By Gail Saltz
December 4, 2014
IDEAS
Dr. Gail Saltz is an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

Many were perplexed this week when, in her first public interview, Janay Rice stated that while she is happy to have brought the discussion about domestic violence to the fore, she wanted to be clear that she herself is not an abused wife and that she does not identify personally with domestic violence. Of course we are confused. After all, we watched the video of her getting punched unconscious by her then fiancée, Ray. By the definitions of “domestic” (her husband to be) and “violence” (socked in the face), she was clearly a case of such. One incident of domestic abuse is still abuse. Does she really believe her circumstance is different? And why is it so important to her that she not be identified that way?

Even in 2014, the stigma attached to being an abused woman keeps most from wanting to label themselves a victim. Society often deems an abused woman to be weak, broken, “messed up” or even sometimes the provoker. In our desire to explain to ourselves why it could never happen to “us,” we construct things about “them” that creates a defining line and makes us feel safer. But in drawing that line, we make up absolutes that are not always true and we judge those victims. We heard from Janay’s mother that there was no abuse in the childhood home and that she taught her daughter to be strong and independent. Parents, especially mothers, are often accused of having “allowed” abuse to go on in front of their children, thus creating sons and daughters who will one day either abuse others or be abused. Candy Palmer may be reacting to this assumption. Both she and Janay need to believe that Janay is not the kind of woman to allow herself to be abused, and that indeed she has not been.

The public may wonder if they are being intentionally deceitful. It seems more likely that they believe what they’re saying and that it, in fact, feels terribly important to both of their self-images that they believe what they have said. Denial is a defense mechanism that protects our minds from overwhelming anxiety and crushing self-judgment. One reason many women stay in abusive relationships is that each time it happens they vehemently deny, especially to themselves, that they are victims of domestic abuse, and they may even have a parent that colludes with them in that denial.

While Janay says she is happy to be raising awareness about domestic abuse, this case is actually raising awareness that we have not dealt well with the stigma associated with domestic violence. Until we do, women will continue to deny to themselves that they need to get out of their abusive relationship.

Unfortunately the public, and especially young women, look to celebrities as role models. In 2009, Rihanna was brutally abused by Chris Brown. In 2012 they got back together. What did she tell herself about getting back with a partner who abused her? We don’t know, but what it told the public was that it’s an acceptable choice. Both of these cases are opportunities lost to crush the stigma of the abused woman by saying it can happen to anybody and it is completely unacceptable. It does not mean you are weak or a mess or badly parented. It means you are with someone capable of abuse. It is also a lost opportunity to say that it cannot be tolerated, excused or in any way allowed.

Saying that one incident doesn’t amount to abuse just allows for that one time. Next time your mind may come up with another perfectly reasonable excuse, which is the nature of denial. When people of fame go through trauma, they have the ability to truly decrease the stigma and raise awareness of the accurate understanding of that problem. To do that, they have to surmount their own self-judgment and be honest with themselves. That can only happen with kind words, support and understanding that an abused woman is a good woman in a bad situation that needs help getting out.

Dr. Gail Saltz is an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and the author of Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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