Sometimes You Can’t Make Better Decisions

Seems like most of the outrage over Dana Perino’s on-air remark about female victims of violence has subsided. (That was two weeks ago, which by Internet standards puts it back in the Pleistocene Epoch.)

Perino, a TV news commentator and former press secretary for George W. Bush, made her quip during a segment of “The Five” on Fox News (December 5, 2012) [Link to video]. The subject concerned NFL player Jovan Belcher who shot and killed his girlfriend, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, then took his own life. When the co-host argued that if more women were armed, there would there be fewer Kasandra Perkins-like  tragedies, Perino responded, “Well, maybe, or make better decisions.” The co-host then steamrolled further into the pro-gun argument and Perino’s remark was left floating in space.

Like many, I felt outraged at yet another attempt to blame the victims. Upon reflection, however, there’s another part of the conversation that needs to be voiced: female victims of violence usually aren’t in a position to “make better decisions.” I say this based my 25 years as a therapist. I’ve worked with women who have been abused, raped, and otherwise defiled in ways not imaginable.

Sometimes adults in abusive situations were abused when they were growing up. It shuts them down, they lose their voice.  They don’t develop proper internal sensors, so their judgment about who they’re dealing with is often impaired. They don’t see the warning signs, or believe they can change their abuser.  If no one cared for you as a child, anything that looks like caring can be tolerated.  Abused kids are lonely kids and often are lost adults.

Sometimes people were not loved as children and don’t expect to be loved as adults. Living in an abusive home means children grow up waiting for terrible things to happen. And as adults, they find it intolerable when things are too quiet.  Not because they want the abuse but because the waiting is agony, and once the abuse is over there is some sense of safety, if only for a short time.

Sometimes people find themselves in love with a sociopath who—like most sociopaths—has brilliant people skills and knows just how to act until you cross a line.  People in these relationships often have no clue how to get away from the situation before something terrible happens.

Sometimes people who are starved for love avoid the obvious thing to do: leave and save themselves. If you weren’t loved as a child, you probably don’t know healthy love as an adult. And any love is better than no love, even when it has dire consequences.

Sometimes people simply perceive that they can’t escape, that they’re stuck, not matter how bad it is. Maybe that they even deserve the horrific treatment they’re getting. These are classic components of Battered Wife Syndrome, and they’re beyond conscious control.

Better decisions? In an ideal world we’d all make better decisions about everything in life. But in addition to the problems I mentioned above, no one teaches us how to really understand who we’re dealing with as we get into relationships. We learn from the school of hard knocks, and the grading system can be pretty brutal.