Behind closed doors

While intimate partner violence is publicly condemned, there is still a tendency to place blame on the victims. Two women tell their stories of why they stayed in abusive relationships and what made them leave

“Nothing irritates me more than the way people ask me, ‘why did you marry him’,” says Lalita*, referring to the abusive marriage she left two years ago. “I used to think that I would immediately know when to leave an abusive relationship, or I wouldn’t have got myself involved with him in the first place. It’s not like he immediately punched me on my first date or anything.”

It is a familiar question for survivors of abusive relationships. Many have the misconception that domestic violence only happens to a certain type of individual, although the reality is that anyone regardless of ethnicity, social class, or religion can be subject to abuse from a partner.

Lalita, a 45-year-old human resources professional, first met her ex-husband in university while pursuing her Master’s degree. Taken up by his charm and intelligence, she says she was deeply in love with him. “In hindsight, I did have some misgivings about the way he seemed to want to know everything I was doing and with whom,” she says. Once, we had a massive argument when I had to cancel plans with him to go see a friend in hospital.”

She adds that she felt that she was judging him too harshly for “petty mistakes”. “He made it like he was just looking out for me, and protecting me from harm. I didn’t realise then that he was just trying to control me,” she says. After five years of dating, she agreed to marry him and soon saw the full extent of his controlling behaviour.

A sudden change

It started with words and name-calling. “If I didn’t immediately reply his calls or texts, he would start sulking and accuse me of causing him unnecessary worry. It didn’t matter if I was in the middle of a work meeting. He would put me down in front of our friends, making remarks about how I sometimes dressed ‘too sexily’ or didn’t make dinner every night,” she says.

To Lalita, the change was so sudden that she felt like she was truly at fault. “I found myself apologising to him several times a day. So the first time he hit me, I really felt like I deserved it for being such a horrible person,” she says.

After that first physical incident, her ex-husband “broke down in tears”, apologising and promising that it would never happen again. “And for months, he appeared kind and like his old self,” she adds. “Until it happened again. It became a cycle of getting beaten up and then accepting the apologies.”

Although Lalita knew how and where to get help, what kept her quiet was a deep sense of shame. “I’m supposed to be a strong and educated woman — this shouldn’t have happened to me. I felt stupid for being in this mess in the first place. I also thought no one would believe me; he had a very smooth public face, and even I didn’t see his dark side until I lived with him,” she says.

What changed was when she saw his anger being directed at their young daughter. “My child was around a year old at the time. Before her, I coped by trying to keep him happy, because I believed he was only that way because of me. Then I saw how he would get angry at our daughter for crying, or waking up in the middle of the night. He never abused her, but I realised I had to get out because I was afraid he would end up hurting her too,” she says.

Breaking her silence, Lalita sought the help of family and friends to leave her home and file for a divorce. “I’m lucky because everyone immediately rallied around me; I moved back with my parents, and a lawyer friend took on my case. I think my ex didn’t put up much of a fight because of all the support I had. If I didn’t have that safety net, I don’t know if I could have left,” she says.

Not all violence is physical

Ameera’s* ex-partner never hit her, but instead broke her spirit with constant criticism, threats, and emotional blackmail. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells around him because literally anything I said or did could upset him,” she says.

The 32-year-old shares that at first, his comments were made under the guise of helping her improve herself. “I’ve always had quite low self-esteem, and he used it against me,” she says. He would tell me to do things like exercise more, or to be more calm, or to wear more makeup to look better. All these things, he said, were for my own good.”

When Ameera did fight back, or question his reasoning, she found herself feeling guilty for standing up for herself. “He would apologise, and tell me all about his terrible childhood, his depression issues, and how he was trying very hard to change. I felt like I had to support him, and save him. He played so many mind-games until I couldn’t tell what the truth was anymore,” she adds.

Slowly, her ex-partner started finding fault with her friends and family as well. “He would be nice in front of them, but later would tell me that they weren’t good people for whatever reason he could think of. I brushed him off at first, but he managed to convince me that no one else could understand me as well as he did,” she says.

An example Ameera offers was when she would occasionally vent to her friends about her ex-partner’s behaviour. “They were rightfully angry on my behalf, but I would then make excuses for him and the way he acted,” she says. “When things were good, everything felt perfect. I thought that this was what people meant when they say that relationships take work, that you have to put up with the bad times too. Eventually I stopped sharing all the bad parts with others, and then I stopped talking to them completely.”

As she earned more than him, Ameera ended up helping him financially as well. Her own financial situation became precarious as she had to keep covering his expenses. “I took it at face value that he needed the money; there was always some emergency or another,” she says. “He would pay me back a bit, just enough to give me hope, and then some other ‘emergency’ would happen. It got to a stage where I couldn’t even pay my rent, and had to borrow money from the few friends I had left.”

Isolated from her social circle and under constant stress from worrying about money, Ameera found herself being increasing emotionally dependant on her ex-partner. She also felt like she was not a victim, or rather that she was an “imperfect victim”. “I remember telling myself, well at least he doesn’t hit you!” she exclaims. “When I did get angry, I would throw things at him too; that’s not how you imagine a victim to be like. I kept thinking that it wasn’t that bad, and was clinging on to the good moments we did have.”

As she struggled to pay rent for yet another month, Ameera confronted her ex-partner to pay back what he owed her. It was then she had a rare moment of clarity. “He completely freaked out, and accused me of cheating on him. He punched his fist through the door, and then threatened to kill himself. I was so terrified that I called the police, but he calmed down by the time they arrived. That switch in his persona scared me even more, and I saw him for the manipulative person he was.”

Help for Ameera came from an unlikely source. “After that incident, I contacted a former friend of his, because I had no one else left to turn to. I confided in her, and she validated how I felt; that this was wrong, and I needed to cut him out from my life. She gave me the courage to leave, and get in touch with people who could help.”

At the moment, Ameera is receiving counselling from a local non-governmental organisation, and is slowly rebuilding her self-confidence. “I’m reconnecting with the friends and family I had cut off because of him, and even managed to start saving again. My only advice to other women is that abuse is not always physical violence; emotional and mental abuse is just as damaging. If you feel that something is not right, please speak up about it and get the help you need,” she says.

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