The second woman in this episode who exhibits a learned discomfort with trusting her male partner is Rita, Dexter’s girlfriend. Rita is interesting for a number of reasons—she’s in a romantic relationship with a sociopath, but one who is adept at hiding the fact that he spends his evenings murdering people, though he still struggles to pretend that he experiences actual emotional connection to others. She’s also relatively recently gotten out of an abusive first marriage with a drug addict and the father of her two children. (note: at the time of writing this, I haven’t yet watched anything involving Lila or the good girl/bad girl contrasts drawn between these two characters, so this is focusing strictly on Rita herself).
The show has done an excellent job of showing the relationship between Rita and Paul, her ex-husband, who has been able to convince the court that he just wants to see his children, while he also uses his visits as opportunities to manipulate Rita back into a relationship with him or into any position where he holds power over her. The writers have not shied away from acknowledging that rape was one of the weapons in his arsenal, something that even shows that do acknowledge the reality of intimate partner violence often gloss over or ignore. And Rita is obviously struggling to protect her children from the physical threat he poses and from the emotional consequences of the abuse she’s already suffered, as well as to find hope in a new relationship.
Paul is murdered in prison, partially as a result of Dexter’s actions. As she plans the funeral, she starts to look back on a warning that Paul gave her, trying to tell her what Dexter had done. She didn’t believe him at the time because of his history of lying, but additional information starts to make her more suspicious. She confronts Dexter and based on his answers/her assumptions about the terms involved, she concludes he’s a drug addict, but that they’ll work together to help him recover.
What I like about this portrayal is that it strikes me as realistic (drawing on quite a bit of personal experience, here) for someone who has been involved with an abusive addict to not only be drawn to another individual who tends to hide things, but also to return to a pattern of behaviour that verges between supportive and enabling when the same things start happening again. She’s insecure about the situation, but she is desperate to find some hope in this familiar pattern. As with Deb, the show doesn’t portray this as the naive reaction of a stupid woman. I’m inclined to see her clinging to the idea that she will help him recover as the result of having been taught to believe that she’s never going to find a male partner who isn’t any of the horrible things she’s had in the past (selfish, entitled, addicted, violent) and her having internalized the message that if she can just be a good, supportive enough partner, he’ll become a better person.
These aren’t illogical decisions given the information that Rita has about Dexter and her past life experience. The show doesn’t blame her for getting out of one abusive relationship only to wind up dating a mass murderer—it makes it absolutely clear that it was Dexter who targeted and chose her. The tendency for women who have been in abusive relationships to repeat that cycle is often used to blame the victim, but having access to the narrative inside Dexter’s head let us in on the fact that he chose her because he could see how vulnerable she was, as well as how desperately she wanted something that appeared “normal”.
Rita’s learned mistrust exposes some realities about the impact of long-term abuse and violence, and offers an alternative, equally plausible, reaction that contrasts with Deb’s–the desperate desire to believe that the world is not entirely filled with horrible people. A world that supports male privilege tells her that she has no real right to expect that she would know where her partner is when he’s not returning her phone calls and disappearing for days at a time–she steps back from asking too many questions for fear of being controlling. This tendency to push aside her own instincts or expectations and lack of genuine confidence in her judgment makes her an ideal target for another abuser. These are dynamics of abuse and violence that are often completely ignored on television in favour of the much more simplistic “why doesn’t she get out of this pattern?” message.