Once upon a time, way back in another life before I got a clue and married the Mr., I was in a relationship that was something like the nightlock berries in the Hunger Games—sweet, a little bitter and toxic. We had chemistry and a lot in common, so when it was good, it was really good. But when it was bad, it was a disaster. He was emotionally and verbally abusive, and I’ll be honest—I wouldn’t have won any awards for my sainthood. Friends and family would constantly ask, “Why do you stay with this guy?”
Indeed. Why do women stay in abusive relationships?
It’s a question that’s been mounting in public discourse over the last few days, ever since Rihanna posted an Instagram photo of her embracing Chris Brown and Brown posted a pic of himself with a barely dressed Rihanna. This wouldn’t normally be so strange in celebrity relationships—except that these two have history. The night before the Grammy’s in 2009, Brown physically attacked Rihanna during an argument, beating, choking and biting her. Rihanna sustained major contusions on both sides of her forehead, a bloody nose, a split lip and bite marks on her arm. To add insult to literal injury, in Brown got a tattoo in September that bears an eerie resemblance to the photos of Rihanna’s battered face.
Things have been heating up for the couple over the past year, with Brown breaking off his relationship with model Karrueche Tran in October and the reunited couple spending Thanksgiving together in Berlin. In August, Rihanna admitted in an interview with Oprah that she still loved Brown and she had forgiven him for assaulting her.
Some claim that Rihanna—the most liked person on Facebook—is setting a poor example for the millions of young women who look up to her. Rather than becoming an activist by speaking out against domestic violence, she’s welcoming back her abuser with open arms.
Rihanna’s past of abuse may be in the spotlight, but she’s one of many women facing this kind of intimate violence every day. Some studies indicate that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women ages 15 to 44—more than car accidents, muggings and rape combined. Each year, about 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the United States. Eventually (usually after six to ten attempts), 75 percent of abused women leave the relationship for good. Like Rihanna, many women either stay or go back to the relationship because they want to “forgive” and they believe their partner’s claims of reform, that is, that they will change.
But forgiveness is a tricky thing, and there are a lot of misconceptions out there about biblical forgiveness. Some think biblical forgiveness is about starting over tabula rasa—with a blank slate—as if forgetting incidents of abuse was really possible. Some think forgiveness means releasing another person from the consequences of their behavior. Others think that forgiveness means full restoration of the relationship or reconciliation between two or more individuals. None of these misconceptions are characteristic of biblical forgiveness.
First, biblical forgiveness is grounded in a sober understanding and acceptance of the wrong that has been committed. When the Apostle Paul wrote that love “keeps no record of wrongs,” he basically meant that a person shouldn’t hold a grudge. The Greek word used in this verse is logizomai, which means “to account, compute or impute.” The Apostle is telling us not to harbor unforgiveness toward another person in order to hold it against them later. Letting go of an offense and forgetting it are two different things.
Second, biblical forgiveness doesn’t nullify the consequences of sin. The murderer may ask forgiveness for his crime, but forgiveness doesn’t bring the victim back to life or pardon him from the penitentiary. The thief was forgiven for his sins, but he still died on the cross (Luke 23:43). Domestic violence involves a serious breach of trust in which one person has failed to treat another with kindness, dignity and respect.
Third, biblical forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. In the case of domestic abuse, the relationship between two people has been irreparably ruptured because trust has been violated. Though studies on domestic violence are rare, the patterns of violence are so deeply ingrained that most experts agree that very few perpetrators will actually change. We can forgive another person and even, in a sense, be at peace with them without a full restoration of the relationship.
I don’t know Rihanna’s reasons for staying with Chris Brown. Women stay for a lot of reasons. They stay because they get caught up in the appeal of a tumultuous relationship with extreme highs and extreme lows. They stay because of their children, because it’s so tough out there to make it as a single mom. They stay because they have low self-esteem and believe they don’t deserve any better.
They stay because they don’t know any better, or more accurately, don’t know how to choose better because that’s been their experience from when they were very young. From the cradle on, all they’ve ever known is abuse. Some stay because they think God wants them to, but He doesn’t. Psalm 18:48 tells us, “He delivers me from my enemies; Surely You lift me above those who rise up against me; You rescue me from the violent man.”
Dr. Halee Gray Scott is an author, scholar and researcher. Her research and teaching focuses on theology, spiritual formation and leadership. Her articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Real Clear Religion, Cooks and Culture, Her.Meneutics, Kyria, Gifted For Leadership and Outcomes. She blogs at www.hgscott.com.