It may be difficult to understand why many women who are subjected to violence stay in abusive relationships. There are many objective factors such as: financial dependence on the spouse/partner, having nowhere else to live, problematic issues regarding the current legislative system, fear, since separation increases the possibility of deadly violence, and mainly the adherence to strictly set gender rules and identities, as well as the unequal distribution of power between men and women.
What often eludes us, however, is the emotional manipulation and the high rate of confusion and seduction that characterize the communication in these relationships. As a psychoanalyst 1 who worked with violent patients observed: “Abuse can violate the other person’s body, but its dominant dynamic aims to tamper with the victim’s mind, distorting reality and truth through violent and sexual means” 2 In the present article we will briefly present some of the ways used by the abuser in order to drive his partner to doubt and ultimately deny her own experience, namely to detach the perception of reality from her mind and replace it with the one he desires.
Control. A violent partner tries to be the one who sets the rules and makes all the decisions in the relationship. He starts controlling his partner’s space and time, forcing her to follow his own values and beliefs. Control can initially be about the woman’s self-expression, like her appearance (clothes, make-up), her social relationships and spending habits, but it often escalates to control of her mental state (I want to know what you’re thinking – I will tell you what to feel) and her emotional/physical needs (controlling her sleeping schedule, her meal portions). Gradually, the relationship turns into that of a strict/punitive parent and a chastised child, where the perpetrator feels like he has the right to abuse his partner if he cannot control her, and the woman should feel grateful for every ounce of freedom she’s allowed. “The obsession with having absolute and unconditional control over a being’s life”, according to Eric Fromm, “is the transformation of total weakness into omnipotence.”
Isolation. A violent partner often slowly and gradually isolates his partner from her family, friends and other people who are important to her. That he does, either directly through violent behaviour towards said people, or indirectly through intricate and insidious means that undermine his partner’s trust towards her loved ones. As a result of said isolation, the woman’s psyche is flooded with the judgmental words and the presence of her partner, while her own personality shrinks. The perpetrator’s punitive, scornful voice is internalized, and remains in the woman’s mind even when her partner is absent, like a harsh, threatening presence that continues to intimidate her and isolate her, destroying her liveliness, tenderness, playfulness and sense of time. The woman is overcome by guilt and often resorts to self-harming behaviour.
Unpredictable and intermittent abuse. Abuse isn’t present from the start; it’s built gradually and alternates with periods of tenderness and calmness. According to Lenore Walker 3, within the domestic abuse cycle, violent outbursts are usually followed by a time of superficial repentance during which the perpetrator declares his remorse by offering his partner evidence of his alleged love and intention to change in the form of presents, promises of change, words of love. A partner can, therefore, occasionally be violent and intimidating towards his wife, using a rough tone in his voice, endlessly spewing insults, threats and crude profanities, while in other occasions, the same person comes off as hurt and lost, with a great thirst for love and nurturing. His demeanor softens and he transforms into a difficult, frustrated but also lovable child. The offender seems so different in these two occasions (the escalation of the tension and the calmness) that his partner forgets it’s the same person. “It’s like living with two different people, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide. I never know who’s going to walk in when he knocks on my door.” These alternating times of intense anxiety due to the fear of impending violence and relief when the tension subsides, create a strong relationship between the offender and the woman which has been described as a “rubber band” 4: the more the woman distances herself from the offender, the more the band stretches out and pulls her back. The abused woman, just like a gambler who hopes for a lucky roll of the dice, attaches herself to her partner hoping for his goodwill.
How can a woman defend herself against the perpetrator’s obtrusion and attack on her psyche? The perpetrator distorts reality. While he is the one who commits abusive actions, le lays all the blame on his partner. This way, while he exercises suffocating control over the woman, he can blame her for oppressing him. As he intimidates and humiliates her, he then leads the woman through delicately-constructed arguments and makes her apologize for her alleged demeaning behavior towards him. We would advise a woman who finds herself in such a relationship the following:
-Trying to get vindication from your partner is pointless. Like in the case of quick sand, the more you struggle the deeper you sink. Guilt won’t help you. You need to make a helpful, internal decision: he’s 100% responsible 5 for the way he behaves. You’re responsible for your own safety (and that of your children, if you have any). You’re not at all responsible for what he does.
-It’s very helpful to keep a diary and document your experiences, so that you can refer to your writings when facing an outburst from your husband or a “tender” moment, and not forget his abusive side or your painful experiences.
-Seek out your own mental space. Look for a person with a good sense of reality, who can understand you and with whom you can freely talk regarding what’s happening in your relationship. Avoid people who make you feel like you have to defend yourself and criticize your decisions. For a systematic and methodical approach to the whole issue, you can reach out to the 15900 SOS Helpline and to the specialized services of the General Secretariat for Demography and Family Policy and Gender Equality. Whether you decide to stay or not, it’s crucial that you don’t allow your partner to distort your perspective, pushing everything else out so that he’s at the epicenter of your attention. Work on and think about your own self and your own life. You deserve it.