Ray and Janay Rice are like many couples who walk through my door: apparently happy, in love, but in crisis with little knowledge as to why. The terrible image of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in the face on an elevator is seared into the public consciousness. But where others see Ray Rice, Josh Brolin, and Chris Brown as potentially chronic abusers, psychologists rely on our clinical training and work to suspend judgment in order to help people like the Rices. Based on what I’ve seen in TV interviews and read in the news, I’d be cautiously optimistic about healing the couple.
The Rices claim that the incident on the elevator was isolated, the only incidence of violence in their relationship, which would put them in a category of what psychologist Michael Johnson calls Common Couple Violence—the most infrequently occurring and treatable form of intimate violence, by his scale. And they wouldn’t be very unique in this country, according to Couples Therapy for Domestic Violence (2011), in which Sandra M. Stith, PhD, claims that 65% of couples who seek marriage counseling “have had at least one prior violent episode.” A public health study from 2007 estimates that 24% of relationships experience violence, about half of which is reciprocal (the CDC breaks down domestic violence into reciprocal and non-reciprocal categories, but not by degree or occurrence). If you take into account that half of couples in therapy recover, according to one study—many others see higher success rates—then it’s safe to say many couples are able to overcome violence in their relationships.
According to Janay Rice’s own recent account, Ray met Janay Palmer in high school, and the two had a long friendship which developed into an intimate relationship during Ray’s time at Rutgers. Janay moved to Baltimore to be with Ray and to complete her education at Towson University. She lived in a separate apartment as a strong, independent woman, from a loving, intact family. There is a stereotype that women who are abused are weak and dependent, but many are the opposite. These women stand strong in opposition to their partners, who may at times be unreasonable. A husband/boyfriend can be taught that, in fact, this strength is a positive trait and to relish the fact that a strong woman is attracted to him. But often, abuse by a male comes from a feeling of inadequacy about his own masculinity. Having been a clinical psychologist for 30 years, and having seen more than 10,000 patients, it’s easy to see how being a batterer masks some men’s insecurity and sense of victimhood. There is no one personality that fits all batterers, but this element I’ve seen in at least half of my domestic cases over the years. And, in my experience, couples for whom the act of violence is isolated can respond well to counseling, decreasing the likelihood of future violence.
Janay has said that Ray was drawn to her family, particularly his future father-in-law, as his own father was murdered when Ray was only one year old. He had no male role model, no sense of how problems are solved in a long-term relationship, no understanding of what a healthy relationship looked like. Often, men who abuse women come from problematic childhoods. In the context of counseling, a man can come to understand how historical dynamics have affected his current relationship and that feelings can be sorted out rather than acted out.
So what was the cauldron of rage that would set off such a violent attack? The Rices were new parents, struggling with caring for their baby. Ray was not on hand to change diapers; rather he was more inclined to be with his friends, and less so to communicate and support his future wife. He had no preexisting vision of how to be a father, and plenty of rage about his own fatherless childhood. They entered premarital counseling at Janay’s request to address these matters. This set of dynamics is not unusual for young couples. Proper parenting skills as well as techniques for communication can be easily taught and modeled by a professional.
The Atlantic City getaway was a break for both. According to Janay, they had been squabbling a bit over parenting responsibilities and the loss of emotional intimacy. At an Atlantic City hotel, they went out to dinner with friends and drank too much. Janay’s frustrations with the relationship and Ray’s rage came out.
Prior to getting on the elevator that night, Ray was looking at his phone, Janay was annoyed and tried to grab the phone, Ray spit at her, she slapped him, he punched her. Poor communication, objectionable actions, coupled with violent behaviors from both partners magnify conflict.
The Rices have continued counseling at a Christian center and say they no longer drink hard liquor. They also say that Ray still tends to isolate and Janay wants to talk about their issues immediately. Men generally like to problem-solve on their own, while women choose to share their feelings to resolve their disagreements. Couples counseling is the treatment of choice for these kinds of relationships. There are of course many couples for whom domestic violence is a repetitive, vicious cycle. I would not recommend counseling for such couples, nor would it likely be successful.
But people shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility that Ray and Janay Rice can fix their marriage. For non-celebrity couples, destroying a man’s career and throwing him in prison rarely result in a positive outcome. Some abusers come out of prison and continue to abuse. Why? Rarely is treatment provided in that setting. The Rices’ efforts in counseling should be seen as optimistic and potentially healing, which is why we should support couples who pursue treatment instead of condemning them as hopeless.