Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir “Crazy Love” and a TED Talk about the many reasons abuse victims stay. She was the general manager of The Washington Post Magazine from 2001 to 2006.
Just before I fell in love with a man who abused me, I spouted off to my New York City roommate that I’d never be stupid enough to stay with a man who hit me. Like most people who are naive about the complexities of relationship violence — victims and bystanders alike — my dismissal of the dangers of abusive love cost me dearly.
When I see footage of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator — and her subsequent defense of Rice after he was cut from the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the National Football League this past week — I recognize how hard it can be to leave a violent relationship.
Here are the times I wish I’d left my abusive husband, an Ivy League graduate and Wall Street trader I met in New York when I was 22 and a recent Harvard graduate:
Three months into our relationship, the night he choked me during sex and I wrote it off as weird but somehow erotic (for him; not for me).
The day we moved in together and he wouldn’t talk to me because a male friend from college called to congratulate me on the milestone.
The Saturday he said I looked better without any makeup and told me not to wear it anymore.
The night I was getting dressed to go out to dinner and he told me I was a slut because my skirt was too short.
The morning five days before our wedding when he first physically attacked me, because, he said with his hands around my neck, “you remind me of my mother.”
During our honeymoon, when he punched me so hard my head hit the window in our car.
The night he pulled the keys out of the car ignition while I was driving 55 mph on the highway.
The day he said I couldn’t spend Christmas with my family.
The first time he threatened to kill our dog.
The first time he pushed me down a flight of stairs.
The first time he threatened to pull the trigger of the loaded gun he held at my head.
Here are the reasons I didn’t leave my abusive husband:
No one in my life had ever made me feel so safe, loved, beautiful and validated as he did during the early months of our relationship.
I confused pity with love, feeling sorry for him because he had been beaten and starved by his stepfather as a child.
I thought I was the only woman who could help him face his demons.
In between the terrible times, he still made me laugh.
I loved him.
No one but Janay and Ray Rice knows whether their relationship has been violent beyond that elevator ride, but I do know that isolated incidents of relationship violence are rare. They’re typically part of a pattern — a pattern that’s the same no matter the education, ethnicity, income level, race or gender of the victim or abuser. In my experience, this is how it goes: Fairy-tale romance. Isolation from friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Threat of violence. Actual violence. Convincing apology. Repeat.
One in four women and one in seven men have been victims of severe relationship violence.
The riskiest time in a woman’s life for relationship violence is between the ages of 18 and 34.
Up to half of women who visit emergency rooms have been abused at some point in their lives.
It takes the average domestic violence victim seven attempts, often over a period of years, before she — or he, because men can be victims, too — ends the abusive relationship for good.
Once the victim does leave, she is in the greatest danger, because most domestic violence homicides happen after the victim has ended the relationship.
Here is what helped me end my marriage after four years of brutal attacks:
I did not have children with him.
I had two friends who guessed my secret, who didn’t judge me for it or try to force me to leave before I was ready.
Two police officers matter-of-factly informed me that, if I stayed with my husband, they would find me dead on my living room floor one day.
A domestic violence advocate went to family court to tell the judge why I needed a protection order; I was afraid the judge would believe my husband instead of me.
My mother gave me $10,000 because she knew that money would solve at least a few of my problems. And she gave it to me without saying “I told you so.”
I hired a divorce lawyer who persuaded me to give my ex-husband a lump-sum payment of $3,000 as part of our divorce settlement, so that the man I once thought was my soulmate could feel he had truly beaten me for good. It was the best money I ever spent because I haven’t heard from him in 20 years.
When it came to a choice between him or me, I chose me.
One day, Janay Rice may have her own lists of the times she wishes she’d left; the reasons she stayed; and the friends, relatives and strangers who understood the complex psychology of relationship violence.
Every survivor makes these lists.
She may also wonder why people asked, so often and publicly, “Why does she stay with a man who beats her?” And why so few asked why Ray Rice would hit the woman who loves him.
I wish the world could give Janay Rice, and other victims of relationship violence, the dignity they deserve.
Instead of condemning her for loving a troubled man, let’s educate ourselves about the twisted psychology of abusive love, so that we can be there for her if she decides to leave. Firing Roger Goodell and blaming the NFL won’t do Janay Rice, or any other domestic violence victims, any good.
Rather, we should hold abusers — and no one else — responsible for the damage they inflict.