What We Still Don't Understand About Domestic Violence

Abuse is color-blind. But the factors often leading up to it are universal.

couple fighting

No matter what a woman says or does, there is no excuse for a man to hit her. There is also no excuse for the public shaming - it is not an exaggeration to call it psychological rape - of Janay Rice following the belated release of the video showing the assault that took place in the hotel elevator last February. 

Janay Rice deserves to feel what she feels and share what she chooses to share in private. The last thing she needs is to defend herself against salacious, opinionated, wagging tongues. She is already being marginalized both by her husband and the mammoth machine that is the NFL.


And yet:

As a marriage counselor I see couple after couple sitting on my couch with little or no ability to communicate with one another except via name-calling, screaming and, occasionally striking out physically.

*Ralph, crying: “I don’t want to hit *Sarah and I know it’s terrible but when she starts screaming at me and calling me a piece of s--- and I tell her to stop and she doesn’t, I don’t know what else to do.”

Sarah, also crying: “How can he love me if he hits me?”

Ralph to his wife: How can you love me if you call me a piece of s---?”

Me: Ralph, you are twice as big as Sarah. Hitting your wife is much more dangerous to her than her screaming is to you. It is NEVER okay, and a rule of our therapy is that you cannot do it. Ever. If you can’t control yourself, you need anger management training. It is NEVER okay to hit.


Sarah, it is 100 % not your fault that he hit you but it will be helpful to work on tools to help you both learn to de-escalate when your buttons are pushed.

I have borne witness to the emotionally pummeling behavior in which many couples engage, seen firsthand the toxic breakdown of civility and impulse control they learned at their parents’ knees.

I as mediator/mommy/teacher set boundaries (i.e.: no verbal or – most important – physical abuse) and lay down rules of conduct (i.e.: before saying or doing something rash, take a deep breath and consider how you will feel after).

This is often the first time the couple is being gently but firmly confronted with the awareness that being cruel and/or enduring cruelty is not an inevitable result of giving away a piece of your heart.


While acknowledging the dynamic between them isn’t working, they have no clue how to fix it except to blame the other person for everything that is wrong.

If I were Dictator for a day I would decree no couple could be issued a marriage license until they underwent premarital counseling to help them learn to recognize triggers, each take ownership of his or her role in the dysfunction, and learn how to communicate the hurt beneath the anger.

It is nearly always the hurt, disappointment, feelings of betrayal and not mattering to the person who supposedly loves you most, which drives verbal and even physical abuse.

Once each partner feels safe to show their vulnerabilities to the other, can be raw and real versus covering up their needs and wants with aggression or the cold shoulder, a loving and respectful communion of equals can begin.


The hopefully just psychic injuries inflicted on one another are merely the latest blood drawings. These new ‘attacks’ reopen scabs that originally formed in childhood as protection from constant wounding.

If we are not taught to love and value ourselves by our parents, how can we automatically know how to love and value ourselves as worthwhile, wonderful human beings unless a partner offers us at least occasional validation?

Again nothing excuses Rice’s abuse of his then-fiancé in that elevator. We aren’t privy to what went on in their relationship prior to that day, or what occurs between them in private moments.

But long before he became a burly football player whose job definition was to mow down whoever gets in his way of helping his team win games, Rice was a one-year-old whose father was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. At age 10 his cousin and father figure died in a car crash, leaving him “the man of the house.”


No one is just one thing. Janay Rice is so much more than a victim of her husband’s violence. She needs compassion, respect and the space to take stock, be nurtured, to heal, and find her own way.

And there is undoubtedly more to Ray Rice than the savagery he has displayed to his wife. He too deserves to be allowed the privacy to come to terms with the inexcusable behavior of which he is capable, and to seek treatment to never do it again.

Best of luck to both.

*Names are changed