I can understand why some men abuse their wives.
These aren’t the words of dismissed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. These words were spoken by another one-time football player who also happened to have a penchant for violence. They were spoken slowly, surely, with jaw set, and eyes fixed on some invisible point ahead. They were spoken in my bedroom, and the man who uttered them was my husband. Those simple words strung together in calculated succession were a warning.
I can understand why some men abuse their wives.
That memory has been following me around this week like an unnerving shadow, flitting in and out. Because when I saw the video of Janay Rice getting mercilessly knocked unconscious by the man who would soon become her husband, that innate sense of fear surfaced again. Bits and pieces of my own story started waving arms at me from the far corners of my mind, where I have them safely tucked away. I’m still here, they say. I still remember.
Some news writers and columnists have pointed out that Janay Rice was not only violated by her husband during the assault, and by the NFL in the way they initially doled out a slap-on-the-wrist punishment for Ray Rice, but also by news figures, sports commentators, and sports fans who have gone far beyond giving him the benefit of the doubt, and blatantly transferred blame to his victim.
Still others have suggested that news outlets chose poorly when they decided to broadcast the surveillance footage of the attack without the victim’s permission. I tend to agree. Sadly, without that video, we wouldn’t be having this national discussion about domestic violence right now.
Without hard proof, we tend to second guess women (perhaps even men) who are victims of domestic violence. For some reason, we needed to see Ray Rice towering over his fiancée in that hotel elevator as the altercation started, to believe it. We needed to see her hand go out. We needed to witness him deliver the one-and-done punch that knocked her to the floor and rendered her unconscious, and we needed to see the minutes that followed in which he couldn’t be bothered to assess her injuries, let alone fully drag her ragdoll form out of the elevator. It appeared that a hotel employee, not her fiancée, intervened to hold the doors open, so her legs, and then her head, wouldn’t accidentally get crushed.
We thought we needed to see all of these things to believe them. Witnessing was some sort of unspoken requirement before we dared feel any outrage towards Ray Rice, towards the Baltimore Ravens, or the NFL for their lack of action early on.
The truly tragic thing is that even with this evidence in hand, so many are still making statements and asking questions that launch blame at the victim.
How did she provoke him?
She made the mistake of marrying him even after he attacked her?!
If she stays, it’s her own fault.
She’s just in it for the money.
I would never stand for something like that.
Didn’t she know better?
It’s as if we’re saying: It’s her own fault that she got punched in the face, and because she couldn’t find a way out of this dangerous situation, she deserves what she gets from this point forward. Is this really where we are as a society? When this is our dialogue, we are perpetuating the problem.
Unlike Ray Rice, my husband wasn’t famous. Yes, he often talked about his one year as a walk-on for our college football team. He proudly showed off his jewel-studded championship bowl ring for a bowl game he wasn’t permitted to attend, after refusing to follow instructions and getting in trouble with one of the coaches. He didn’t make millions of dollars. He had a hard time keeping a job at all. He was charming, and women sometimes swooned over him, but once people got past the facade, they often found it difficult to get along with him.
We married as university students, after an all-too-brief courtship. I was only 20. I was naive. I thought since we had been raised in the same religious faith, we would automatically have similar experiences and values. I could not have been more wrong.
I saw some serious warning signs within the first few months of our marriage. He’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I thought in disbelief. So volatile, so unpredictable. But he was also young. He would grow out of it, surely. Perhaps he hadn’t been taught how to deal with his anger. Perhaps he had endured poor treatment. Perhaps the skeleton of addiction that kept slipping out of the closet was part of the problem. Surely the violent outbursts were a symptom of these inward problems. We could work on it together. We could tackle it as a couple. After all, we had made promises to each other. We had made commitments to God to see this thing through. So for more than a decade, I stayed.
Unlike Janay Palmer Rice, I was never knocked to the ground, nor rendered unconscious. My husband didn’t lay a hand on me. He terrorized me without touching me. He towered over me, as I crouched or recoiled or looked on in disgust, depending upon my level of daily fortitude. He yelled. Sometimes, I yelled back. He flew into rages with unpredictable physical movements, flailing his arms, banging his fists, and stomping around. He punched holes in walls and holes in doors. He beat lamps against walls, shattering their light bulbs, and threw glasses down to watch their spectacular explosion on the kitchen floor. He broke things on purpose. He snapped a computer keyboard over his thigh in one fast, fluid movement. He demolished our dishwasher — ripping it out from its place amongst kitchen cabinets, kicking and beating it as part of a tirade that had me utterly terrified, and afraid for my life.
He issued direct and implied threats. Even still, he didn’t lay a hand on me. In fact, he found a clever loophole in that regard. He hurt me with things. More specifically, he threw things at me. So his hands touched the things that hurt me. Sometimes, the things he threw hurt me physically, but most often, they hurt my soul far more than they hurt my body. The most degrading thing he threw at me was a bottle of milk. He was feeding our baby boy, and he got angry. So he jerked the bottle right out of his mouth, and in full view of our startled little one, he hurled it at me from across the room. By then, I had accumulated years of practice. I instinctively knew to throw up my hands and duck a little. It hit me, but not as directly as it might have otherwise. There were other times when the throwing hurt. Or left a painful red mark. This time, it simply left another mark on my spirit.
None of this qualifies as abuse, he insisted. But I knew better. My mind was often a rapid-fire war-zone, trying to assess the stakes, the outcomes, the consequences. I needed to run. But I couldn’t. What was he thinking? What would his next move be? Would tomorrow be safe? What kind of mood would he be in? Am I the next thing he will break? Is our son safe?
In the beginning, I cried. A lot. Eventually, I learned to cry inside, because he would mock me every time he saw a tear. From each drop, he seemed to derive a twisted sense of satisfaction. So I stopped crying. When the tears dried up, the inside of my body started shutting down, quite literally. I held the stress, misery, and emotion inside until a life-threatening diagnosis became a game-changer for me.
During all of that time, I never filed police reports. I put on a brave front to almost everyone around me. People at work would ask me about my husband and I would have no idea what to say. So I’d mumble a noncommittal something-or-other, or brush past the question altogether. A few close family members and friends knew the truth. But even then, it took months — years for some of them — to truly see the depth of what I faced. Each time I told someone part of my story, each time I even thought of filing an Emergency Protective Order, I feared the repercussions of my actions.
I wondered what I had done to provoke him. Sometimes, I knew. Sometimes, I didn’t. I wondered if it was really that bad. Because in the days or weeks between rages, job losses, or addictive tendencies, it was good. Would this affect my career? End it? Bring embarrassment to my employer? My family? My sense of pride? People would know. What would they think of me? What if my husband was going to change, and I simply needed to wait a bit longer? I was terrified of having children with him, but once we finally did have a child, I wondered if my leaving would mean our son might suffer more. Wouldn’t he need to visit his father? What would happen when I wasn’t there during those visits, to act as a buffer of protection? Couldn’t God change my husband? Did he even want help? Could I make enough personal improvements to make his violent streak disappear? I was forever reading books on being a better wife, being a better woman, and building a stronger marriage. You name it, I read it.
All of these things found a place on the stage of my internal struggle. Over the course of our eleven-plus-year marriage, I separated from him three times, seeking refuge with family. It was only on the third try that my leaving proved successful.
When I did finally leave, I hardly recognized myself, not just on the outside, but on the inside. I was horribly ill, physically and emotionally. It took a lot of time and support to begin the process of digging myself out and building a new life.
This may be what Janay Rice is facing.
When we blame victims for “their role” in the domestic violence they experience, as the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL attempted to do, we are telling them they aren’t safe. Not at home, and certainly not with us. We are telling them we’re willing to sweep domestic violence under a rug so large it extends far past the 50-yard-line. We’re telling them to stay, rather than lending a hand to empower them to let go.
It not only adds to the stigma, it adds to the environment of fear and mistrust that abused women are desperately trying to untangle. In essence, when we blame victims, we are part of the problem.
Update (10/30/2014): Seven weeks ago, I shared a very personal experience involving domestic abuse. Hours after posting it, I felt consumed with REGRET. It felt as though I had emotionally stripped down in front of everyone. When I went to bed that evening, the flood gates opened and the tears poured out. I felt raw and exposed, and I wanted to hide my feelings from everyone, including myself. My husband was there to help me through it. I know it is difficult for him when this ghost of the past unexpectedly resurfaces. It doesn’t come back often these days. But when we write and recall, a part of us re-lives what we’re writing, and that’s what I experienced.
I’m posting this again as we close out Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I hadn’t planned to say anything. All month long, I avoided acknowledging it, hoping I could slip quietly into November. But here we are at the end of the month, and I’m realizing that I’ve been trying to spread the rug over the mess rather than spreading awareness, and that’s exactly what we have to STOP DOING.
So today, I remember, and I hope that you will also remember. There are women (and men) out there who need our helping hands and understanding shoulders. Today, I also give thanks. I give thanks for a kind husband with a generous spirit. He loves me, he believes in me, and we do our best to lift each other up. He opens my eyes to things to things I might not otherwise notice — including an awesome Taylor Swift song with a powerful message that I hadn’t considered. And comic relief in the form of a Spanish-language variety show called Sabado Gigante. He is a beautiful man and I know that I am a lucky woman.
I also give thanks for incredibly supportive parents. They were there to help carry me through when I needed help standing. My parents, along with my siblings and their families, aunt and uncle, cousins, and a handful of best friends who I’ve adopted as extended family, formed a team of support that proved essential to me.
Never doubt the difference you might make in the life of another person. If you know someone who may need a listening ear, or a word of encouragement, don’t let this moment slip by. Do something.
Sometimes, it’s enough to say “I’m here.”
Sarah Elizabeth is happily remarried to a childhood friend, and enjoys being a wife and mother. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she now resides in a small town filled with rolling green hills and hospitable people. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning television journalist, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about her experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane is her blog.
In the United States, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. When it happens, she may not know how to tell you. You may have to dig a little deeper. Will you be ready?
For more information, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.