Rihanna is still doing Chris Brown’s emotional housework
Rihanna’s protectiveness towards Chris Brown, whose fists styled her for the most disturbing celebrity headshot in recent years, places her in the company of countless beaten wives and girlfriends. A new study on domestic abuse argues that women who act as caregivers to their abusers are engaged in “emotional housework,” an understandable but futile attempt to clean up the squalid minds and behavior of their attackers.
“I’m not at peace if he’s a little unhappy or still lonely. I care. It actually matters that he finds peace,” Rihanna said in a tearful interview aired on Oprah Winfrey’s Network this week. In the aftermath of the assault, she said, she was more concerned for him than for herself. The interview drew speculation about Rihanna’s mental health, weary cautions from advocates against domestic abuse, mixed verdicts from PR mavens on what it all means for “Rihanna’s brand,” and a well-intentioned if uncharacteristically prosaic defense at Jezebel, the feminist news site.
“Emotional housework” refers to the task of “trying hard to counsel, manage and ‘fix’ the abuser” in the study ‘Everyday Terrorism: how fear works in domestic abuse’, to be published by Durham University on 31 August. Attempting to scrub and polish the abuser’s psyche is a common initial reaction to abuse in women and sometimes endures long-term. Survivors of abuse who were interviewed for the study said they initially felt compassion for their abuser, in addition to shock and fear, and many believed at first that if they tried hard enough they could help him resolve his anger and emotional pain.
“I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help,” Rihanna said of Brown, who punched, bit and choked her in February 2009, hours before they were due to appear at the Grammys. In the aftermath of the attack, she was afraid of what the exposure and criticism would mean for him: “It became a circus and I felt protective. Who’s gonna help him? Nobody’s gonna say he needs help. Everybody’s gonna say he’s a monster without looking at the source.”
Her words were eerily similar to those of a survivor, “Jennifer,” interviewed for the study: “My reaction was to feel sorry for him because I thought, wow, you know something must have really upset him for him to react like that… I was basically his carer in those situations right, [when] he was attacking me.” (The survivors featured in the study had all left their abusive relationships. Most were living in Edinburgh or Fife at the time of the interviews, which took place between January and June this year.)
Emotional housework closely parallels the household labour and management that are also largely women’s responsibility, according to the report. “The unequal division of emotional labour in almost all relationships, whether or not they are abusive, means that when abuse starts a women is primed to try to help the guy with his feelings,” said Rachel Pain, lead investigator, this week. Commonly, abusers promote the idea that it is the victim, not them, who bears responsibility for the abuse, and also for trying to fix it.
Gender norms can also shape abusive situations in which men are targeted. “We know less about the emotional dynamics of domestic abuse where men are the victims, but there is evidence that caregiving roles and men’s sense of familial duty may be distorted and played on by the abuser in similar ways,” said Pain.
The light-bulb moment occurs for victims when they realize their efforts have no effect on the abuser’s behavior and are part of the cycle of abuse. Victims whose family and friends recognize that reality tend to leave abusive relationships sooner. “What people around you are saying about the abuse is critical. Because society minimizes it, individuals do too when it happens to them,” said Pain, who is Professor of Geography at Durham University and conducted the study in collaboration with Scottish Women’s Aid. The neutral response by some celebrities to Chris Brown’s attack on Rihanna has parallels with the lack of support described by survivors featured in the report.
“Violent partners need intervention too,” says Pain, “but that role should not fall to their victims. One of the problems with taking on all the emotional housework is that you can spend your life trying to clean up after someone else, but it never stops them making the mess.”Tagged in: Chris Brown, domestic abuse, emotional housework, Everyday Terrorism, feminism, oprah, Rihanna, victim, violence, women
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