Janay Rice, The Cycle of Abuse, & Obstacles for Victims

The disturbing video of NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée during a dispute in an elevator has been seen by many and resulted in a great deal of discussion.  Ray Rice’s contract was terminated on Monday and he was suspended indefinitely from the NFL. His wife Janay Rice recently released a statement that led to more debate and confusion in the public. She stated “THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get…Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is!” How do sociologists explain violence in relationships and the occurrence of victims staying with an abusive partner? In this post, Mediha Din describes the concept of the Cycle of Abuse and social barriers that make it difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships.

Ray Rice

Many people were surprised to find that one month after the assault in the elevator in Atlantic City, Janay Rice married the man that hit her. Many people also wonder the same thing about someone they know- how can he or she stay with that person?

Before analyzing abusive and unhealthy relationships, it is important to note that we cannot make assumptions about the relationship between Ray and Janay Rice, we can only use the public attention regarding this case as a starting point for discussing abuse. We must also remember that victims of abuse can be male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, married, dating, or “hooking up”, adults, teenagers, or tweens, rich or poor, educated or dropouts, and of any cultural, religious, or racial backgrounds.

In 1979, psychologist Lenore E. Walker developed the social theory of the Cycle of Abuse (also known as the Cycle of Violence), describing patterns that are often seen in unhealthy relationships. The cycle consists of three stages. Tension Building, Abuse, and Honeymoon.

Tension Building: During this stage, the victim feels things could blow up at any moment. The victim may feel that he/she is walking on eggshells, anticipating an explosion. Anything might set the abuser off, such as not returning a text or phone call immediately. The abuser may start a fight for no apparent reason.

Explosion. During this stage there is an outburst that includes some form of abuse. It can be intense emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical abuse, or a combination. This can include hitting, slamming someone against a wall, screaming, yelling, or humiliating. The abuse is not always physical and it does not always leave a mark. Spitting on someone is an example of abuse that is emotionally damaging but won’t leave a bruise.

Honeymoon: In this stage the abuser often apologizes profusely. They may say “I love you”, promise that it will never happen again, and buy the victims gifts. During this stage the abuser also often tries to shift the blame away from them self. They might blame their stressful job, alcohol, drugs, family stress, and very often- the victim, for the outburst of abuse.

Each stage can last a few hours, a few days, weeks, or years. The explosions can also become more dangerous and violent over time. For some victims of abuse, understanding that their relationship is following a somewhat predictable pattern of ups and downs, rather than improving over time, can be the factor that helps them decide to leave an unhealthy situation. However, there are many obstacles that make it difficult for a victim to leave an abusive relationship.

Break The Cycle is non-profit organization that focuses on youth dating violence. This organization recognizes that abuse does not only occur among married couples, but as soon as a young person begins dating. Break The Cycle describes some of the obstacles that victims of abuse face, especially college and high school age youth:

  1. Difficulty recognizing abuse.Sociologists are interested in how we label actions, beliefs, or behaviors in society. Many people do not label emotional or verbal abuse as abuse.  Although spending three years with someone who tells you are worthless can take longer to heal from than a black eye, the emphasis in society is often only on physical abuse.  Even physical abuse (any unwanted physical contact) is not always seen as abuse unless it sends a victim to the hospital. Pushing, shoving, not allowing someone to leave a room or car, throwing objects, or holding a victim’s hand tightly in order to intimidate, are all types of physical abuse. In the case of Ray and Janay Rice, the NFL recognized the severity of the abuse only after seeing the video of Ray punching Janay in the face, causing her to become unconsciousness. Mr. Rice stated this was a one-time incident. That may be true, or it may be that other instances of abuse (emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical) were not recognized by either party as being abusive or violent.
  2. Lack of resources such as money, transportation, or safe places to go. In many abusive relationships, the abuser controls all aspects of the victim’s life, including finances. This can make it extremely difficult to plan a way out.
  3. Fear of abuser/family/friends. Sometimes victims are afraid that their family or friends would not believe them, or would think they are crazy for leaving someone who seems to be such a “great catch.”
  4. Fear of sending abuser to jail. Whether the abuser is a well-known public figure or not, victims often are afraid of the attention they would receive if the abuser goes to jail.
  5. State laws. Depending on where you live in the United States, state laws differ greatly regarding at which age a victim can apply for a restraining without a parent or guardian. Break The Cycle created a State Report card assessing the access teens have to legal resources as well as school responses to abuse in relationships throughout the country.
  6. Low self-esteem.
  7. Hoping the abuser will change.
  8. Fear of their society including cultural and religious barriers. If a victim is in a same-sex relationship that their family or community does not approve of, they may fear being outed by their abusive partner if they try to leave or seek help. Some youth victims are not allowed to date for cultural or religious reasons, others are not allowed to date someone outside of their cultural or religious background. They may fear seeking help because their relationship has been a secret.
  9. Children with abuser. We know that Janay and Ray Rice have a young daughter together. We cannot underestimate the huge obstacle this can create for victims of abuse. They fear breaking apart their family, custody battles, and if the abuser has more financial resources for attorneys, they may also fear loss of custody of their child.
  10. Embarrassment. In a society where being confident, strong, and assertive are highly valued attributes, speaking about abuse can be difficult. Men who are victims may fear people will laugh if they speak up about being abused by a female partner,  and female victims may feel that only a “weak” woman would be the victim of abuse.

It is important to realize that nobody likes being abused. Abuse is unwanted behavior. Along with recognizing the obstacles that make it difficult to leave an abusive relationship, we can also raise awareness of the warning signs of abusive relationships. Break The Cycle, Love Is Respect, and The National Domestic Violence Hotline are organizations that educate people about dating violence and provide help for victims.

Written in loving memory of Mary Kate Dasaro. May there be one less victim.

Dig Deeper

  1. Read about the NFL domestic violence policy here. What do you think of the policy? Should it be more or less severe? What other social institutions do you think should have clear policies on domestic violence, if any?
  2. Social media has been used to raise awareness about obstacles that victims of abuse face. The hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft have gone viral since the video of Ray Rice’s assault was released. Read the hashtags, what are some common themes in them? What are other obstacles that make leaving an abusive relationship complicated?
  3. Read about men who are victims of domestic violence. What specific obstacles other than embarrassment do men in abusive relationships face?
  4. Read the SIF post about how the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became a social movement. How can these principles be used to bring awareness to dating, youth, and domestic violence?