In September, outrage at a video of Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punching his fiancée unconscious in a hotel elevator brought an unprecedented level of national attention to the subject of domestic violence. After the video became public, the National Football League (NFL), which, on the basis of previously revealed information, had suspended Rice for two games, was widely criticized for leniency. In response to the widespread outcry, the NFL increased his punishment to an indefinite suspension.

Ever since, the increasingly tabloid coverage of the furor over Rice’s actions and the NFL’s response has focused on a presumed need for unequivocally condemning domestic violence and ensuring that Rice would receive a severe punishment. Many have called for Rice to be barred permanently from football, but he’s not been alone in having his behavior scrutinized and harshly critiqued. His fiancée (now wife, Janay Palmer Rice) has also been targeted for refusing to press charges and defending her relationship with him. Even her taking some of the blame for the violent flare-up with her husband has been seen as yet another indication of her victim mentality and inability to stand up for herself. The New York Times called her “an extraordinarily public example of the complex psychology of women abused by men,” suggesting that her decision to marry Rice was a symptom of the mental abuse she’d experienced and the entrapment of financial dependence.

What’s been largely lacking in coverage of the incident is the perspective of professionals in the field of domestic violence. How should we understand the psychology of a relationship in which such violence can happen? What would mental health professionals offer to a couple such as the Rices seeking help? What are the prospects for change in a relationship in which there’s been such a severe display of physical brutality?

Many researchers classify domestic violence into two categories: situational and characterological. Situational domestic violence is more symmetrical, with both partners acting violently and then feeling genuine remorse. It’s also more common, accounting for 80 percent of domestic violence in couples. In a nine-year study on domestic violence in couples, couples therapist Julie Gottman found that in 70 percent of physical domestic fights, the woman would throw the first punch. “As a feminist, that was stunning to me,” she says. “I didn’t want to see it.”

In characterological domestic violence, the perpetrator uses violence as a tool for control and power. Only about 20 percent of domestic violence is characterological, but its victims comprise the majority of women who end up in domestic violence shelters. “People are absolutely right that the only way to deal with characterological violence is to get the victim or partner out of the relationship,” says Gottman.

So was Ray Rice’s violent outburst an incident of situational or characterological domestic violence? Gottman says that while the intensity of the violence appears more characterological, we don’t have enough evidence to know. “When you focus on the scene in the elevator itself, this is the extreme example of the intimidating brute bully, and it’s difficult to think about it in another context, but we can’t know from a short video what this guy was feeling and thinking, what was transpiring between them, and what had been the case in the relationship at other times.”

If both partners were committed to working together to end violence in their relationship, Gottman recommends a solution-focused approach. She and her husband developed an intervention, known as Couples Together Against Violence, which teaches conflict management skills, coping skills for managing stress, and intimacy development. By coping together as allies, rather than enemies, the Rices could learn to regulate their physiology during arguments, rather than resorting to physical aggression.

When you talk with therapists used to dealing with violent couples, you begin to hear analysis of the Rices’ relationship somewhat at odds with the mainstream media portrayal. “I’m not excusing Ray Rice, and he must take 100 percent responsibility for his actions,” says Ron Potter-Efron, a psychotherapist who specializes in anger management. “But it’s incredibly demeaning and patronizing that Janay’s apology for her actions that night was mostly ignored by the press and public and even considered evidence of her weakness. In any other area when someone admits some culpability, people applaud their honesty and integrity. Only in the field of domestic violence is a woman told she should take no responsibility in an incident, no matter what she said or did.”

For the past 30 years, thinking within the field of domestic violence treatment has been dominated by the Duluth Power and Control Model, the first multidisciplinary program to develop a systemic approach to the problem of battering. With roots in feminist theory, this model maintains that violent men are the product of male privilege in a patriarchal culture. It views men in violence-prone couples as perpetrators and women as victims. But it’s been criticized for ignoring the fact that many acts of violence are situational and symmetrical and for overlooking the underlying systemic and therapeutic factors that can lead to acts of violence in many couples. Some, like Donald Dutton, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, have gone so far as to say, “The Duluth Model was developed by people who don’t understand anything about therapy.”

Similarly, some experts question whether the NFL’s attempt to stake out a more politically correct position in reaction to the criticism it’s received will produce real results for players being sanctioned for battering. “Nobody changes from being confronted with superior values, because it leads to resentment,” says Steven Stosny, psychotherapist and creator of Compassion Power, an alternative therapeutic model for abusers.

Stosny argues that abusers change when they access their own deeper values concerning the kind of partner or parent they want to be. He believes that men like Rice have to be taught how to practice behavioral change, just as they practice football plays. When men feel devalued, they may compensate by acting in ways that make them temporarily feel more powerful, and the ensuing rush can become a kind of high. But this brief taste of power doesn’t last, the adrenaline wears off, and depression then sneaks in.

Stosny teaches men to create a low level of anger so they can begin to recognize the physical symptoms and connect the reaction to the feeling of being devalued. The men then reduce the anger by cultivating a sense of compassion for themselves and others. They have to repeat the process many times a day for many weeks. “Any habit can be changed, but it takes practice,” says Stosny. “Whenever someone feels devalued, he has to substitute behaviors that make him feel more valuable than abusing power, and he has to practice these alternatives. The ones who change are the ones who are motivated enough to do the hard work.”

But if Janay and Ray Rice were to seek counseling as a couple, getting treatment may not be so simple. Thirty-one states have laws against treating any kind of domestic violence with a couples approach. Nevertheless, David Wexler, author of When Good Men Behave Badly, has seen many marriages achieve reconciliation after situational domestic violence. He notes that, in the vast majority of domestic violence cases, partners can change the dynamics that have contributed to the climate of violence. “I have a feeling this could be true in Ray Rice’s relationship,” says Wexler, who doubts that fear is Janay Palmer Rice’s motivator for sticking with the marriage. “There are many complex reasons why somebody would stay in a relationship,” says Wexler. “But I don’t get the feeling that’s true in this case.”

With other NFL players facing suspension for acts of domestic violence in the coming weeks, media attention to the brutal realities of battering will no doubt continue. Whether the public conversation that it’ll keep on fueling will deepen our understanding of what causes domestic violence and what to do about it remains to be seen.

“We condemn the violence of the sport, but the numbers are roughly the same as in the general population,” says Stosny. “The conversation should be about how we can help these men be better boyfriends, husbands, and fathers. How do we help them ally themselves with the person they want to be, the person who doesn’t want to be abusive? Answering that question will lead to their becoming more compassionate and their partners receiving the respect and protection they need and deserve.”

Kathleen Smith

Kathleen Smith, PsyD, PLLC, focuses her practice on treating a number of clinical issues including: anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias), depression, ADHD, and traumatic events, including abuse and domestic violence.