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Are you being physically abused?

By Richa Pant
Last updated on: November 30, 2006 16:13 IST
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Marriage has an almost immediate association with 'happily ever after' in our minds. A wedding is assumed to immediately bring changes for the better. Unfortunately, reality is different. Many marriages are full of abuse -- physical, emotional, and financial.

In this, the first part of a three-part series, we take a look at physical abuse: what prompts it, what feeds it, and how to cope.

It could happen to anyone

One of the common misconceptions is that educated, well-off families are free of domestic violence. "Physical abuse has no educational, economic, racial, gender, or religious boundaries," says psychologist Dr Vandana Mathur. 

"It [physical abuse] takes place in families from all walks of life. Either men or women can be the victim," she adds. It might be hard to imagine, but whether a woman is a housewife or an engineer, and whether her husband is a chartered accountant or a labourer, has no direct relationship with abuse.

Psyche of an abuser

The dynamics of spousal abuse are complex. "There are many theories about violence leading to abuse and assault: hormonal or chemical imbalance, frustration, short temper, lack of self-control, childhood trauma, genetic and/ or physiological abnormality, etc," says Dr Mathur.

The psyche of an abuser is complicated. Beneath the brutality there may be insecurity, self-doubt, anger and resentment towards others, unhappiness with life, jealousy, perhaps a mental illness.

Some cases are 'learned responses'. The male abuser may have been raised in a violent environment, where he was abused himself or saw his mother abused. If a woman is violent with her husband, she may have a history of violent acts against others.

"In men, it is sometimes related to male chauvinism -- perceiving that men are superior and the boss, while women should obey," says Dr Mathur.

"Many of these violent men internally feel their women are more capable and smarter. They may experience powerlessness, vulnerability, dependency and low self-esteem. As a result, they may put their spouse down in an effort to exercise control and dominate her," she adds.

Not just the men

Women too can sometimes be the perpetrators of domestic violence. Some women may have the same fears and weaknesses as men and may be in a situation where they can physically abuse their partner. "My best friend's wife has been physically aggressive with him a few times when she has lost her temper," reveals Rakesh Kumar, 29, a software engineer.

But most psychologists say women are much less abusive than men.

"Men eventually cause more physical damage than women. There is a great difference between a female slap to the cheek and a hard male blow to the face, which causes damage. A slap expresses hurt feelings, but a blow demonstrates raw, destructive and intimidating aggression," says Dr Mathur.

How the vicious cycle of abuse begins

The initial steps toward severe abuse may involve psychological aggression -- yelling, threatening, swearing, putting the other person down, insulting, etc.

"Sometimes, the abuser doesn't even realise s/ he is being abusive," says Geeta Singh (name changed), 27, a teacher who was a victim of abuse in her first marriage and managed to get out of the relationship in time.

Once this progresses into mild physical aggression, it frequently escalates into very severe forms of physical aggression. The victim may be traumatised and cruelly dominated to the extent s/ he feels helpless and worthless.

"The abused becomes so unable to confront the abuser that s/ he cannot walk out either. In fact, the most dangerous time is when s/he is trying to walk out," Singh adds.

The pattern

There are three different phases in marital abuse.

1. Conflict and tension: Every time a small negative incident occurs, tension in the relationship increases. This tension, eventually, brings on the next phase. Usually, the first phase lasts for long periods of time.

2. Abuse: This phase is usually set off by a particular event or set of circumstances, which are rarely the same and are mostly unpredictable. It leaves the abused person physically and emotionally shattered.

Initially, there is shock and disbelief. More often than not, the abused chooses to forgive the abuser, remains silent and doesn't expose him/ her, although the sense of helplessness and feeling of hatred may increase.

3. Guilt and regret: This is when the abuser seems to be to be overcome with remorse, working hard to make up for what s/ he has done with apparent acts of kindness and promises to never abuse again. "The spouse, in most cases a woman, usually welcomes this phase because she desperately wants to believe that her husband is sincere and wants things to be okay," says Singh. This phase may last a day or a few months. Eventually, however, the tensions begin to mount again and the cycle repeats itself.

Understanding the silence 

Outsiders wonder: Why do they remain together? Why doesn't s/ he leave?

Complex dynamics -- which can only be speculated upon -- keep an abusive couple together. There may be emotional bonds, fears, guilt, children to care for, financial problems, and an underlying hope that things will improve.

Many women are afraid to report the abuse for fear of a backlash. "She is afraid of losing everything she considers dear -- her husband, her children, her home, her financial support [in some cases], her family reputation, and her emotional and physical well-being, to name a few," says Singh.

"Most abused women have a need to be loved and keep hoping to get this love -- hence they tolerate the abuse," says Nishi Tripathi, 28, whose friend Malini (name changed), a housewife, suffered abuse for three years until her husband finally agreed to undergo counselling. "At the same time, they feel wronged, hurt, and angry," she adds.

If it happens to you

The most important thing you need to do is be strong. Deal with the situation rationally. Do not tolerate suffering and humiliation. Learn to be self-sufficient and confident.

These important steps can help you avoid and deal with marital abuse:

1. See the signs: Psychological or verbal aggression should be considered an early warning sign that physical abuse is around the corner. Take verbal assaults and fits of rage very seriously.

2. Don't take the blame: Don't take responsibility for the abuse being inflicted upon you. Don't assume it will get better if you ignore the problem or work harder to pacify your spouse. Try your best to move away from the situation.

3. Break the silence: Tell your parents, an elder, or your close friend and take their help.

4: Get to a safe place: "If there exists immediate danger to your life, go to a friend or family member's house where you can safely call for help," advises Nishi. In most cases, it is wise to report the abuse to the police.

5: Try counselling: Try to get your spouse to agree to it when s/ he is in the guilty phase. Your spouse may be suffering from a mental illness and treatment may help. Try to convince your spouse or talk to his/ her close ones for help.

If you are the abuser

There are various self-control responses -- called stress inoculation techniques -- the abuser can practise.

"They block the decisions to take frustrations personally and help you to think of the situation differently, thus helping to avoid getting sucked into the whirlpool of rage," says Dr Mathur. For example, when encountering a serious, scary issue, think: I should calm down, I can handle this rationally. When wanting to retaliate in an intensely destructive way, think: I'm not going to lower myself to this level. Is there a solution to this?

The bottom line

No form of abuse is acceptable, no matter what the excuses may be. No person should ever become physically aggressive, including physical threats, with another person -- and certainly not a loved one. If you ever find yourself in such a situation, don't accept it at any cost -- take proactive measures so you can live your life with the dignity and respect you deserve.

Part II: Are you being emotionally abused?
Part III: Are you being financially abused?

If you have been coping with physical abuse in marriage, share with us. 

If you have successfully curbed your violent instincts, tell us how.


~ Arranged marriages: A bride's perspective

~ Arranged marriages: A groom's perspective

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Richa Pant