“You won’t believe what I’m going to tell you,” said Rachna (name changed), sounding like she didn’t believe it herself.
“Who would believe,” she asked rhetorically, “that this would happen to a smart, attractive, educated woman like me?”
What had happened? She decided to start at the beginning, which was the day she met the man who was to become her husband and (also in the future tense) her abuser. They met during the first coffee break of a motivational seminar she had attended. He was one of the speakers. It was mutual and instant attraction. They met and chatted again at the lunch break and at the tea break. And then, at day’s end, they went to a cafe and chatted some more. He was so interested in her, and so happy about how well she was piloting her life: a BMM, followed by an MBA, followed by a job as a rising neophyte in the HR department of a leading firm. She told him about her black lab, about her family back in Kolkata, about her hopes and dreams for the future. “He loved everything about me,” she recalled. “especially that I was free-spirited and fun to be with. He was smart and funny, too.” They started dating, and one day he told her he trusted her enough to confide something not known to anyone outside his family. As a child, he said, he had been repeatedly and savagely beaten by his step-father. The abuse had stopped only when his mother divorced his step-father.
She didn’t know it at the time, but that was the first warning sign about the man she was dating: the adult abuser is often someone who has himself (or herself) been abused as a child. All that Rachna could see was that this charming, sensitive, good-looking man idolized her.
There was an even bigger red flag that unfurled, and in hindsight she wonders how she didn’t see what was waving right in front of her face. A week before their wedding, they had planned to have dinner together. But, when he came to her flat, she was hard at work on a project with a close deadline. Tired and stressed out from the preparations for the wedding, not yet dressed for dinner, she asked whether they could order in something instead of going out. He grabbed her arm violently. “Do you love me or not?” Startled, she said, “You’re hurting my arm.” “You didn’t answer my question.” He put both hands on her throat in a chokehold, squeezing so tightly that she could not breathe. Abruptly, he loosened his vice-like grip, and began crying. He begged for her forgiveness, and promised he’d never do it again, he was just so tense about the wedding and about them becoming a family together.
Despite the shock she felt, she didn’t dream of calling off the wedding. “The bottom-line for me at the time was: ‘I love him and he loves me.’ He had said how sorry he was, had cried in my arms, and so, despite what had happened, I was sure we were going to live happily ever after.”
It happened twice again on their honeymoon. Once, frustrated by heavy traffic, he threw a cold coke in her face. Another time, when she had misplaced her ATM card, he punched her hard in the face. “It was amazing, but I continued to stay in denial. We love each other– that continued to be my mantra although things were steadily going downhill. The man who had once told me he adored me started to dictate to me the shade of lipstick I should use, the style in which I should cut my hair, the clothes I should wear. And the outbursts of violence continued – sometimes it was pulling my hair, often it was punches to the side of my head. Once it was pointing a barbecue skewer at me and shouting, “I could kill you.” The bruises took days to heal.”
At the same time, he had set in motion another line of attack. “He began bad-mouthing my closest friends and colleagues, telling me I should distance myself from them because they were a bad influence in my life. I realized he was trying to isolate me because he didn’t want me having a support network, people I could confide in.” Her wake-up call came when her husband returned home one night and told her that he had decided they should leave Mumbai and go some place where the living was more relaxed. “I dug in my heels. I had grown to love this city, and my job was the one rock in my shaky life. I said I didn’t want to go. He came at me in wild fury, banged my head repeatedly against the wall, and punched me so hard on the side of my head that I suffered a partial hearing loss that continues till today. “
That was when she felt a light switch come on in her head. The realization hit like cold water, and she knew her life was in danger if she didn’t seek immediate help. That was when she decided she was going to be strong and get out of an abusive relationship.
But Rachna’s assumption that her story was beyond belief because she was smart, educated and financially independent, is belied by reality. Despite the fact that the present generation is confronting gender violence in a way that has never happened before, domestic abuse continues to cut a wide swathe – it is no respecter of class, religion, geography, age or gender. Though women are predominantly at the receiving end, males (especially in homosexual relationships) are also sometimes victims. And women are also sometimes the abusers.
T he physical abuse is always meshed in with psychological abuse (also called emotional abuse or mental abuse). The tread of footprints traced by the progression of Rachna’s relationship – from adoration to abuse – is also all too common. The abuser does not walk into a relationship with a calling card. In fact, at the beginning, everything seems so good. The warning signs that you are getting into a relationship with a potential abuser are so insidious, and sometimes so deceptive, that unless you know what to watch out for, it is all too easy to fall prey.
Here are the red flags to watch out for. In and of themselves, the earliest warning signs may not inevitably portend abuse, but stay alert, watch out for clues to an emerging prototype, before you take a step towards serious commitment.
You get the feeling you’re being rushed. Most people like to spend time getting to know each other well before getting into couplehood. But what if, within days of the first meeting, the other person comes on really strong and says things like,” I’ve never felt like this before”, wants to commit really quickly. even begins talking about marriage? In and of itself this may only mean that this is a textbook fairy tale, a love-at-first-sight kind of romance. However, if you get a gut feeling that he’s trying to reel you in – fast! – it’s better to proceed with caution.
Your partner shows extreme jealousy and controlling behaviours. These make their appearance during the early stages of the relationship. A little jealousy in a close relationship can make many people feel good and ‘wanted’ – it seems nice to know that your partner can be a little worried about losing you! So it can appear to be a normal dynamic. But it’s an entirely different matter when the partner is so possessive that he checks on you constantly, shows up unexpectedly at your office to verify that you are, in fact, working late, monitors your cell phone, email and social media activity, seems to want to isolate you from friends and family, and accuses you of flirting with other men on a regular basis. You should feel trusted in your relationship, and if instead you feel you’re under a scanner all the time, this is not love. You are already in the territory of psychological abuse.
And things just escalate from there on.
He has an explosive temper. Does he punch walls when he’s angry, throw or break things? Does he hurt you (by pushing, shoving, grabbing, pulling, slapping, hitting, beating, punching, kicking or biting)? Does he even threaten to harm you or your children or the family pet?
Those in the abuser mould typically get angry easily and/or have mood swings. Feeling unsafe or uncomfortable with a partner should set off warning bells.
He has a history of sexual and / or physical abuse. Research confirms this victim-to-victimiser cycle in men (not so strongly in women). Men who have been abused in childhood have been found to be more than three times likely to become abusers, compared to men who have not suffered abuse. This is particularly so if their abuser during childhood was a woman.
He’ll blame it all on you. Victim blaming is an ancient art form, perfected by the domestic abuser. He is expert in the knack of getting you to believe that the way you are being treated is your fault. So he’ll blame his violent reaction on the fact that you’ve been working late three days in a row, or that you wear jeans that are too tight, or just on “you make me so angry”.
This can send you off on a guilt trip, get you feeling ashamed that it could be you who’s bringing on this kind of conflict in your home. Blaming the victim is always an attempt to shift responsibility away from the offender. It is another kind of emotional abuse. Violence is never an acceptable approach to resolving conflict.
He plays mind games. Besides all the above, the abuser has other ways of messing with your mind. Apart from blaming you for the abuse, he can convince you that you do not deserve better treatment or that he is treating you this way to “help” you. He may belittle you in front of others, downplay your feelings or your fears, call you “crazy” or “melodramatic” or worse. If he knows about some weakness or vulnerability from your past or present life, he will wield it as a weapon against you.
Contrarily, in between the episodes of abuse, he will often make attempts at “reconciliation” – with a gift, a compliment, or a profuse apology and repeated vows of “Never again”. He’ll promise you the world, the moon and that holiday in the Maldives. You’ll want to believe him, although your instinct tells you not to, and you may decide to give him another chance. Change – if it happens – will be short-lived, and before you know it the abuse will have started all over again and will be worse than before. These flip-flops are all too common; they are part of the dynamic and cycle of abuse.
He forces you into having sex against your will. A loving, supportive partner will only want to engage in intimacy when you both feel the time is right. If, however, your partner uses manipulation (e.g., “If you loved me, you would want to make me happy”), intimidation or physical force, that could be a sign that he enjoys exercising power and control over you. It’s not an equal partnership.
If the profile of your relationship encompasses the warning signs that make you feel uncomfortable, honour your feelings. And then take action to break free of the shackles of abuse. Many abused persons keep hoping that the abuser will change, if not on his own, then certainly with counselling. These are forlorn hopes. Most findings on batterer intervention programmes show they do not change abusers’ attitudes towards women or towards domestic violence, and that they have little or no impact on re-offending. The most rigorous interventions have, at best, a modest or minimal benefit. None have been shown to work in the more severe cases of abuse, and none over the long-term.
Therapy is more helpful to the person being abused. Because, very often, that person is in a state of mental confusion, feeling so desperate to be loved, hoping against hope that things will “settle down”, believing she must be doing things that are provoking the abuse – all of which end up haemorrhaging her self-esteem. The role of counselling then is primarily to rebuild her sense of self-worth so that she feels empowered and strong enough to leave. The exhortation to the abused partner in a relationship still remains: Get out...get out! Taking that decisive step may not just save you heartbreak, it could potentially save your life.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)
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