[Image Credit: simonaval.com]
By Anu Mahadev
Picture this. A single woman, age 24. Educated, qualified, college degree, graduate school, now working for an IT company, earning a fat paycheck. If anyone would say that at that point, she would be locked by her own boyfriend, inside her own car, mouth clamped so her screams wouldn’t escape, her hair pulled back and her head being banged against the steering wheel repeatedly until her nose became broken and bleeding, who would believe them? But I tell you, if that could happen to a well-positioned person like her, a woman who was figuring her way out in the world, then what is there to prevent it from happening to so many other girls and women, who are probably not as well-positioned socially and economically? Before I continue, let me preface by saying that this is not meant to be authoritative or preachy – this is simply my retelling of a situation and my opinion on how relationship violence can be prevented and resolved.
Just as in the case of domestic violence, whether or not you cohabit with your abuser, whether or not you are financially dependent on him, you continue to be mentally and emotionally dependent on him for your existence and survival. I’ll explain.
It all starts rather normally. In fact I don’t think anyone can point out any dark, brooding signals in the first few dates, even though they may be lurking beneath. There is usually a set pattern to these sort of relationships. The victims tend to be those that are unsure of themselves to begin with, since they aren’t very self-aware of who they are, and what their limits are. This probably stems from the fact that they lack the self-esteem they need to stand up against the world. This in turn may be an effect of their childhood, where they probably did not have as many friends or family close to them when growing up, or perhaps they had a general sense of not being able to fit into society. All these factors combined can spiral together and trigger an onset of early depression in a child, that doesn’t really go away as an adult. As a result, the person may be called ‘moody’ or ‘sensitive’ and may react very differently to crises than someone else in their situation.
How the so-called attacker senses this trait in their victim, I do not know. Perhaps from their body language and lack of self-confidence. Perhaps because they do not make eye contact. Either way, it all starts out innocently enough. The attacker is suave and smooth and wastes no time taking the victim into his confidence. The victim on the other hand is thrilled to have found someone so interesting to talk to, and share stories with, she probably reveals more than she should. There it is. A most unhealthy combination. Before the victim realizes it, she is brainwashed into believing that everything she knew until now isn’t true – that only what he tells her is gospel. She slowly begins to discard all her beliefs and adapts her thinking to his – believes that she can change to what his ideal of a woman looks/thinks like. And this is only the fateful beginning of a slow, painful, endless journey.
At this point, I know many of you must be thinking, why doesn’t she just walk away? What is preventing her from taking charge of her own life? The answer isn’t quite so simple. For someone who never felt she had control of her own life to begin with, it is never easy to handle the reins – it is in fact easier to hand them over to someone else and watch as they do whatever they see fit with it. The abuser becomes like a drug of some sort, one she cannot live without – because she doesn’t know what it is like to free-fall any more.
Taking full advantage of this handicap, now the real abuse begins. The veiled insults at first. The gentle mockery in groups of friends or large gatherings. Each move is controlled, watched, corrected till the victim has no idea of whether she’s doing something acceptable or not, in the abuser’s eyes. The punishments come, unbeckoned, in the form of harsh verbal abuse, in private, sometimes in public, and once those are exhausted, the frustration is brought out as physical or sexual backlash. She fears for her life, her reputation, she fears to tell her family, her friends, or call the police or social services, because she has been threatened time and again as to what the ramifications would be of such an act. And yet, she doesn’t know how to walk out because she has no identity any more without him. She doesn’t think anyone will know her the way he does. And that alone is reason enough to stay. With all the lying about the scars and the black-blue eyes, and the lack of sleep, other areas of her life such as her health, her job and her finances begin to suffer.
This is where the story could take any number of turns. A significant number of cases end up in suicide or murder. By a stroke of fate this victim, now a survivor, got laid off from work due to poor performance, and had to leave the country. This put a great deal of distance between her and her abuser, and left her with no choice but to think clearly about what she needed to do with the rest of her life. The first thing she did, as cliched as it may sound, was to rebuild the identity and the confidence she had before she met her abuser. She started by visiting all the places from her past that gave her the strength when she needed it. She emerged unscathed, but don’t let that fool you. She would hide deep symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and healing would take a remarkably long time. It would take a lot of introspection, tremendous doses of self-love, support from family, long walks, clean eating and proper routines before she could dig herself out from the baggage that had piled up for years. It would take even longer before she could find the selfless love of a man who would not treat her as damaged goods.
What can be done?
My two cents? For your daughters – let them be who they are. Teach them the value of self-acceptance. Especially in this day and age of social media, where popularity is determined by the number of likes, and one single post can take you down, it is important to be grounded, and understand your own worth, and that can only come through family values, and positive outlets for your energies. Let them be the nerd, be different, be whoever they choose to be. More importantly, for your sons – teach them how to treat the opposite sex by example, rather than by theory. Set the bar high with your own spouse and other women around you. In a country where goddesses are revered, and women are sadly not, let the change begin where it should – at home.
Anu Mahadev is part of The Woman Inc Team.