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The Psychology Behind Abusive Relationships

Rebecca Gibian |
September 9, 2014 | 1:33 p.m. PDT

Web Producer

Janay Palmer and Ray Rice at a press conference. (Image by BDL Sports)
Janay Palmer and Ray Rice at a press conference. (Image by BDL Sports)
After Ray Rice punched his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, so hard he knocked her out in an elevator, the public either defended his actions or called for the NFL to terminate his contract. The video started a discussion about the bigger picture of how domestic violence is viewed in our society.

"The easiest thing to do is turn to someone else and say that they created the problem for themselves," said Tory Cox, clinical assistant professor in social work at USC. "That is totally wrong though—there is no way to say that this is an acceptable viewpoint."

The psychological process behind an abusive relationship is complex and there is a cycle of abuse that happens. The relationship goes through the honeymoon phase, then the tension builds and then the attack itself happens, but then the honeymoon phase comes back, explains Alla Branzburg LCSW, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor for the school of social work at USC.

"There is always hope that things will get better," Branzburg said in a phone interview.

Deciding whether or not to stay in an abusive relationship does not happen in a moment. 

"The abuser starts to eliminate the social relationships that the person they’re abusing has in order to increase power and control over them," said Cox in a phone interview. "They stop them from having contact with people in their social circles. They effectively control their social environment and relationships. At that point staying seems to be the only thing that makes sense."

When a cycle of abuse occurs, there are apologies and promises that it will never happen again. On top of that, Cox explained, there is an incredible fear about leaving. 

"Abusers have such power over their partner, and have created such fear about what they could do to them," Cox said. "So for the abused there is a fear about 'Can I even survive or make it out, what might happen to me if I try to leave?'"

A large factor is society. Branzburg explained that our society is one focused on success. Failure—in being able to foretell the abuse or failure in the relationship—can prevent people from seeking help. Meanwhile, societal messages also contribute.

"Socially, many women are given the message that it is their job to stay," said Cox. "That is completely wrong, but it is a message that is out there culturally, socially ... Men even feel the pressure to stay in a relationship at all costs, despite whatever problems may be present."

After the video of Rice punching Palmer in the elevator appeared, Rice was released from the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the NFL. Palmer, now married to Rice, issued a statement, reports The New York Times.

In the statement, Janay Rice blames the media for her husband's termination. Many people wondered why she decided to stay with an abusive partner.

"(She stayed) because she hoped," Branzburg said. "Because she hoped that she can change things. Because she probably hoped that things would get better. Maybe she just loves him. Maybe she thought she has enough power to change this guy."

Meanwhile, social media felt entitled to give their own opinions. 

Cox explained that Rice is "actually being retraumatized by this process and by the public manner of this story." 

However, the easiest thing for society to do is turn the blame on the victim and claim they created the problem for themselves. 

"That is totally wrong though—there is no way to say that this is an acceptable viewpoint," Cox said. "When people are struggling to accept the situation, when there’s racial politics involved, with the NFL and sports aspect, the media attention—there’s so many elements at play that just go beyond the two people involved—it has been placed under such a large spotlight that people want to simplify it to understand it."

The spotlight on this situation does not seem to be going away anytime soon, though. Branzburg says that people need to remember how hard it is to gain the courage to leave a bad situation.

"Every relationship is a process and it takes time to figure out that there’s probably no hope in the relationship, it takes time to make up their mind and it takes time to find courage to get out of the relationship," said Branzburg.

Reach Web Producer Rebecca Gibian here and follow her on Twitter here.

Web Producer Zoe Ward contributed to the reporting of this article.



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