A crucial aspect that helps to understand why women get into relationships with abusive men entails examining how a woman’s family background and social conditioning leads to violence in the home front. This appears to be the need of the hour in India, as the COVID-19 lockdown has brought about an alarming increase in domestic violence cases. Disturbingly, a new study by the National Family Health Survey of India has found that one in three women in India has been subject to some form of domestic abuse in her lifetime.
On the surface, many women can come across as confident, professionally successful, popular, smart, witty, and beautiful. Take Zeenat Aman, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Karisma Kapoor, and Kangana Ranaut for example. All of them are famous, talented, attractive, and established in their careers. Yet, each of them has reportedly struggled with violent relationships which tormented them and left invisible scars. So what do they all have in common?
When it comes to shared experiences, women who have struggled with domestic violence come from a family with a history of some form of abuse - whether verbal, economic, physical, sexual or even neglect. This can occur between family members or even directed to the woman as a young girl. Each form of abuse has its own insidious effects, whether a girl or woman is physically harmed, mentally or emotionally harassed and tortured, or even monetarily deprived of basic needs like food and shelter.
Abuse can take several manifestations in different households as well. For instance, a girl may have witnessed her mother or close relative being abused or she as a girl, may have been severely punished in childhood. She could have observed that men are dominant and hold all the power in a relationship, that women and their rights are inferior to a man’s so that a man has the right to teach a woman “a lesson” if she thinks otherwise. Even worse is when a girl has experienced that her needs are not taken into consideration and is neglected even of basic necessities like food or basic human love and affection.
In my experience of working in a woman’s shelter for domestic violence, I have found the link between a woman’s exposure to some form of abuse as a child and their tendency towards entering violent relationships to be 100% true in all of the cases who dealt with domestic violence and came in for therapy. For example, Saima came to therapy struggling with the physical abuse that her controlling husband dealt at her for seemingly small issues, such as not putting their shoes in perfect order at home, if she did not answer his calls or messages immediately, or talk to anyone without his permission. On her 10th session, she connected to how she recalled her father had enormous control of her and her mother during her childhood, and would loudly shout at them in front of others, berate and humiliate them if they even made a small mistake in the endless set of tasks and rules that he imposed on them. She realised that while her father was verbally and emotionally abusive when she was young, her husband was the same, in addition to being physically abusive as well.
Saima’s example also illustrates how children who witness such cruelty between the parents or if it is directed towards them are compelled towards repetition compulsion, on an unconscious level. Freud defined the compulsion to repeat trauma as: “... the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life". The reason one repeats these traumatic behaviours is in the unconscious hope of resolving the pain of what hurt them in the first place, with the hope that this time things would be different. Hence, the view that one day the abusive man that they love will change for the better because they love him and try their best to please him. Thus, the pattern repeats itself unconsciously by finding a man that falls into this pattern with them, as the saying goes a hand and glove fit. These patterns are repeated until a woman is able to become conscious of these compulsive patterns to resolve the pain of the past in order to create a better future for themselves. However, to do so it is necessary to understand where women get the message on a social level that it is the woman’s role in a relationship to change a damaged man from his wayward ways.
Through experiences in their families, women of domestic abuse have witnessed low expectations in a relationship and learnt to equate love with pain and hurt. It is the notion that a man loves me so much that he can’t control himself at times, while he is otherwise a loving partner. Therefore, the hurt imposed by the man is justified by his passion for his woman, and the deeply held wish that if a woman loves a man enough, he will one day change. This theme of tortured love is depicted in many movies, cinema functions as a mirror of society. This is evinced in the movie Kabir Singh, where Kabir, a man of great aggression and misconduct issues, treats his lady love Preeti horribly, slapping and threatening her, but she starts adjusting herself to Kabir's overbearing attitude and ultimately they end up together, in the hope that he has changed because she loved him so much.
On a social level, research reveals that domestic violence is seen in more conservative households, with more patriarchal views that women are inferior to men. Violence is also linked to unemployed men who abuse substances, men who have lost their job and money where their wives are doing better than them. For example, Lila shared during a session that her live-in partner “Jai was so smart and bright, he came across as an alpha male, which was so attractive to me initially, but which probably complicated things when my career trajectory skyrocketed and his went plummeting down due to a slump in his industry. I never had a problem earning for the both of us at the time, but he never could make his peace with this, and he took it out on me, making it seem as though it was my fault his career suffered, which was crazy because somewhere I felt guilty about it...in hindsight I think it was too much for his fragile ego to bear.”
Sadly enough, a woman feeling guilty for not doing right and needing to be punished or suffer to teach her a lesson from the point of view of patriarchy is deeply embedded in our Indian psyche through our mythology. For instance, even a woman like Sita, the epitome of virtue, is punished for her mistakes since she unknowingly transgressed her boundaries by crossing the Laxman Rekha unwittingly. The message of Lakshman Rekha has been used for centuries as the rubicon that keeps women in their place in a marriage, and if she chooses to transgress her limits, she deserves to suffer the consequences of the malice of men, such as her husband Ram who banishes her from the kingdom because he questions her fidelity, honour, and chastity.
Taken to the extreme, this rigid outlook of using women to determine the purity and honour of a household has even lead to honour killings. This is evident in cases of girls who have been killed by their family members or community for marrying outside of their caste or religious sect because it is considered an affront to a family’s honour or izzat to make a choice that does not conform to patriarchal notions of controlling women’s honour, and hence the woman in question is punished for her supposed dereliction.
This theme of women being taught by society to live within their socially sanctioned limits not only applies to Sita, but also women like Sati or Savitri who became depicted as the ideal wife or partner, a wife whose love should know no limits, and should have no boundaries with the man she loves. Both women even risked death. Sati did so in order to redeem her husband’s honour and the disrespect shown to Shiva. Whereas for Savitri, it was her devotion and single-minded focus on Satyavan that enabled him to cheat death, symbolic of how a woman's love can keep a husband alive and vanquish even death.
If women do cross the Lakshman Rekha, they are given the option, through social narratives, to either be the ideal Sita/Sati/Savitri wife or the Durga-esque woman; the family makers or family breakers. While Durga is revered in India in her own right as an individual, it is made clear that she is not the sort of female that should be married; hence she is depicted as Shiva’s equal but not as a domestic wife, and is often depicted as Kali of destruction and is therefore unmarriable.
It is culturally imprinted in an Indian woman’s psyche that these mythological women are the ideal standards a woman should live up to, and to fail to do so merits a woman’s suffering by the hands of a man and their laws, or else she risks being alone, as in the case of Durga and Kali.
While it may come across as the odds are stacked against women when it comes to finding healthy, fulfilling relationships in a male-oriented society, I have found great strength in women who have borne the brunt of violence in their relationships, and yet have learnt to come out of it by learning to shift their life narrative more towards self discovery, building a healthier self esteem and empowering themselves in the process. This is by no means easy or a quick fix, but the important aspect to bear in mind is that this transformation has been done by many women who ultimately lead more content and satisfying lives.
Take for example Tanvi, a very kind and gentle woman in her sixties who endured domestic violence for decades. Initially, in her sessions, she would weep inconsolably, mourning for her past and also the position she found herself in, describing it like she was standing on an edge of a cliff. Yet slowly she began to use these sessions as a space to explore her identity and needs, something she had never dared to do in her life. She spent her whole childhood watching her mother and grandmother suffer in the hands of their spouses, hence Tanvi assumed that this is what she should expect in a marriage as well. Over time, Tanvi began to differentiate the thoughts, customs and beliefs that she had learnt in her childhood, and realised how it had led to her present, and that she was truly done with her life as it existed to please social paradigms that did not bring her any happiness, and allowed herself to hope and expect for more. As she began to be kinder to herself, she began to meet new people who became her well-wishers and treated her with the respect and care that she felt she deserved. Not only did she enroll herself in a course, despite the protests of her husband, and began to financially support herself but she ultimately left him and forged a happier life for herself and her two children.
Hopefully, the awareness of the cultural factors that unconsciously draw women to violent relationships can equip them to realise how their conditioning can be used to their disadvantage by men who exploit the socially sanctioned concept of what a woman’s place is in society, and also use patriarchy to subjugate women to accept less than they deserve.
However, the onus of standing up against patriarchy is not limited to men when it comes to preventing the subordination of women towards abuse. For every man that abuses a woman in the house, there is the mother in law, sisters in law, other relatives and even neighbours who look the other way and therefore enable domestic violence to continue to exist.
The moral imperative to end domestic violence against women also applies to men and women with young children as to how they raise their sons and daughters, but also how women in general treat and speak of other women on a day to day level. If for example, women in a building gossip about a “slutty” woman for having an affair with a married man, it is setting a double standard for not holding the married man equally responsible in the affair. This is because it sends the message that women should be controlled and shamed for their transgressions but it’s understandable and excusable if a man cannot control his sexual appetite. Thus, preventing abuse needs to be tackled on both a macro and micro level in society, both with individuals taking a stand as well as within a group.
This realisation will also ideally empower women themselves and those around them to be more self aware and pave the way towards relationships where a woman receives the love and care that she deserves.
Arya Punj Timblo is a psychotherapist, lecturer and facilitator who has extensively worked with women who have struggled with abuse and domestic violence. The views expressed are the author's own and not that of SheThePeople.