One of the most nurturing, compassionate women I know is also an abused wife who once shared her biggest regret. Did she regret staying with her abusive husband? No. The most regretful day of her life was when she phoned the police after he physically assaulted her yet again.
“I ruined his life,” she said. “It’s the biggest mistake I ever made.” Immune to any reason, she pressed on, blaming herself for the “humiliation he had to endure” at anger management classes, the draining of her family’s resources on lawyer fees and the indelible black mark “she caused” on his otherwise spotless veneer.
After Ray Rice was let go from the Baltimore Ravens for brutally knocking his wife, Janay, unconscious in an elevator, she released this statement: “To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing.”
The use of “we” signals that she also must carry similar regret. Although, in her case, she wasn’t the one who chose to involve police, she likely feels that she was responsible for provoking him. After all, “If it weren’t for you making me angry, I wouldn’t have to hurt you!” is a common refrain of abusers.
Also in the middle of this nightmare is their 2-year-old daughter, Rayven. Though victims do their best to protect children from witnessing abuse, research shows that most children are aware of the violence and that those who actually witness it are in immediate danger of getting physically hurt. Oftentimes witnessing abuse is just as harmful as experiencing it. The official diagnostic criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder has been updated to include those who are aware of the occurrence of traumatic events to a close family member.
The ramifications of child abuse include emotional, psychological, cognitive, social and behavioral problems. However, putting an abuser behind bars can mean that the family doesn’t have enough money to survive, which unfortunately means that shielding children from the psychological consequences of abuse takes a back seat in favor of protection from economic hardship.
Growing up in an abusive household also creates the potential for intergenerational continuation of violence. This is apparent in the other headline-grabbing controversy in the NFL: the allegations of child abuse against the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson.
In contrast to the outright public condemnation of Ray Rice, the mixed response to the Peterson case is puzzling. Peterson repeatedly beat his 4-year-old child with a tree branch until he bled, yet many are coming to his defense. Peterson said he disciplined his son the way he was disciplined as a child. If that is the case, the sad reality is that he, too, was a victim of child abuse.
Children are at the complete mercy of their parents. The U.S. Children’s Bureau reports that in 2012, 62 percent of reported cases of abuse are screened for investigation and of those, only 18 percent are substantiated. Of the confirmed cases, 39 percent of children are removed from the household and put into foster care. Fifty-one percent of children in foster care return to their homes, thus very few permanently escape abusive households.
What’s more, removal from the household doesn’t always repair the impact of abuse. I know a survivor who, decades after leaving home, worried that she would model her mother’s abusive behavior or unknowingly tolerate abusive behavior from a future spouse. She now struggles with how to relate to her mother. “I know my mom would sometimes injure me and verbally berate me, but she was immature and didn’t know that it was abuse,” she says, when I inquire why she still has a relationship with her mother. “And it’s not like she behaves that way anymore, she’s a different person.”
But I wonder: Did she stop abusing because she changed or because she no longer has the opportunity to abuse? Once children grow into independent adults and leave the household, their parents are no longer in a position to exert power and administer abuse. At what point does someone label his or her parent a monster? There is no set number of beatings, injuries or emotional wounds that define when the line gets crossed.
Abusive parents whose children are able to thrive give themselves a “Get out of jail free” card by pointing to their “discipline” as the reason for their child’s success. Peterson subscribes to this falsehood: “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.” This justification adds insult to literal injury because, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, an abused child’s ability to thrive is attributable to the existence of a mixture of individual, community or family protective factors (i.e. positive attachment, self-esteem, intelligence, emotion regulation, humor and independence).
Whether Peterson’s parents brainwashed him or he is trying to justify his own abusive behavior remains to be seen. What is for certain, though, is that the infamous cycle of violence continues to play out: Peterson’s parents abused him “for his own good,” and he has gone on to repeat history with his child — excuses and stick in hand.