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Understanding women in abusive relationships

An Indian woman often subjects herself to depression, anxiety and or stress because of an abusive relationship. But victims of abuse are also unwilling to break up the abusive relationship. Is this the result of a kind of Stockholm syndrome or the remnants of affection that they feel for their partner?

Abusive relationships come in all shapes and forms. It is not always physical. There is social abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or even financial abuse. Abuse is basically a dynamic of extremes like domination and submission.

A survey funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health that looked at the experiences of 611 urban-dwelling, low-income American women threw up some interesting results. Overall 42.8 percent of the women said they had been abused by their male partners in that year, which is a whopping amount! While sexual and physical abuse were reported, they were less common than psychological abuse. And still, more than half the women still saw their partners as dependable and one fifth of them even attributed significant positive attributes to their partners, like being affectionate or dependable!

Based on these findings the study extrapolates abusers into three main groups – “dependable yet abusive” which is the largest chunk of the sample at 44 percent, “positive and controlling” who score moderately for violence as well as positive traits like dependability and make up 38 percent of the group and finally, “dangerously abusive” men who are 18 percent of the sample and score high on violence, and low on positive traits.

A false sense of control

Despite these differences, at their core, all abusers – from the controlling ones to the violent ones – are basically weak. Hence they abuse to maintain a false sense of control. The victims also are insecure in their own way, they may have low self-esteem, or a poor sense of their own social value so they feel the need to submit to their abusive partners and establish their social value in this way.

This pathological need for control by the abuser and the pathological need for attention on the part of the victim, creates an S&M dynamic that’s hard to break up. In fact it is a classic case of self -perpetuating and self-sustaining cycle of abuse.

The emotional anorexic

Abusers often abuse because they are insecure, fearful, or have not developed a sense of ethnocentric compassion and tend to view everything from an egocentric perspective. The victims are often emotional anorexics – who are starved of love one minute and lap it up whenever it is lavished on them by their abuser.

This is why often it is hard for victims to leave abusive relationships. They often don’t know or realise they are in an abusive relationship or they are in denial or too comfortable with the status quo. The victims usually stay because along with the hurt and pain there is often real love in the relationships as well.

Even the strongest of women sometimes stay because leaving could be scarier – they may be financially dependent on their partner or the threat perception of violence may be even greater once they leave. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of domestic violence and murders occur after the victim has left the relationship.

The resulting mental health conditions

All this leads to immense stress, anxiety and depression in the victim, with some analysts likening it to almost a post-traumatic stress disorder. One symptom that is common among victims of abuse and PTSD is a sense of dissociation and detachment which allows victims to forget the abuse occurred. This is what lets them stay back in the relationship, because they aren’t psychologically present enough to recall the trauma. Coping mechanisms for PTSD are also similar for women in abusive relationships, there is a sense of denial and inward-looking behaviour that actually exacerbates the mental health issues that they face.

There is also a culture of victim blaming that shuns women that don’t leave abusive relationships, which just adds to the stress. To end this vicious cycle, the first step should be complete and utter compassion and understanding of what an abuse victim goes through in such a relationship. The first step for anyone who is in an abusive relationship (or knows someone who is) is to ask for help or offer it. Once that first step is taken, contacting a therapist or reporting the abuse can take place. Reaching out to them should be done with extreme caution and compassion so that they are made aware that they are in safe place and can open up to the person and share the trauma of what they are going through. It also helps that they don’t feel judged for being in this position. This kind of precise but compassionate help often involves professional care so it is best to seek this kind of treatment at the earliest.

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