A week into 2019, a landmark judgement in Ireland announced that psychological and emotional abuse in intimate relationships would be considered a crime in that country. While I know I will not live to see the day when India acknowledges emotional abuse, let alone consider it a crime (we are still arguing about how rape is a husband’s conjugal right), it does seem like the beginning of a revolution for someone who has been battling the effects of this insidious form of abuse for over eight years.
Coming out with one’s abuse story is never a pleasant experience. Especially in a society that leeches voyeuristically at a woman’s plight, and offers oodles of pity and judgement disguised as ‘concern.’ Of course, when the ‘reported’ rate of domestic violence is so alarmingly low, it is no surprise that emotional abuse is not mentioned at all. I did not report my abuser either; emotional abuse has a way of paralyzing its victims. So, after three attempts to end my life, and a tattoo to remind me that I am alive, I decided I didn’t want to be in the hiding anymore.
And if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, know that you are not alone when you read my story.
gerund or present participle: gaslighting
manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.
I dated (for a year) and married my ex-husband with unanimous support from both our families. He was charming, smart, and knew just the words to say to me. He said he loved me, and that he had never met someone so “right” for him. It made me believe in the age-old cliché of him being ‘the one’ — a textbook requirement for a happy marriage. Eight years later, I am still struggling to put in words how it was anything but happy, and how I am still met with suspecting frowns from even close family members when I call this an ‘abusive relationship.’
How to look out for emotionally abusive behaviour?
Abuse begins slowly
At first, my ex-husband left no stone unturned to make sure I was happy. He would make me so grateful by doing absolutely anything for me: like running to the pharmacy to buy sanitary pads/pain meds in the middle of the night. He kept accumulating these cookie points until I didn’t even realise he was no longer that guy. He started manipulating me by exploiting my gratitude.
Abusers are intelligent and conniving
Abusers are thorough in what they do — they leverage traits that are allegedly easy to manipulate. He knew that I was desperate for approval from a father figure that was never around, and made the most of it.
Kind of abuse varies from person to person
Unlike physical abuse that entails scars, gaslighting doesn’t have any external ramifications. And even then, abuse could mean attacking you by calling you names, or berating you in front of others. Some of the serious ones involve physical or sexual violence and/or sex abstinence.
Some abusers abstain from having sex despite being ‘loving’ to their spouses. My marriage was never consummated. While I never had the courage to confront him about it, the one time that I did (two years later), he gaslighted me further claiming that this arrangement was mutually agreed upon. It is hard to ascertain their motives, but some abusers who find women not fitting a certain category — submissive or servile — use sex abstinence as a control tactic.
Whenever I mustered the courage to call him out for his callous attitude towards me, he would always threaten to kill himself. He would make me feel guilty about something he did, and I would end up groveling all night outside his closed door. His entire charade was dependent on how guilty he made me feel. Even if I bent backwards to please him, he would make me feel remorseful for falling short of some asinine detail.
Abusers snatch your agencyAbusers snatch your agency
My abuser preferred to never lose control over me. Whenever I gathered some motivation to achieve something on my own without him, he created a giant subversion by scaring me. Once when I was away, he falsely claimed that he was “suicidal and bleeding”, which made me terrified of leaving him. He might appreciate my work enough to have me hooked to him, but if he believed I might walk away, he would berate me (and my work) till I am left stifled by self-doubt.
The ‘Mad Woman’ paradox
He would always deny, deflect or ignore my words until such a point that I lost my mind over it. He tried to downplay my obvious breakdowns by claiming that I was, “making it about myself”. It was a massive red flag. Even during my breakdowns, he would blame me for not caring about his ‘feelings’. He would use it against me to provoke me further saying, “I don’t want to have this conversation with you when you are yelling.” — a classic gaslighting technique that abusers have employed against women for generations.
Making excuses for him
When my ex-husband finally came clean and ended the marriage, I started covering up his mess. I did not tell my family that I was in an abusive marriage. Instead, I tried to explain why he is a “nice guy” and that our separation was just “unfortunate but amicable!” I did not even refute the claims my extended family made about my “overtly progressive” lifestyle that cost me my marriage.
How does he get away with it, how does he veil it?
Even when men are blatantly abusive, society turns around to question the woman about what she did to incite it. So it becomes even harder when the abuser is a wolf wearing ‘woke’ clothes. This ‘woke man’ phenomenon is a hard one to beat, especially when your abuser is in full agreement with you about the inequalities in our society, skewed gender roles, etc. His ‘wokeness’ is his biggest veil.
Abusers always find allies because gaslighting is a difficult job to be done alone. These allies may include your own family and friends who might conclude that you are lying. A significant percentage of women do not have the courage to stand up against their abusers because she is stripped of a support system from her own family the moment she is married off. In a gaslighting relationship, where your abuser has charmed your family, you are left isolated.
Our criminal justice system is so patriarchal and misogynistic that no matter the extent of abuse, it is always the victim’s fault: knowing that there is nothing that would penalize him, enables him more. There is no way you can prove intent or display bruises, and that’s his biggest cover.
So, how do you seek help when nobody is on your side?
An experiment conducted by American psychologist Martin Seligman called ‘learned helplessness,’ where the victim is unable to escape or avoid abuse, made complete sense to me. I was afraid of leaving him; I was worried that if he did something to himself, I would be held responsible. But the first step is to believe that what is happening to you is not your fault and move out when there is a clear indication of abuse.
The longer you stay, the harder it will be to get out. In my case, he left town to be with someone else, and continued to claim I was his “best friend!” This just meant no alimony and no mention of the word “abuse.” Find a friend or family member you can trust and confide in them. When you can’t figure a way to help yourself, let them help you. Do not fall for the bait he might use to make you stay.
Whenever you are ready, talk openly about your abuse
I took eight years. Some may take longer. But with every story, we strengthen a statistic count our regressive policymakers conveniently ignore.
As I sit here chronicling a small portion of what happened to me, a chill runs down my spine remembering what it was like to be knocking at a door that he slammed shut claiming he will kill himself.
I won’t claim that it was easy. I had given up a million times before I even took the first step towards recovery. It will be a long time before I am healed of these invisible bruises. But as I am stumbling in the process, I am learning to be kind to myself, to love and to finally move on.
It might seem like an arduous and futile exercise to ruminate and remind ourselves that we deserve to be happy, but this painful introspection would also rid us of any remnant self-doubt, and false assumptions of our traumatic experience.
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