Ray Rice essentially said that "Alcohol made me do it." Before they have taken responsibility and committed themselves to real change, most abusers make excuses for their violence. "Alcohol made me do it," is one of them, and is no less of an excuse than "She provoked me," or "I lost control," or "I was under a lot of stress." But based on my survey of people who attend an abuser intervention program, most were not intoxicated when they hit, grabbed, or kicked their intimate partner. Studies have also found that most substance abusers do not abuse their partners.
Ray Rice may have been drinking when he knocked out his partner in that elevator. But judging from the video, he looked pretty sober when trying to drag her, still unconscious, out of the elevator, all the while showing no concern for her well-being. Regardless of how impaired Ray Rice was, he was still responsible for his actions. We have learned to hold drunk drivers responsible for their actions while intoxicated and we need do the same for those who abuse their partners.
Based on my research, "Alcohol made me do it" is only third on the list of abusers' most likely excuses. Number one is "She provoked me." Here are some verbatim examples written on my agency's intake form in response to the question "Why did you abuse your partner?":
"She doesn't know when to shut up," "She's always got something to say," "She's just so stupid," "She was acting like a slut," and adversely, "She wasn't being sexual enough," and "She insulted my mother."
All show the abuser's insistence on trying to control his partner's behavior, while also repudiating his responsibility to control his own behavior. In confronting this excuse, we ask the abuser two questions:
1) Did you still have a choice in how to respond to your partner?
2) Did the way you responded make the situation better or worse?
The correct answer to the first question is always yes, while the answer to the second is always no. When we decode it, the "She provoked me" excuse is the abuser's justification for his attempts to police his partner's behavior and to punish her when she violates his rules, whether these rules, such as "You shall not talk back to me," are violated.
Number two on the list of excuses is "Anger made me do it" or "I just snapped." This excuse attempts to deny responsibility by claiming some kind of "temporary insanity." However, this claim is contradicted by the abuser's frequent wish to get credit by what he did not do during his last episode of abuse. Examples of this are, "I didn't punch her, I slapped her," "I would never hit her" (stated by a man who has continuously put holes in walls or damaged is partner's property), and "I would never strangle her, she's my wife" (stated by a man who put his wife in a headlock).
In my experience, every abuser draws the line somewhere -- and this shows considerable selectivity in how they attack their partners and where they leave bruises.
This suggests that abusers have as much control as they want to have. Rather than losing control, the abuser is engaged in seemingly irrational behavior that helps him in maintaining control.
It is a persistent popular myth that domestic violence reflects anger or rage. Domestic violence is a broad spectrum of behaviors, many of which do not involve moments of rage. Abusers are just as likely to socially isolate their partners, criticize their partners, and to dismiss their partner's feelings and complaints, as to fly into rages. One unfortunate consequence of the rage myth is that many abusers are referred into anger management programs rather than to abuser education programs, which are designed for those who abuse their partners. The latter programs are typically longer (26-52 weeks comparted to a 10-12 week anger management program), and include substantial outreach to the victim for the purpose of making referral to victim support services.
In contrast, anger management programs do not contact victims since they are designed for stranger and acquaintance assaults, such as road rage and attacks against co-workers, not domestic violence. Despite this, some defense attorney's offer plea bargains that enable abusers to plead guilty to domestic violence in exchange for a sentence to a shorter anger management program. Some abusers are sentenced to substance abuse programs instead of abuser education programs, even though they have two distinct problems; drug abuse and partner abuse, and evidence has shown that abusers are just as likely to abuse their partners while in recovery as when they are actively drinking or drugging.
Every abuser is surrounded by a circle of friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and sometimes fellow members of a faith community, who can either serve as enablers or helpers.
Ray Rice, like many successful athletes, appeared to be surrounded by an entourage of admirers who mostly say "yes" when favors are asked and "I understand" when excuses for bad behavior are offered. Like many abusers, his excuses for abuse continued to go undecoded.
It is important for everyone to become more savvy about abuser's excuses because many people unwittingly reinforce them in how we respond to the abuser's "explanations" for his/her violence, and to understand what taking real responsibility means. Given that abusers often pursue quick fixes rather than real and lasting change, we also must be educated about the various sentencing and treatment options and insist on those that will hold the abuser accountable rather than those that will ultimately help him/her to perfect his excuses.
Dr. David Adams is co-founder and current co-director of Emerge, the nation's first abuser education program, established in 1977. Adams has lead abuser education groups for over 35 years and parenting education groups for 15 years. His book, Why Do They Kill? Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners, was published in 2007.