'Never realised it': Young Indians on why they took abuse from their partners

When the abuse isn't apparent.
'Never realised it': Young Indians on why they took abuse from their partners
'Never realised it': Young Indians on why they took abuse from their partners
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24-year-old Catherine* doesn’t have many regrets but the one she has spans eight long years. The relationship began with a man seven years older than her. “At the time, I thought physical intimacy can only end in marriage. So when Sam* kept pursuing me, I started reciprocating after a year,” says Catherine.

The years that followed, Sam and Catherine’s relationship was a cat and mouse chase where Sam isolated her from her friends, refused to give the validation she constantly craved for and made her go to extreme lengths to prove her feelings for him. And while it’s been two years since Catherine ended their toxic relationship, she didn’t identify it as an emotionally abusive or manipulative one until a few months after the breakup.

Catherine’s case is not an isolated one. Because the abuse in such cases is not as apparent as it is in physically abusive relationships, many fail to recognize it. Dr Kumar Babu, a Chennai-based psychologist says that while even a child is manipulative when he says he is sick to skip school, when the manipulation is done without a regard for the other person’s feelings is when things go wrong.  

“Emotional neglect is a typical form of emotional cruelty where the abuser will isolate the other person from friends and family to a point where he/she becomes emotionally dependent only on the abuser,” explains Dr Kumar Babu. And why do victims comply? “In young couples especially who may be in the nascent stage of the relationship, the initial attraction may overshadow their instinct,” he says.

Karthik*, *Lavanya’s (now former) boyfriend of eight years, was two years older than her and began pursuing her when she was around 16-years-old. “I didn’t want to be in a relationship but because he was relentless, I agreed to talk to him. I liked the attention at that age. So after a month when he asked me out, I said yes,” recalls the 24-year-old.

Karthik would insist that Lavanya inform him whenever she was going out and with whom. “Even if I was going with my mother to a nearby market, he’d ask me to give him a missed call from my mother’s number,” Lavanya says. And while she didn’t see anything wrong in his overly possessive behaviour initially, it got to her after two years of their relationship because he would never reciprocate. “He even began avoiding my calls when he was out but I couldn’t do the same,” she says.

She even joined an all-girls college because he threatened to leave her if she went to a co-ed one. “He would doubt me even if I spoke to his own friends in front of him. He even started badmouthing my friends. He wanted to cut me off from others but wasn’t willing to be there for me either,” Lavanya says.  

Dr Babu says that while many psychological disorders are unhealthy extensions of normal human emotions, things like excessive possessiveness and jealousy when blown out of proportion can turn into fully fledged paranoia.  

He also explains that sometimes, it’s not just the abuser who has a part to play in the toxic relationship. The victim may act as the “enabler”, because he or she is too emotionally, socially or financially dependent on the other. “When a relationship doesn’t make you feel good, you shouldn’t stay. Everyone will have that instinct. But people end up staying because they may be afraid of being alone or may have become habituated to the cycle of abuse; so much so that sometimes the enabler will make the abuser angry deliberately so that the latter tries to make it up by being nice the next day,” Dr Babu says.   

The emotional maturity and background of the abused must also be taken into account, which may compel them to stay.

Catherine for instance, thinks that because of how the relationship began, she was constantly trying to reassure herself that she was important to him and not just someone he “experimented the dating thing with”, so she put up with his behaviour. Lavanya on the other hand, had working parents whose time and attention was lacking as she grew up. So when she got the attention and emotional response from someone else, she justified his manipulation and neglect to herself so he wouldn’t leave.

And then there are films and novels which make us think these things are normal when they are not, remarks Dr Babu. Unlike Lavanya who found Karthik’s overly possessive nature problematic, Catherine never made the attempt to speak to other guys. “I had put Sam on a pedestal and I had seen too many films where guys don’t like it if their girlfriends spoke to or looked at other guys. So I never did it,” she says.

The abuse is not limited to women either. 26-year-old Mayank* has been with Kriya* for about two years now. He says Kriya constantly blames him for not finding her attractive and pairs him with his female friends who he hasn’t met in months. “Things got so bad once that she hit me,” says Mayank.

Shalini Aiyappa, HOD of the Psychology Department in St Aloysius College, Mangaluru says that in most cases, the abuser’s behaviour is triggered by low self-esteem, his or her own deep-seated insecurities and inability to handle rejection.

Coincidentally, in all of the above cases, the abusers came from abusive family environment. “In these cases perhaps, the abuser was seeking the attachment and validation which never materialized in their family,” explains Shalini. “However, everyone who comes from an abusive background is not an abuser,” she cautions.

Shalini also points out how it’s difficult for young couples to talk about these things because of patriarchal values instilled from childhood. “That a woman must always put up with it and a man cannot be abused – these perceptions stop men and women from talking about emotional abuse,” she says. The silence about these issues is louder in married couples because of the finality with which marriage is seen, says Dr Babu.

Shalini also says that while the society is becoming more open to pre-marital relationships, youngsters and parents/guardians are still unable to have as open a dialogue as they should be. “There’s increasing acceptance of relationships, but not about the problems in them,” says Shalini. 

(*Names have been changed to protect identity.)

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