An open letter to Rihanna and domestic violence victims

Oct 30, 2012 at 9:00 a.m. ET

It seems that Rihanna may have forgiven Chris Brown. Yes, it's a wonderful thing to forgive another who has hurt you and to choose love and inner peace over fear.

Forgive and forget?

However, when it comes to forgiving and then returning to an abuser who has put your life in danger, it's not as simple as changing your mind and giving him another chance.

As a therapist who has counseled couples in similar situations for years, I feel it's my duty to say to Rihanna (and the 36 million other women who have reported being assaulted by their domestic partner in our country): Heads up ladies... whatever your heart may be telling you, it's critical you remain rational, take it slow, and keep your eyes wide open before jumping in. Don’t give your trust so easily. Your man must earn it back over time. You deserve to feel valued, respected, and most importantly, safe.

The lure of abusive relationships

Chris Brown and Rihanna
Rihanna and Chris Brown in 2008

I am often asked why women stay so long in an abusive relationship or return to an abuser.

After an abusive outbreak, it is often followed by a honeymoon period where calm prevails and emotions get managed. Chris, like other abusers, may be apologizing profusely for the abuse and promising it will never happen again. There’s typically a lot of attention, appreciation, interest, gifts and promises made during this stage. The feel-good brain chemicals released by all this loving attention fogs the victim's ability to see the situation clearly.

Thus, Rihanna may be rationalizing: He's really sorry for what he's done, taking responsibility and making promises to never do it again. I now know that he's my great love, so this time we can work through our issues. I understand him better and won't push his buttons like I did before. We've both changed, so this time it will be different.

Rihanna, while you may believe you are returning to your forever love, I can promise you that the unresolved problems that triggered the abusive situation with Chris will rise again, once the hormones of newly reunited love settle down and each of you returns to your comfort zone.

If you're seriously planning to go ahead with this crazy-in-love thing, here's what you'll need to know and do before jumping in fully with an abusive man.

Don’t assume he has his anger under control

Discuss these three critical questions and seriously examine and ponder his answers carefully:

  • Does he really take responsibility for his past behavior without blaming you?
  • What has he really done to change?
  • Is he truly willing to do whatever necessary to take control of his anger?

Answers such as "Baby, I just couldn't control myself "or "Something just came over me" or "It was your fault. You made me do it" are clear signs you need to stop kidding yourself and replace those dancing shoes with running shoes, fast.

Have a plan of action in place

Tip: If you are in an abusive situation or know someone who is, here are some helpful links:

While this reunion may feel like a brand new beginning for both of you, it's important to know the triggers and how to avoid them. Create a game plan ahead of time for how you will handle your reactions differently when either one of you feels your buttons being pushed.

Real strength, cohesion and trust will come when you learn how to deal with problems and frustrations in a more constructive, less angry way than before. Adversity requires action, not reaction. Sit down and discuss the problems you had in the past and the changes you each need to make this time around.

Talk, share and keep the conversation flowing

An open, present, compassionate partnership is where honesty is valued, safe and celebrated and all problems get addressed early. To make your relationship work this time around, you need the following agreement: No secrets. No masks. No lies. No games. No tiptoeing. It takes creating an environment where it is safe to talk and be honest about anything and everything.

To successfully overcome conflicts, you both have to become less reactive and look at problems through the lens of “we,” not “me.” Instead of saying, "It's your fault," or "What's wrong with you?" ask, "What now, what can we do?" Learn to address all problems and issues when they are small before they become big.

Hold hands, not grudges

Can both of you leave the past behind? Especially when your family and friends won't let you? Are you both willing to hold hands, not grudges, and learn the skills you each need to make this relationship work? It all starts by having the same relationship goals and direction to make the relationship as safe, trusting, accepting and loving as humanly possible.

The truth is, no matter what Rihanna reads, what her friends, family or fans say, what professional advice she receives or what her head tells her, if her heart is pulling her back, she'll probably go. While it is possible for Chris to manage his impulsivity and abusive behavior if he is motivated and does the necessary inner work to change, I urge Rihanna and every victim of domestic abuse out there, for your own safety and well-being, to stay awake, alert and never let his fist get near your face again.

Read more: Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger weighs in >>

Tell us

Can abusers change? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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