“I hardly felt the physical pain; the mental terror was the worst”. This is what I usually hear in my psychology practice from women who were in an abusive relationship. The international statistics are devastating: about 20% of the women are (were) involved in a violent relationship. In Sri Lanka with its male dominated culture the figures are probably even higher. Why do abused women stay with their partner? And how can they get out?
Hiruni (27) tells about her relationship with Tharindu. During the two years that they dated she did get some signals but she was very much in love with him. She felt that he was a bit dominant and possessive but she thought it was because he was masculine and that he loved her too in his own way. Right after the marriage things started to change. He became increasingly dominant, he checked her ways, isolated her from her friends and slowly the physical abuse crept in.
For the slightest reason he beat her up, dragged her by the hair over the floor and started again. She thought that she was to be blamed: he loved her and he wouldn’t hit her without reason, so she must have done something wrong. Only until much later she realised that Tharindu of course didn’t love her at all. But the mental abuse was the worst; she felt so scared, so inferior and so humiliated. Sometimes during the abuse, she urinated out of fear and Tharindu gloated about that. He constantly told her that she was ugly, used foul language against her and mocked her “posh” accent. He told her that if she would leave him he would find her and kill her. It took Hiruni six years to break away from him; six long years of physical, verbal and emotional abuse.
Hiruni went into therapy in order to come to terms with all that has happened and now her life is back on track. She remarried with a very loving man who is the opposite of Tharindu, she has a good job as a lawyer and she has a social life. She has found herself again, strong and independent. When she sometimes tells one of her new friends about her previous marriage, then they can’t believe that someone like her could have been in such a situation.
In Sri Lanka there is a very strong tendency to keep problems “to yourself” or “inside the family”. Many people feel it’s not done to speak about personal issues with friends or even with their parents. In addition to this, Sri Lanka has a strong gossip culture which makes things worse. Also, as a consequence of the abuse victims develop an extremely low self-esteem. Very often victims feel ashamed about the abuse and as a result nobody knows about it. All this makes it very difficult for the victims to seek help. And there are financial reasons as well. In many cases the husband is the breadwinner and wives are concerned what might happen after a divorce with the children and themselves.
In abusive relationships there is often a “cycle of violence”. At first there is usually a built up of tension which slowly leads up to (new) violence. The explosion doesn’t need to have a direct cause; the trigger is typically something small. When there is physical violence involved, then as a rule it becomes gradually more extreme. After the outburst there are the habitual apologies and remorse. Promises are made that it will never happen again but after some time the pressure become stronger and the cycle starts all over.
The consequences of abuse are serious and multifold: low self-esteem, lack of confidence in people, not being able to deal with emotions like anger and shame, difficulty in finding your own direction in life. It’s not easy for women to get out of this kind of relationships. Sometimes there comes a moment when the violence becomes too much for them (or directed at their child or pet) and they find their inner strength. What they need is an understanding friend or a professional who listen to them and who can give them guidance. Professionals need to be aware of the dynamics of abusive relationships and the dos and don’ts as a therapist.