Why Did Janay Rice Stay?: A Therapist Explains Domestic Violence and Cycles of Abuse

Speculation and misinformation about the realities of abusive relationships abound in light of the emergence of a video recording showing former professional football player Ray Rice striking his now-wife Janay in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel. This misinformation not only inhibits productive dialogues about domestic violence, it potentially endangers and isolates those who experience it.

In search of a fuller understanding of what abuse is and why it happens, I spoke with Racine Henry (@RaeRenee731), a therapist and doctoral candidate at Drexel University (view her research here) about the cycle of abuse and intimate partner violence.

We, of course, do not know Janay Rice, but are discussing examined patterns and available research on the subject.

You can listen to the full conversation here.

- Kimberly Foster (@KimberlyNFoster)


KF: Could you tell me a little bit about your experience and expertise? 

RH: Sure, I have a bachelors degree in psychology, a masters degree in marriage and family therapy, and I’m currently a PhD candidate at Drexel University. Since about 2006, I’ve been working in domestic violence shelters as well as publishing research articles in peer-reviewed journals on the topic, particularly pertaining to Black women and Black populations. My article that was recently published is about black intimate partner violence amongst teenagers.

I’ve also been clinically active as a psychotherapist, as a marriage and family therapist since 2008 working in Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and now in New York city with various populations and you see domestic violence crop up regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of race, regardless of neighborhood. And even within LGBTQ relationships. It’s not discriminatory in any way shape or form.

In terms of the common misperceptions that happen when it comes to domestic violence, much like rape culture, there is a lot of victim blaming. There is a lot of discourse around “what did she do to precipitate the violence?” you know, “why did she stay with him after the last time?”  I’m using the pronouns of “him" and “her" because we often hear more about male to female violence. Though some research says that female to male violence happens as often if not more often but it doesn’t get reported.

So I wanted to talk to you because there’s been a lot of talk today and in recent weeks about the domestic violence incident that happened between Janay Rice and Ray Rice. Today some video was released that really showed it explicitly. One of the more frequent questions, which feels like an accusation, that I see posed is, “Why would she stay? Why would she choose to marry him a month or less after this incident occurred?” 

Well something that I actually commented back to another Twitter user is domestic violence is mainly about power and control. And we don’t know in this scenario to what extent his power and control over her went to. I do know that you can’t testify against your spouse if you’re married, so I’m sure that since he was facing legal charges they got some counsel along the way around getting married so she couldn’t testify against him in court. Luckily for him, the case hadn’t gone to court or if it had I don’t believe that he had to get on the stand or it wasn’t a trial. It was somewhat of a plea bargain if anything, but I don’t think he faced any charges criminally. I think it was only in the league, if I’m not mistaken.

And you also find that women often leave and come back to their abuser seven to nine times on average and that can span any length of time from months to years, usually years. And if you think about what keeps you in a relationship to people even healthy relationships: your friends, your family, your coworkers, all of those components whether it’s money, love, history, you’re related to this person, you have kids with this person, because you live together, because they care about you, because they were there for you, etc, etc. All those things are the very same reasons why women in those situations won’t leave. The good things can also be the reasons why you stay in a bad relationships. So it’s not about, “Well, she should’ve just left.” It’s never that simple or that easy if they have children together, if he’s the only source of income in the family, if she has strong religious beliefs about marriage or what it means to be a good girlfriend or wife, all these things, which you can’t really separate out from the others, play a role.

So I’m not surprised that she’s with him. I’m not surprised that they’re married. I’m not surprised also that she’s getting a lot of the flack when no one’s really talking about Why did he do this? What made him hit his wife or his future wife? Why did he then marry someone who obviously is a trigger for him rather than seeking his own mental health help?

But I think that you said something really interesting there. From what I gathered, staying in an abusive relationship is not just about your self-esteem. It’s not just about your self worth. It’s also about your networks. Your familial and friend connections, and your partnerships. So when people say that abused women just need to love themselves more, how would you respond to that?

I would say that’s probably the most harmful thing you can say to a woman in that situation. Because a lot of people are ignorant not because of their own fault but because they haven’t seen the situation or haven’t been educated about the situation. When a woman does leave an abusive situation, that's when her life is most at risk.  That’s when it’s the most dangerous, and the most precarious time for her because the abuser is so enticed and incited by that. “You have the nerve to leave me. You have the gall to think that you can do better out there without me.”  A lot of that agin is about power and control. I think if we really want to help women and men who are being abused, we need to empower them to think about what their options are. And not shame them for wanting to stay because by the point of abuse, and this is speaking generally of course, I’m talking about someone who’s been in this situation for years. By that time, what is comfortable for them is staying. They know how to navigate that chaos. To have them leave, you have to think about where is she going to go? Who’s going to pay her bills or help her have money to live? Is she going to be safe going to a family or friends house when he may know where this person lives? Is she going to feel guilt for putting someone else’s life in danger because we don’t know how far the extent of his violence may go? Does she have children with this man? Can his kids up and leave with her? Does he have custody of the kids? All these things play a role. Is she an immigrant? Does she even have the means to physically leave? A lot of these women are associated with athletes or people who are famous or who have money, so they’re controlled to a t where every dollar is accounted for. Every moment of their day is accounted for. It’s not as simple as you can just come and go as you please.

There are other cases where there is more flexibility. Again it’s about your support systems and also your sense of advocacy. Do you even know that leaving is an option? Do you even know how to leave? Do you even know what it looks like if you were to be out there by yourself? Is that what you want? And if you don’t want then how are you going to survive in this situation? It’s not always so simple as leaving is a better option because sometimes leaving is not. Maybe he had health insurance and she’s really ill and if she leaves him, she may die. Maybe she doesn’t want her kids to not have a father around. Maybe if she leaves, her family will reject her because he is a good man or they don’t believe in divorce or whatever the case is.

You’re really highlighting the complexities of these situations that are so often overlooked. And it really makes me wonder. Why are we so hard on women who are abused? 

It happens because I think having the other conversation is too difficult. I know we live in a patriarchal society so to keep men accountable for each other and to make them accountable for themselves, I think that’s more difficult for people to verbalize or sift through then to say, “Well, How can you avoid this? How you can not be in this situation?" And the quickest way to not be in the situation is to leave. But again that is it’s own can of worms. So I think if we were to really hold men to the fire and say, You have to be in control of yourself. You have to admit that you have an anger management problem. You have to seek help if you need ways to cope with things. Or maybe these are people who grew up in families where violence was a way of communication. Violence was the norm. And so you have to un-normalize (sic) what someone has seen for decades.

It’s not always about don’t hit or don’t get mad or leave. There’s so many other pieces to the puzzle that leaves areas of grey. And if it’s not black or white,"What’s the quick fix?" And we live in a sensational society. We live in an instant gratification world. And if it can’t be fixed quickly, what do you do with it?

Absolutely, and I want to make sure that I’m checking myself because I use some language that falls into heterosexist binaries and like you mentioned earlier, domestic violence/interpersonal violence does not just happen between male-female couples. It happens in homosexual couples. It happens where women are the aggressors/abusers as well, so I just want to make sure that I clarify that. 

I am interested in how this abuse dynamic and how this perception about the abused person plays out when Black women are the apparent victim of violence. 

Well, there’s always the image and the discourse around the angry black woman. That black women are feisty. We have a lot mouth on us. We don’t take any crap from anybody. We’re probably the ones to hit you first or hit you back, and we won’t be as docile as a white woman might be. And so I think there’s an expectation that if a black woman was hit, she either did something to cause it or she’ll be strong enough to leave. It’s almost like we can’t be victims. We can’t be innocent victims in the way that women of other races can be. We have to be either infallibly strong, meaning “I’ll leave a man before he hits me” or “You’re not gonna hit me. If you hit me, I’ll kill you.” Or we have to be the one who somehow precipitated this event by some cause of our own.

And that was explained by Janay Rice making a statement saying, “I apologize for my role in the incident.”  I have received some training around that kind of thinking that women play a role and I’m very cautious about using that framing with survivors--I hate using the term victims—because it almost blames them. When I talk about their role in it. If nothing else you play a role because you are present for it. Not saying that you should up and leave or that it’s your fault, but if we’re looking at things that everyone is playing a role in a situation, her role is merely being home that day. Or being the one to speak to him when he’s in a fit of rage rather than the second person to speak to him where the other person would’ve gotten hit and she wouldn’t have or whatever the imagery is.

To go back to your other statement about IPV. When I use the acronym IPV, I mean that in terms of intimate partner violence. I know you said interpersonal violence, so I wanted to clarify those things for anyone who might be reading or for our conversation.

Absolutely! Because you are the expert not me, so I will defer to you on that one. 

You mentioned Janay Rice sitting next to her husband, Ray Rice, at a very public press conference put on by the Baltimore Ravens, or at least overseen by them, in which she apologized for her role in the incident. I’ve also heard regarding the Ravens and the NFL that domestic violence is a personal issue—that it is a private issue so the partner’s employer should not be involved. Is that correct? Should we think of it that way? 

In my opinion, that is absolutely ridiculous because yes it is a personal event meaning these people are in a romantic relationship and this happened between them. At the same time, we’re all living as a society. So if I shoot someone in the privacy of my own home, that doesn’t make it a personal event. I’m still personally committing a crime. I think it should be treated as such regardless of him being an NFL player or the person next door. If you commit a crime, you’re supposed to pay the consequences of that. And I think that it should have consequences, personally, socially, and culturally. That would look like maybe something happening in his network of friends or family. I’m sure he has people in his life who look at him differently or talk to him differently or look at her differently vice versa. It should look like him getting harsher sanctions from his job. I don’t think that two games or four games is enough. And I think that because you are a public figure, it now becomes a cultural issue because you are a black male hitting a black female. Whether you are orange or yellow, Asian or white, you’re sitting committing a crime against another person, and that makes it different.

It would different if he were hitting himself or hurting himself. Then yeah, that’s a personal issue. And that still involves some kind of therapy I would think but when you attack another person especially your wife or someone you’re in a relationship with, I don’t know it would be, “Oh let them handle it amongst themselves”. Because I’m sure he had killed her, that wouldn’t be the response. If it had been something worse, that wouldn’t have been the discourse around it. But because it was “Oh he’s an NFL player and his fans don’t want to think of him differently” or “We don’t want the Ravens to have a bad season because he wasn’t playing” or whatever the ridiculous reason is, it’s very much a public issue because you are a public figure.

I absolutely agree and I’m so happy to hear you say that. I’m also really concerned here about the failure of the justice system. I mentioned earlier that he plead not guilty to the charges. We know for sure police viewed the video of Janay Rice being knocked out cold, and he basically received a slap on the wrist for that. So I’m really interested in your take on what role the justice system or law enforcement plays in the perpetuation of cycles of violence and abuse.

Well that’s exactly it. I think you hit it right on the head that they played the ultimate role in the perpetuation of it because even with people who aren’t NFL players or their wives, with regular everyday citizens, this is what happens. I think this is why a lot of people who are abused, men and women, don’t come forward because they know that nothing will happen or they feel nothing will happen. How many times have I heard or read stories of a woman calling the police on her spouse or boyfriend 10 or 15 times, leaving, and he’ll still follow her across states or whatever it is harassing her at her job, harassing the kids, kidnapping the kids and nothing gets done.  He’s not arrested. He’s not sanctioned. And if he is, it’s for a momentary sentence. It’s not something impactful and then it usually ends up in the worst case scenario: him killing this woman. Then there’s outrage. Then there’s outcry. Now he’s a murderer and should be sentenced. What about all the steps beforehand? What about all the times beforehand? What about all the signs beforehand of the woman doing all the “right” things? Leaving him, calling the police, notifying other people, moving, taking steps to be safe and yet there’s no protection. We hand out these pieces of paper, orders of protection, all the time. And that’s great because it’s something legal. But when that man comes to her door, what’s the paper going to do for her? Is that going to keep her safe? So our law enforcement isn’t going to be as proactive as they should about it. We’re really asking these women to save their own lives and that’s unfair because no one is holding him back from committing the crime. No one’s gonna get him the help he probably needs, and no one’s gonna come to her aid in a way that would keep her safe and keep her alive.

Oh man, you just hit the nail on the head. We’re asking these women to save themselves. That is really unfortunate and really heartbreaking. I think it’s really important to think about the societal role and how we each contribute to leaving these women for dead.

Are there resources available for women who find themselves in these situations. Because you’ve practiced and you are a therapist, you have any suggestions for where people who are in abusive situations should go? 

I would say always go to law enforcement. Even if you’re there every five seconds, get it on paper. Paper trail definitely helps in those kinds of situations. Know about your local resources. A lot of national hotlines. It’s a quick Google to find in your area local hotlines and local shelters. They won’t ever be published as far as the address of the shelters. Those things have to be kept private and secretive.

But back to resources, I would say notify those who you can trust as early as possible, as often as possible. Set up some kind of safety plan. So if you text your mom a regular text that you know is code or a different message that isn’t normal, then she’ll know how to react. If it’s as serious as you being stalked or being harassed, definitely notify your job and provide pictures of the person abusing you, of their vehicle, of people who you think may be helping them. Alert your kids’ schools, the babysitters, anyone who’s involved that this should not happen. That their parent shouldn’t come pick them up. Only give my child to me or whatever the case is and never stop alerting someone.

I know we’re talking about violent abuse, but I also want to touch on that abuse looks like many different things. It’s emotional. It’s mental. It’s neglect. It’s control of finances. All those things are apart of it, and the physical part may never come into play. I know a lot of people say, “Oh they never hit me. They yelled at me. They got in my face, but they never actually hit me.”  There are different kinds of abuse that can be equally as damaging. And that also require help and resources and therapy and possible separation from this person.

I don’t ever believe in doing therapy with a couple where the abuse is still happening because it’s not going to work. It’s unrealistic and it’s going to cause more abuse. It almost maintains a cycle of violence. And a cycle of violence is just that and what causes people to stay in these relationships is the peaks of the cycle. When things are good and it’s all lovey-dovey and they’re saying sorry. But the valleys are going to come, and they’re going to get deeper and deeper and they’re going to take less and less time. They’re [peaks] are not going to be as high as they were the last few times, and it escalates very quickly. So you want to be aware of your pattern of relationships and the people that you tend to date, and if you find that you’re not allowed to talk to certain friends or you can’t have certain social media accounts, in very isolated incidents these can be normal behaviors but when they become patterns, when they become things that happen repeatedly over time, when they escalate, when the person’s demeanor toward you changes, when they threaten you, whether it’s threatening you with “I’ll never let you go” or “No one can ever look you like I can love you” or “If I can’t have you nobody else can,” these are things you need to pay attention to. Not that everyone who says it to you is going to abuse you or control you, but again it’s about the pattern and you want to be aware of these red flags and act accordingly. If you don’t feel strong enough to do it yourself, find people who can help you, support you and make sure that you are safe mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Racine, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this. This conversation is going to be so important to get some context and knowledgeable insight into abusive situations. 

Photo Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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