Rihanna, Chris, and the Pendulum of Pain

Can they escape the pain?

Posted Mar 04, 2009

The reuniting of Rihanna and Chris Brown has resurrected the oldest of questions about abuse victims: "Why do they stay?" It has also ignited the usual simple-minded answers: Due to their childhoods or low self-value, "Some people want to be abused," and, "She's addicted to him."

"Why do they stay?" isn't even the right question. Like Rihanna, victims of abuse hardly ever stay. They leave and then come back, over and over. Researchers call it the "rubber band" or "elastic" effect. There are often social and financial reasons and, in the case of severe battering, very real life threats by the criminal abuser: "If I can't have you, no one will." But fear, finances, and social pressures are not among the reasons most victims offer for why they return, and they certainly do not seem to be factors in this celebrated case.

Abuse victims leave and return because, unlike the parties of non-abusive relationships, they leave while they are still attached. As long as they are attached, they are subject to the survival-level force of emotional bonding.

The formation of strong emotional bonds gave early humans a distinct survival advantage over more numerous and powerful competition, such as big cats, dogs, and other hominids. The ability to form emotional bonds facilitated mutual protection and sustenance, which led to a psychological melding of survival with attachment. We not only attached to survive, we survived to attach.

Throughout most of human history, leaving emotionally-bonded relationships meant certain death by starvation or saber tooth tiger. Consequently, we developed powerful aversions to separation in the form of guilt, shame, and anxiety. Psychologically, these serve as distance-regulators in relationships, pushing us back when we stray too far and motivating more emotional investment when we lose interest or jeopardize a bond.

As distance-regulators, guilt, shame, and anxiety work unconsciously and irrationally. That is why someone you love can beat you to the point where you can barely crawl to the phone to dial 911, and you will feel guilty about it, as soon as your fear, anger, or resentment subsides.

Most victims pulled away by fear, anger, or resentment end up returning out of guilt, shame, and anxiety, when they see how lost their partners seem without them or, sometimes worse, how well they do without them.

If they reunite to relieve guilt, shame, and anxiety, rather than rekindle genuine compassion, trust, and love in both parties, attempts to reattach will fail. Fear, anger, or resentment will again begin to push the pendulum of pain to the opposite side of the arc, where they once again give way to the wall of guilt-shame-anxiety that swings victims back to abusers.

I have seen swings back and forth on the pendulum of pain extend up to 30 years, despite victims immersing themselves in psychotherapy and self-help books, all of which told them that it wasn't really love they experienced, but unresolved emotional hunger from childhood or some kind of addiction. "Experts" always lose them when they say it isn't love, because they know what they experience.

What they experience is love, along with fear, resentment, anger, guilt, shame, and anxiety, which relentlessly re-stimulate each other to keep them trapped in the pendulum of pain. What they do not experience is compassion from the abuser. (The abuser's guilt and shame focus on how bad he feels, which makes him pressure you to "get over it" so he can feel better. In contrast, compassion focuses on helping you heal your hurt.) Neither do victims experience compassion for the abuser's self-destructiveness.

Abuse of Loved Ones is Self-destruction
If Chris Brown was to witness (or even imagine) someone else doing to Rihanna what he did to her, he would feel anger, loathing, and a powerful impulse to harm her assailant. Anger, aggression, and loathing are unconscious and automatic in most social animals as part of the instinct to protect attachment figures. When we harm loved ones, they turn onto the self, with only a thin veneer of ego as a buffer.

When we harm loved ones, the self-loathing (as an attachment figure) burrows through ego to create the downward spiral of abuse. (Who is more likely to abuse, the valued self or the devalued self?) Without learning compassion, the abuser will merely blame his/her self-destructiveness on the victim or childhood or stress or the economy or whatever, and thereby lose control of it.

Victims and abusers alike must understand that compassion is the healing emotion - no abuser will heal without developing it. The most compassionate thing a victim can do is insist that the abuser invoke his/her basic humanity. This is how we all regulate abusive impulses, which, if acted on, would make us feel less humane. If the abuser fails at basic humanity, the only compassionate thing to do is break the pendulum of pain and leave permanently, in the hope that the abuser can find healing elsewhere.