What makes a woman stay in an abusive situation? What stops a woman from running and rejecting being another person’s punching bag?
A January 2020 article in Psychology Today, suggests 8 Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships. These include distorted thoughts; damaged self-worth; fear; wanting to be a saviour; children; family expectations and experiences; financial constraints and isolation.
This blog addresses the experience of Paula and her abusive relationship with John. (Names have been changed to protect her identity).
Paula became a single parent when her daughter was 11 years old. Her marriage was not working for her yet she found the motivation to leave and create a life she wanted. Post-divorce, she had other relationships, and though none of them had been perfect, nothing in her past prepared her for her future relationship with John. Never did she imagine that she would be a victim of domestic violence, a serious and growing problem not just in Trinidad and Tobago, but globally. The experience has left her a shadow of her former self: afraid, emaciated, isolated and confused.
When Paula first met John, they had a platonic relationship. He was younger and came from lower socio-economic circumstances. Wanting to help him achieve his full potential, she provided him with guidance and counsel as she saw good in him. Ironically, their discussions often included his relationship with his girlfriend at the time and Paula’s admonishment and disapproval of the abuse he evidently metered out to her.
Gradually, John’s attention and “affections” shifted to Paula, and they started a relationship. For the first three years, things seemed to be going well, and Paula continued to be supportive and share her resources to help him, often giving him money and the use of her car.
She said that things changed in the relationship when John had become comfortable and sufficiently confident that she was invested. The first of nine episodes of violence over the next two years commenced one Valentine’s night. She had prepared dinner for them and expected a romantic evening, but instead, when John got home, for no apparent rhyme or reason, he chose to beat her. Why did she stay? Perhaps Paula felt that if she loved him enough, she could be his saviour and change his behaviour.
Over time, Paula learned that John’s childhood had been dysfunctional. He initially lived with his mother, who had picked up a boyfriend who disliked John and beat him. But his mother did nothing. John was passed around from pillar to post eventually ending up with his father who misguidedly arranged a sexual encounter for his son with the same woman with whom he was sleeping – a father’s warped way of showing love? The point is that John came to the table as an abused individual with unaddressed psychological scars.
Too often, the discourse on domestic violence focuses on the abused, not the abuser and perhaps breaking the cycle of abuse needs a much greater focus on healing the perpetrators and raising boys to be men who respect, not abuse women. Author Yehuda Berg is well known for the quote “Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on, generation after generation.”
When a man beats a woman and repents, says that he is sorry, begs for forgiveness and promises that he will never do it again, a woman who loves him may believe him, stay and give him another chance. Abusive men are master manipulators who also use their words and their actions, not just their fists to abuse and control women to the point where the women consumed with fear and self-doubt, lose their capacity to think rationally.
John would accuse Paula of not loving him, not supporting him and wanting to abandon him to be with every man with whom she had a conversation, professional or superficial relationship. His manipulation alienated Paula from her friends, got her further entrenched, and gave him more control over her. Paula even encouraged her then adult daughter to move out so as not to bear witness to what was happening.
Despite her best efforts to please and support him, the beatings continued. While at first Paula’s friends were empathetic and supportive, her persistent failure to leave John eventually made them turn their backs on her, as they could not comprehend her decision to stay. In their minds, she should have left the first time he struck her, and she was foolish to have stayed.
Paula still struggles with her feelings of shame, resentment, anger and frustration. How could John question her love and support when she had done so much for him? It was not up for discussion between them as that just triggered more violence. His threats and accusations ultimately created a psychological trap, from which Paula felt powerless to escape.
The takeaway here is that they are always signs that a potential mate may be trouble in the making. Learning to identify red flags will save women trauma, grief or worse being a victim of femicide.
A 2018 article in the Business Insider, purports 8 Red Flags to Look out for when you start dating someone:
1. You justify their bad behaviour.
2. They don’t talk through issues.
3. They’re constantly testing your boundaries.
4. They have a massive sense of entitlement.
5. Something in your gut feels wrong.
6. Everything is about them.
7. They are overly critical about their previous partners.
8. They constantly deny, criticise, or dismiss you.
While we all crave love, acceptance and community, it is important as women to fill our cups, create a life we love and to be comfortable in our skin. When we lack self-esteem and self-love, we seek validation and approval from others and give our power away, often with dire consequences.
Paula may have seen the signs and in retrospect can now admit that she chose to ignore some of them. Fortunately, earlier this year, she finally and permanently walked away from John and is rebuilding her life.