Why do women choose to stay in abusive relationships
Often women, even those who are educated and successful, stay in relationships that are violent or abusive. We explore the psychology behind the same.
When celebrity chef Nigella Lawson was photographed in tears after her husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbed her neck during an argument at a London restaurant a few years back, it sent shockwaves among people, especially the fans of the charming television host. Though Nigella later divorced the millionaire co-founder of Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency, ending their 10-year marriage, the question on everyone’s mind was why she chose to stay for so long with somebody she later described as controlling and casually cruel. It seemed like it was the public humiliation rather than the years of unhappiness that gave her the impetus to walk out.
When somebody who is rich, famous, and successful like Nigella stays in an abusive relationship, the question that begs to be asked is ‘why’.
YourStory spoke to a couple of mental health experts who work with victims of domestic violence to understand the psychology behind this phenomenon.
It is easy to leave marks on wet cement
Bach Flower therapist Resham Gupta says, “Very often, one needs to look at the victim’s childhood to understand her mind space.” Abuse or even neglect during childhood by parents or other nurturers could result in the child normalising it. Self-worth takes a beating and the child feels like she has done something to deserve this treatment. This belief is hard to shift even as she grows into an adult and starts understanding life better. As she enters an adult relationship, she may subconsciously attract a similar type of abuse since she believes this is what she deserves. Childhood and adulthood are not two separate, unrelated phases but have a very direct cause and effect in our lives.
The solution – revisiting the source of the sub-conscious pain with the perspective of an adult and healing the trauma can help restore her self-worth and make her see that this need not be her reality.
The ‘I have to get hurt so that I get flowers’ mindset
Some women with a low self-esteem have an intense need to be loved and a deep-rooted need to please the dominant partner in the relationship. In a volatile relationship, there could be a mix of violence and passionate love. One typically follows the other where the man apologises (often indirectly blaming her for provoking him) and then promises he'll never do it again. He then showers her with affection, attention, romantic gestures, and/or gifts. Till the next time. What does the woman get out if it? The strong emotions prove that she is loved, and she tolerates the abuse because she craves for the passion that comes after it. This is a vicious cycle to be in and usually the hardest one to break out of because there are rewards as well as punishment for both.
The solution – the couple must become aware of the vicious cycle and will need counselling and help to break out of it.
The beauty and the beast syndrome
Many a time, a woman strongly believes that she can change her partner with her love and loyalty. Further, when the identity of the woman is closely tied to her partner, she feels she will be left with nothing if she were to walk out. Sneha Jayagopal, a psychotherapist, recounts the case of a woman in Bengaluru who was rescued by the police after getting beaten up by her husband. She says,
Three months later, she was back with him and there was nothing we could do since she is an adult and has the freedom to do what she wants.
The solution – the woman will have to set strong boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour and come to terms to the extent to which her partner can change.
Sanskaar, sabhyata, etc. etc.
Sneha rightly points out that the cultural conditioning of girls in India starts from their childhood, where a lopsided importance is placed on a woman’s marital status. She says, “In India, there is a stigma associated with women being single after a certain age. Divorce also is widely frowned upon. In-laws have a lot of power in our family setup and often a man’s parents ignore, justify or even join in the violence inflicted upon the son’s wife.” There is also the log kya kahenge mentality, which results in the woman hesitating to seek help. Even when a woman leaves an abusive partner, her family often advises her to go back and ‘adjust’ to avoid societal disapproval.
The solution – there has to be a change from the common mindset of societal opinions being given more importance over a woman’s well-being and happiness. Families should support their daughters’ choices and women should be empathetic to other women instead of judging them.
The woman who is already living in fear of a violent partner is often very justifiably scared of taking the extreme step of leaving her partner fearing violent retribution. In a country where acid attacks and honour killing feature in newspapers every other day, it is quite understandable that a woman puts up with milder forms of violence rather than risk her life. If she has children, she might fear harm to them and keep quiet.
The solution - there are several organisations that help rehabilitate victims of domestic violence, arrange counselling as well as legal help. Under the Indian Penal Code, women who are victims of physical or emotional abuse, or marital rape, can seek a restraining order on her husband.
He has the purse strings
Sometimes a woman desperately wants to get out of an abusive relationship, but is constrained because she doesn't have the money, is dependent, and is scared she'll lose her children. She might also lack the support system, who will back her up and give her the confidence to take a strong step to regain control of her life.
The solution – Girls should be encouraged to become financially independent, so that they are not forced to continue in unhappy situations because of dependence on an abusive partner.
When twitterati share their experience
The hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft were created by writer Beverly Gooden, who went through a physically abusive relationship. Beverly explained on her website how leaving is not always that simple. "Leaving was a process, not an event," she wrote. "And sometimes it takes a while to navigate through that process." She also expressed the hope that the hashtag will help people "find a voice, find love, find compassion, and find hope."
In conclusion, to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, help will always be given to those who ask for it. If you are in an abusive relationship or know somebody who is, write to us and we can connect you to organisations that can help.
With inputs from Resham Gupta, Bach Flower Therapist, and Sneha Jayagopal, psychotherapist with Askmile.