Supporting abused women means resisting the urge to judge

It was confusing, frustrating, and even – if you dared to admit it – a bit annoying.

Here we were, outraged on behalf of Janay Rice after watching her now husband knock her unconscious and drag her out of an elevator. But there she was, married to and standing by Ray Rice after he was fired by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended by the NFL, suggesting that we mind our own business.

The attention and reactions hurt, embarrassed and robbed the two of them of happiness, Rice’s wife wrote. It forced them to “relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day.”

We regret? But it wasn’t her fault! Why the allegiance to a man who assaulted her? Weren’t his actions the cause of her unhappiness? And how dare he get to act as if it’s the two of them against the world, saying things like, “I have to be strong for my wife,” and, “We'll continue to support each other.”

But as righteous as our indignation may be, and as crucial the expectation that no man should strike a woman and get away with it, we need to resist the urge to judge a victim’s reactions – because she’s a victim even if she won’t admit it.

So many contradictory forces are at play in abusive relationships, bolstered by male-dominated cultural expectations, deeply ingrained power dynamics, twisted rationalizations and misplaced notions of loyalty. There are also very real fears about how to survive alone in the world – or simply while getting out of the house. The risk of being killed shoots way up when a battered woman tries to leave. Experts say it typically takes seven tries.

A flood of poignant testimonials from domestic abuse survivors appearing under Twitter hashtag WhyIStayed help explain those decisions:

“I was broken, alone and terrified.”

“Shamed, no support, scared.”

“I didn’t want to have a failed marriage at 25.”

“Because he told me I was too dumb to survive without him.”

“Because I always put his needs before my own and I thought I could change him.”

Those followed an open letter from domestic violence survivor Beverly Gooden to her old self.

“You still love him even after he choked you…,” she wrote. “You feel lost without him even though you are afraid with him. … He protects and provides. He adores you in public. … You feel lucky to have landed such a catch. … So you refuse to let him down. … You’re thinking that those few times a month he gets angry enough to hit you can’t outweigh the 27-28 other picturesque days you spend together making up.”

On the “Today” show last week, four past and present NFL members’ wives said they understand why Janay Rice stays. One said she’d probably make the same choice because, “You’re there to support, and you uphold the image that you feel is necessary for your family.” Another said, “My mother stayed with someone who was abusive for over 10 years.” A third felt the need to point out the Rices are “very loving, doting over each other.”

Domestic violence is ubiquitous. NBC co-anchor Tamron Hall acknowledged having lost a sister to it. In Nebraska, Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann resigned from office after a protective order was issued against him on behalf of his sister. In South Africa, Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was convicted in the fatal shooting of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. And now the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson is accused of abusing two of his young sons in separate incidents.

Nearly one in four women has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. So what is the best way to support Janay Rice or any adult not ready to leave an abusive relationship, much less admit to being in one? Well, it isn’t by condemning her choices or assuming she'll welcome the attention, even though attention is important to raising public awareness of the crime.

Support means understanding that some women saw abuse growing up and adapted by normalizing it. And recognizing that girls may still be socialized to believe their greatest worth and status comes from their ability to get a powerful, successful man.

Support might be lobbying to build awareness in workplaces, schools, colleges, sports teams, houses of worship or elsewhere, and instituting zero tolerance for violence. It means consistent arrests and prosecutions, and batterers’ education for abusive men who really want to change.

But prevention has to begin at the earliest ages, by teaching mutual respect, modeling it at home and scrapping sex roles that put disproportionate power in the hands of men.

Every woman ultimately has to judge for herself when she’s had enough. How that point is reached is recounted in some stirring WhyILeft Twitter posts paired with WhyIStayed ones:

WhyIStayed: He promised he’d change and go to counseling.

WhyILeft: He went, and said I was making it all up.

WhyIStayed: I didn’t want to be alone again.

WhyILeft: I didn’t want to be alone in a casket.

WhyIStayed: Because I wanted my son to have a father.

WhyILeft: Because I wanted my son to have a mother.

Yes, victims may ask to be left alone. But that doesn’t rid any person or institution that has influence with the family – with families in general – of the responsibility to use it to protect them. Lives depend on outside intervention, and that can and must take many forms.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.