“I chased him around with a kitchen knife, and I would have stabbed him if he had not wrested the knife from me.” These shocking words from an old friend of mine left me more disturbed than I would like to admit. The woman in question, I remembered, had been a gentle soul, someone who never displayed aggression or temper tantrums. So what had prompted Namrata to chase her husband of 18 years around with a knife? When he had caught her by her hair, as he had so many times over the past few years, and slapped her across her face and then banged her head against the wall…suddenly, she felt she couldn’t take it anymore. She picked up the knife and went after him.
On the outside, we think two people are a perfect couple, but behind closed walls, it is a different picture…an ugly, terrifying image where the wife or girlfriend is subjected to physical, verbal, emotional and mental abuse. It is very common for many to think that this happens only amongst the lower classes. That is not true! It happens across the spectrum – from the richest to the poorest.
SAGA OF ABUSE
So how do you define abuse? “Domestic abuse, also known as spousal abuse, occurs when one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. Domestic abuse that includes physical violence is called domestic violence.” In most cases, it is the man who subjects the woman to abuse; but in many cases, women too have subjected men to violence. Nevertheless, in the majority of cases, especially where domestic violence is concerned, it is the man who is the perpetrator. Many women feel that as long as a man does not hurt them physically, it is okay. However, emotional and verbal abuse is as harmful; it takes a toll slowly, and the scars remain deep inside.
Samira was a strong, independent woman. She had been working from her early twenties and had gone through a shattering divorce that had robbed her of her self-esteem. It took her almost two years to get over her traumatic marriage and when she met Abhay, he wooed her with sweet words and was there for her whenever she felt traumatized by her past. They moved in together and then the nightmare began for Samira. The man who had been her friend, her support, her love, transformed into a beast. He cut her off from all her friends, abused her family with foul language and called her the vilest of names. He suspected her with every man that she interacted with. He drank heavily and in his drunken rages would occasionally raise a hand on her. It took Samira eight years to walk out of the relationship.
In Namrata’s case too, her husband had cut her off from all her loved ones. She did walk out on him early in the marriage but for the sake of her child, she decided to return. What followed was a nightmarish existence. He would slap her if she did anything that he disapproved of, he would call her names, undermine her self confidence. He did not want her to work and neither would he give her sufficient money to run the household. He abused her family and made it clear that he did not want them visiting her. Namrata was in a strange city, far away from friends and loved ones, with no money of her own. She was ashamed to reach out to her friends or her family. After all, she had chosen this man; how could she let everyone know how disastrous her marriage was? So, it was only after she finally mustered up the courage to retaliate, that she walked out of her private hell.
To the outside world, Nandini is pretty, confident and completely in control. She is doing fabulously in her career and is climbing the success ladder rapidly. But at home, the scenario is appalling. Her husband cheats on her, has not earned a penny in years and shamelessly lives off her. In his fits of rage he abuses her with the foulest four-letter words and randomly breaks objects in the house from expensive curios to pricey furniture. She put up with his behavior for over ten years before calling it quits.
Hanging on to Hope So what keeps women in these abusive relationships? Why don’t they walk out? In the case of the poor, often circumstances don’t permit them to come out of this cycle of violence. As my maid told me, “If I leave him and live alone, then other men will attack me, so it is better for me to stay with him.” In these scenarios, it boils down to – a known devil is better than an unknown one. And although there are all-women police stations, many of these women say that the police don’t take their complaints seriously. Often they are met with indifference and told to ‘adjust’ – that word in India that is the bane of any married woman! And once they have complained, if the cops don’t take action, the violence against these women escalates, so they prefer not to go to the police. One of my maids who went to the police station and complained against her husband tells me that the police treated her with utter contempt. She had left her husband and he had broken into her house. The cops felt he was justified in doing so! And the worst part of it all – they made her feel as if she was a woman of loose character. She swore to me that she would never go to the police again. Here unfortunately, the lower rungs of the police force have a patriarchal attitude; unless that mindset changes, marginalized women can never find succour.
But what happens with educated, independent attractive women? Why do they stay on in these relationships with brutish men? The answer is layered in complexity. In many cases, the women have been isolated from their loved ones. Repeated abuse or violence strips away a woman’s self-esteem. The man has dinned it into her that she is the one to blame for his behaviour and she feels responsible or guilty for abandoning him. Many men threaten suicide if their partner leaves them. The woman may be financially dependent on her partner and worried about how she will look after her children if she leaves him. Even today, in the 21st century, there is a stigma to divorce and many women don’t want to face that. Often families are not supportive; they encourage the woman to ‘accommodate’. Often the woman is too scared of the man to leave; she worries about the repercussions.
However, if you are in an abusive or violent relationship or if you know of someone who is – remember no one needs to live in fear and no man has the right to control his wife or partner with physical, verbal, mental or emotional abuse. Abuse usually follows a cycle – the man will abuse or physically attack the woman. This is followed by guilt pangs and profuse apologies. He points out to her that if it were not for her behaviour, he would never have lost control. She believes him. The making up period can be seductive for many women. The man is on his best behaviour; he woos her, treats her well, buys her gifts and makes love to her. She begins to believe that everything is all right and as long as she does not do anything ‘wrong’ to upset him, everything will be all right. But this will never happen. The abuser is always waiting for his partner to ‘slip up’ and it is a matter of time before the cycle of abuse begins again.
Remember, if you are in an abusive or violent relationship, WHATEVER you do, the man has NO RIGHT to physically or verbally abuse you; he has no right to break and destroy things. And, it is pertinent to point out – the violence will only escalate. And if he promises to change, chances are that he won’t because most abusers have deep-seated psychological and emotional issues. By staying with him, you are only enabling his behaviour. Many women stay on for their children. But a child watching this pattern of abuse only gets scarred for life. Is that what you want for your child? Even if the abuse is currently happening behind closed doors, it is going to spill out of the bedroom at some point. Do you want your child to see that? And, what guarantee do you have that he won’t harm your child?
Getting out of an abusive or violent relationship is difficult but not impossible. Reach out to your family or your friends; they will help you. Your spouse/partner is never going to let you get away easily. He will intimidate you, beg and plead, promise to change, threaten suicide…but you just have to remain steadfast. It is not easy and it will be traumatizing. But remember, once out of this horrific cycle of violence and abuse, you can live your life with dignity, and most importantly, with peace of mind and a feeling of security. So take your life into your own hands and walk out.
[Names changed on request to protect identity]