When I first started Tough Love Tuesday, I was a little afraid of how people might take the name. I was afraid it might hearken toward violence for some people, rather than its intended purpose of pointing out that sometimes we need to hear things we don’t want to hear. Although I have not received any emails of the sort, I was struck by a news story this morning that I thought might be an appropriate topic for Tough Love Tuesday and that concern of mine. This topic has virtually nothing to do with fitness or nutrition, but is very much related to wellness and mental health. It is also related to violence.
As you may have heard, there are rumors flying that Rihanna and Chris Brown are getting back together. If that means nothing to you, you probably don’t remember when Chris Brown beat Rihanna back when they were dating in 2009 and the public outrage over his behavior. What was striking for me about the “news” segment that was covering these rumors was the reaction from people they spoke to on the street. People talked about how Rihanna should “know better” and “be a better role model” than to go back to Chris Brown. At this point I thought for sure the network would have an expert to talk about what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship and why people tend to stick around or go back to their abuser, but they didn’t. Instead all kinds of judgment and blame were placed on Rihanna for going back to her abusive boyfriend.
The point of this post is not to defend Rihanna’s choice, but instead to point out that the choice is hers and is complicated by a lot of factors. Whether she chooses to go back to Chris Brown is not a question of whether or not it is what a “role model” should do, but a question of what is going on for her, and the two of them, at this moment. Whether he has made amends and turned a new leaf or whatever is also not the point.
A large percentage of women in abusive relationships stay in those relationships. Some stay because they believe the abuse is temporary and that things will get better if they put in the work. Others have come to believe that they “got what they deserved” because that is what has been preached to them day in and day out. Others stay because it’s easier, and less frightening, than what they think may happen if they leave. Even when they leave, they don’t always stay gone. According to some statistics, a woman in an abusive relationship leaves an average of seven times before leaving for good.
A very similar thing happens in cases of childhood abuse. Many survivors of childhood abuse go on to have very stormy intimate relationships and complicated relationships with their abusers for the rest of their lives. This is partly because of the mixed messages being sent by the abuser. Very often an abuser also takes the role of protector and makes the survivor feel incredibly loved. This can keep the survivor coming back to the abuser even if he or she knows nothing will ever change. In childhood abuse, the child knows his/her caregiver is supposed to be someone he/she can trust, so there are mixed messages about what relationships, family, and love are supposed to mean.
It sometimes takes years of counseling to fully walk away from an abusive relationship or to recover from the effects of one. Some people are never able to make that decision or recover. The sad fact is that we can’t make someone leave an abuser if they aren’t ready. The decision to walk away from someone you love, no matter how poorly they’re treating you, isn’t a decision that comes easily.
“But Rihanna is famous and gorgeous! So many guys would treat her better than this!” You’re right and very similar sentiments can be shared about dozens of survivors and current abuse victims. Someone who is being abused has very little understanding of their own worth, that’s how the abuser is able to exert so much control. Instead of damning Rihanna for her choices, we should all be offering her our support and love, showing her that she is worthy of affection from people who don’t want to hurt her. When you call her a bad role model for the choices she’s making, do you think that’s giving her the kind of self-esteem and confidence to walk away from an abuser?
Power is the primary issue in so many abusive relationships. Take a look at this graphic from the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project to get an idea. Individuals in abusive relationships, whether male or female, are really victims of dis-empowerment and there are a variety of ways an abuser can exert power and control to make a victim stay.
Whether you are trying to encourage someone to lose weight, start eating healthier, exercise more, make better decisions overall, or do something as life-changing as leaving an abuser, we have to give them control. The best thing we can do for people who are struggling, with virtually anything, is to empower them.
I am all for tough love because I think sometimes we really need to hear things we don’t want to hear. I am not, however, in favor of kicking people while they’re down and leaving them to feel like failures because they are in a frightening situation they feel like they can’t escape. Just like I would never tell a morbidly obese person that they’re stupid or lazy, I would never tell a victim of abuse that they’re a bad role model for staying in an abusive relationship. We all have reasons for the choices we make and no one has a right to judge us by them.
Tough love does not preclude empowerment. In fact, the very basis for tough love should be empowerment. Before you try to change someone, help them realize how amazing they already are and that they deserve something better for themselves. Once they realize they are worth something better, they’re more likely to go out and get it.