feel that a line had been crossed? The first time they hit you? But by then there’ve been countless times when you’ve felt really scared and didn’t leave. Numerous occasions where they’ve shouted in your face and called you worthless. Several good friends have fallen by the wayside because your partner takes up all your time and headspace and perhaps now you have a child and a whole lot of pressure to put a brave face on.
And perhaps aside from all the many barriers to leaving, you really love this person. Really love them and want and hope for things to be better.
And probably sometimes they do get better, for a time. Then when it starts to get bad again you’ve lost perspective. You can’t recall how many ‘chances’ you’ve given them and before you know it you’re ‘just giving it 3 more months’ for the 10th time. And the friends that would have reminded you stopped calling a year ago.
Fear of violence or further abuse can never be completely absent from the mind of a person in an abusive relationship. But it’s not the only emotion that keeps people in abusive relationships. A decision to leave your partner is a decision to step into a grief process that none of us would enter into lightly.
It is painful and difficult to end a relationship. Any relationship. Aside from the practical implications of extricating yourself from someone else’s life, emotionally you have wound yourselves together. All the plans you made, the dreams you had, your hopes and expectations for the future feel suddenly obsolete. You can swing between feeling elated to have a made a decision one minute and the next be completely unsure of yourself and question whether things were ever that bad. Add to this the erosion of self-confidence which results from an abusive relationship and it can feel paralysing.
And all this is a societal context that elevates relationships and stigmatises being single. Something that is also gendered – women are very much valued in terms of how attractive they are as a sexual partner (compare the connotations of the terms Spinster and Batchelor as an example).
A key part of MI is being able to listen to their clients. Not just the listening we think we do whilst we rehearse what we want to say next, but mindfully, purposefully listening to what they say. And we can only truly listen if we empathise with how difficult the decisions are that they are faced with. Something we cannot do if we’re too busy holding victims to account for not acting in the way we think they should.