I’m one of those people who never understood why women stayed in bad or abusive relationships. A healthy percentage of women in the world stay in situations that are not conducive and often life threatening. This bracket is not limited to uneducated or poor communities, but you find empowered and talented women also in the same fix and I often wondered why. It led me to research more about abuse, the cycles, the psychology behind it and as I gained more knowledge, it became apparent to me that leaving is not as simple as that.
Many women do not even realise they are in these kind of situations because they have been brainwashed to believe what they are experiencing is normal. Looking back into my own life, I can already make out a past relationship that had the potential to lead to abuse. Abuse is not merely defined by the presence of physical wounds, but it goes as deep as verbal and emotional. The manipulation, isolation, verbal assaults, and passive aggressive behaviours don’t leave physical scars that others can see.
For a community to help combat abuse, it’s imperative for everyone to understand and be educated on what abuse is, the negatives of abuse, how to help an abused person and for the abused individual to find their self-worth first in order to fight the cycle. It would also be a great victory if the abusers faced their own demons and came to cognizance of their actions and sought help.
What is abuse?
According to Edmonton Police, abuse is an attempt to control the behaviour of another person. It is a misuse of power which uses the bonds of intimacy, trust and dependency to make the victim vulnerable. To this definition I would like to add the word “cycle”. I believe its repeated behaviour that eventually leads to more harm especially with emotional abuse. Based on the definition above, I think it’s safe to say that staying in a relationship with a man that’s cheating is abuse. His misusing his power on you based on the bonds of intimacy, to make you stay with him whilst breaking your heart, which essentially is emotional abuse and it’s a repeated cycle of cheating and forgiving.
Sexual abuse – is forced unwanted sex, demanding the partner to wear more (or less) provocative clothing; forced sex in any form; insisting the partner act out fantasies, and denial of the partner’s sexuality. Most people do not identify this as abuse as they believe the only kind of sexual abuse is when a stranger or non-lover is forcing the sex.
Physical abuse – the act of choking, shoving, punching, slapping, hitting or using a weapon on an individual
Verbal abuse – Involves the use of language i.e criticizing, name-calling or blaming. It differs from profanity in that it can occur without the use of expletives. Verbal abuse is a pattern of behaviour that can seriously interfere with one’s positive emotional development and over time, can lead to significant detriment to one’s self-esteem and emotional well-being
Emotional abuse – any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth. People who suffer from emotional abuse tend to have very low self-esteem, show personality changes (such as becoming withdrawn) and may even become depressed, anxious or suicidal
Cycle of abuse
Most abusive relationships display a distinct pattern, known as the Cycle of Abuse or Violence. Abuse is rarely constant but alternates between: tension building, acting out, the honeymoon period and calm. Not all relationships follow the same cycle, and individual experiences vary, some stages – especially the honeymoon or calm periods, may shorten or be left out completely, especially as the abuse intensifies over a period of time. Each stage of the cycle can last from a few minutes to a number of months, but within an abusive relationship, the following stages can often be pin-pointed:
- Tension Building – Tension starts and steadily builds, abuser starts to get angry, communication breaks down, victim feels the need to concede to the abuser, tension becomes too much, victim feels uneasy and a need to watch every move.
- Incident or “Acting Out” phase – Any type of abuse occurs, Physical, Sexual, Emotional or other forms of abuse
- Honeymoon or Reconciliation phase – Abuser apologizes for abuse, some beg forgiveness or show sorrows, abuser may promise it will never happen again, blames victim for provoking the abuse or denies abuse occurred, minimizing, denying or claiming the abuse wasn’t as bad as victim claims.
- Calm Phase – before the tension starts again, Abuses slow or stop, abuser acts like the abuse never happened, promises made during honeymoon stage may be met, abuser may give gifts to victim. Victim believes or wants to believe the abuse is over or the abuser will change
Why women stay
- Fear – Abusers are all about control. He might threaten to kill the children, the partner, harm the family members etc.
- Concern for children – A woman might feel unable to support her children on her own, or she might fear for her children’s well-being and safety if she leaves. She might experience guilt about taking her children away from their father or breaking up the family
- Self esteem – If the abuse has gone on for some time, a woman’s self-esteem erodes to the point that she feels she deserves the abuse. She might feel she isn’t good enough for someone who treats her kindly, with love and respect. Or she might be brainwashed by her partner to believe she can’t cope without him
- Shame – They don’t want to expose the abuse and their own tolerance of it to friends and family by leaving their partner.
- The abuse feels normal – For some women, an abusive relationship feels normal. They assume all intimate relationships involve some form of physical or psychological violence
- Abuser prevents them from leaving – Some abusers have prevented friends and family from contacting their partners or have even physically prevented a woman from leaving the house.
- Attachment to their partner – An abusive relationship can begin as a loving relationship. A woman might fall in love with a caring, kind man whose controlling and violent tendencies don’t show up until later in the relationship. A womancan love and fear her partner at the same time. She longs for the man she knew when she first met her partner and remembers how amazing he can be. Many victims cling to the positive qualities of their abuser rather than to focus on the abuse.
- Financial Concerns – A woman may feel financially dependent on her abuser, especially if he controls her access to money and if he’s the main breadwinner in the family.
- Feeling responsible for their partner – An abuser often tries to make their victim feel responsible for the abuser’s happiness and well-being. They may use false flattery, guilt-trips, blame, and violence to force the victim to cater to them and remain in the relationship. The abuser might threaten that they will lose their job, commit suicide, or lose their family if the victim leaves them, and therefore it will all be the victim’s fault.
- Post-traumatic stress – Victims of long-term abuse will sometimes psychologically detach from the trauma in order to cope and will develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD). One symptom of which is dissociation, which often creates such profound detachment from the reality of the abuse that sufferers scarcely remember being hurt at all
How can society help
By society I mean friends, family and community at large. Understanding the reasons why women remain in abusive relationships is the starting point for helping them reclaim their lives and dignity. If you know a victim, recognizing all of the contributing factors and difficulty involved in ending a bad relationship will help you offer the understanding and support the victim so desperately needs.
“When I told her how he abused me, my friend said ‘but you let him do it’ like it was my fault.That made me feel worse. She didn’t know how much pressure he put on me to go back, how he said he loved me and would kill himself rather than live without me and the children. He made me feel so guilty. I thought how important it was for the children to have a father. It was all a way of manipulating me to come back.
My friend stopped talking to me after I went back to him, she said I was stupid.
I was really upset because she was my only close friend in Australia and I really needed someone to talk to, and help me to see that the way he treated me was wrong.” Unknown
Having read the above excerpt, you can already identify what not to do, first thing being judgemental. The biggest thing the abused need is an ear, a caring heart, a person to confide in who doesn’t ask “why”. respect her decisions, and help her to find ways to become stronger and safer.
Points to follow that could help:
- Believe what she tells you
- Take the abuse seriously – do not brush anything off and say its normal
- Help her to recognise the abuse
- Be reassuring
- Help to build her confidence in herself
- Help her to understand that the abuse is not her fault
- Offer practical assistance
- Help her to think about what she can do
- Respect her right to make her own decisions
- Maintain some level of regular contact with her
- Tell her about the services available
- Keep supporting her after she has left the relationship
- Don’t keep trying to work out the ‘reasons’ for the abuse
- Don’t criticise her partner.
- Don’t give advice, or tell her what you would do
- Don’t pressure her to leave