It’s been more than six years since photos of Rihanna’s bruised, bloodied face were leaked to TMZ, after her then-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, attacked her. But in a new interview for Vanity Fair’s November issue, the 27-year-old superstar tries to answer the question everyone still wonders: Why did she go back to him?
“I was that girl, that girl who felt that as much pain as this relationship is, maybe some people are built stronger than others,” she said as she reflected on her decision to reunite with Brown, for a second time, three years after the assault. “Maybe I’m one of those people built to handle sh-t like this. Maybe I’m the person who’s almost the guardian angel to this person, to be there when they’re not strong enough, when they’re not understanding the world, when they just need someone to encourage them in a positive way and say the right thing.”
In other words, she thought she could save him from himself. “I was very protective of him,” she went on to say. “I felt that people didn’t understand him.”
But of course, that’s no foundation for a healthy relationship. The on-again, off-again pair broke up for good in 2013.
As Rihanna explained to Vanity Fair, she ultimately recognized she deserved better: “You realize after a while that in that situation you’re the enemy. You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I’m willing to put up with something, they think less of you—because they know you don’t deserve what they’re going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that’s when I finally had to say, ‘Uh-oh, I was stupid thinking I was built for this.’ Sometimes you just have to walk away.”
Rihanna’s story is not unusual. Women return to or stay in abusive relationships for many different reasons, including fear, economic dependence, their children, and yes, even because they love the abuser. And the hope that Rihanna described—her faith that her boyfriend’s behavior would change—is also common.
In a Time article published in the aftermath of the Ray Rice video last year, Craig Malkin, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, offered a helpful analogy for this mental barrier: He likened the dysfunctional relationship to an addiction. “The person being abused is focused on the positive and waiting for the next positive. There’s a psychological effect like gambling: the moments of tenderness and intimacy are unpredictable, but they are so intense and fulfilling that the victim winds up staying in the hopes that a moment like that will happen again.”
And as months or years pass, the victim becomes accustomed to the cruelty: “Eventually there’s sort of this wearing down for people on the receiving end of the abuse where they continue to tolerate more and over time feel less entitled to safety,” he added.
Fortunately Rihanna is in a much better place these days—and while she believes in the value of raising awareness about relationship violence (“A lot of women, a lot of young girls, are still going through it,” she said) she told Vanity Fair that she’d prefer not to dwell on her own past. “For me, and anyone who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, nobody wants to even remember it. Nobody even wants to admit it.”
Rihanna has her sights set firmly on the future: Her new and long-awaited album, R8, is due to drop soon. And once her life slows down a bit, she's confident "a very extraordinary gentleman, with a lot of patience" will come along when she least expects it.