Defenders and critics alike have been quick to point out that Eminem is not the first big star to talk about domestic violence in a song or video. And beyond the land of pop, people who have described cycles of abuse in their writing run the gamut from Alice Walker to Shakespeare. But in a quick breakdown of the lyrics, it seems like Eminem has done something that few popular artists have done—in Rihanna's words, he concisely "broke down the cycle of domestic violence."
So, what is "the cycle of domestic violence," and do Eminem's lyrics actually capture it?
According to most experts, dating violence or domestic violence is rarely a one-time incident. It is usually a pattern of behavior. Perpetrators use verbal, physical, financial, emotional, and sexual abuse to control their partners, and the level of abuse can escalate over time. The cycle of violence is characterized by a constant rotation between tension building, explosions/abuse, and honeymoons.
Eminem launches "Love the Way You Lie" with an acute description of the "tension building" period. This is when both parties are on edge, one fearing for his or her safety, the other threatening to explode. "Here we go again," he says as he begs his partner not to leave and compares their relationship to huffing paint. But the next step in the cycle comes quickly: "I snapped," spits the rapper. This is the explosion, which is rarely a one-time event but a part of a pattern.
And Eminem's lyrics are off to the races, now describing the honeymoon phase with lyrics like "Never stoop so low again" and "You ever love somebody so much you can barely breathe / When you're with 'em." Some also call the honeymoon phase the "seduction" phase, when an abuser apologizes and swears off bad behavior. They might say things exactly like "Your temper's just as bad as mine is / You're the same as me," to justify their abuse. All this sweet-talking and relative calm keeps the power in the hands of the perpetrator, and keeps the victim believing that things might just change this time. As Eminem so clearly shows, the honeymoon can be tender, relieving, and even loving—with the ultimate result of making it harder and harder for the victim to leave.
Eminem, in his typical fast-paced and detailed style, keeps the acute descriptions coming: "You swore you'd never hit 'em, never do nothing to hurt 'em / Now you're in each other's face spewing venom in your words when you spit them." Here comes another phase of tension building.
Over the course of the four-minute song, the lyrical rollercoaster of emotion and violence never ends. Eminem describes his partner leaving, and shows himself begging her to come back. He says "this is my fault" and claims (again) that he'll stop being violent. "I apologize even though I know it's lies," he raps, just before the song's chilling final lines: "If she ever tries to f---ing leave again / I'm a tie her to the bed and set this house on fire."
While the song may seem to evoke sympathy with abusers, Eminem also shows a disturbing dark side that needs to be faced by those who want to end dating violence and support abusive people to change. Abusers lie—and they often know they are doing it. Abuse is a desperate form of trying to gain control, and the resulting manipulation can keep a partner from leaving and chip away at their self-esteem. The lyrics are also in tune with the fact that leaving an abusive relationship can be one of the most dangerous times for a victim. Threats like "Love the Way You Lie"'s haunting last line are frighteningly common in real life.
The most serious message of the song is that this cycle of violence, which may feel inevitable in the moment, can actually end in severe injury or death. When Rihanna croons "I love the way you lie" over and over between Eminem's escalating episodes of violence, the irony and poignancy should ultimately be clear.