Pop singer Rihanna became the poster girl for domestic violence in 2009 when a picture of her battered face was leaked online. But when she decided to get back together with Chris Brown — her abuser — many of us couldn’t wrap our heads around it.
Years later, this one question remains a mystery: Why do so many women, especially those who are financially independent, choose to stay in abusive relationships?
When Leela — the heroine in Mani Ratnam’s new film Kaatru Veliyidai — is repeatedly humiliated, physically pushed and stood up on her wedding day, all it takes for the hero is to say he is sorry to win her over. Leela, played beautifully by Aditi Rao Hydari, is a doctor with a family back home that supports her. Why then does she go back to the narcissist, misogynist jerk of a man the hero is? Here's what psychiatrists have to say.
“Many women have seen some form of abuse in their family. So they grow up thinking, it is part and parcel of life and tolerate it,” says Dr Rajiv Mehta, psychiatrist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
“Then there is the false sense of hope. Women believe their partner loves them and that the abuse happened in the heat of the moment or under the influence of drugs/alcohol. They hold on to the good memories and hope everything will be okay tomorrow. There is the fear of losing friends and family, being cut off from the social circle once they speak out,” says Dr Mehta.
Some women believe their partner is a good man who needs help and that they can fix him. This could be why Rihanna got back with Brown. In an interview in Vanity Fair, she said, “(I felt that) maybe some people are built stronger than others. Maybe I'm one of those people built to handle s?h*?t like this. Maybe I’m the person who's almost the guardian angel to this person, to be there when they're not strong enough...”
Why don’t women get out the first time it happens? “Abuse does not happen overnight. There are stages. It starts with verbal hostility. Women tolerate that, thinking it will stop,” says Dr Mehta.
With abuse comes depression and low self esteem. Many times abuse happens in front of children and women feel humiliated. Before they realise it, they are trapped in the relationship and do not have the confidence to get out.
“Another important factor is lack of support from family and friends,” says Dr Mehta.
On the surface, the law may seem pro-women. It’s anything but that. An Indian-origin man in the US, accused of domestic abuse for over 10 years, pleaded “no contest” to the charges. Last week Santa Clara Superior Court, California, gave Abhishek Gattani, a Silicon Valley CEO, just one month in prison.
His wife, Neha Rastogi, said she was “appalled” and “disgraced” by the verdict. “He hit me multiple times during each incident on my face, arms, head, belly; pulled my hair and abused me and called me a bitch, whore, slut, bastard and much more in my language,” Rastogi told the court. “Please help me understand how is this a charge appropriate to the crimes he has himself admitted to in this very court?” she is quoted as saying by The Daily Beast.
It’s not just the law that acts as a barrier. Another psychiatrist said a little compromise is always good. He said he believes it’s not a gender fight and that a more balanced, nuanced approach is required for the sake of the couple and the family. Quite a lot of people think this way and that is not encouraging for women who are expected to do all the ‘balancing’.
Dr Mehta, however, says, “My advice to anyone who is in an abusive relationship is to speak out the first time it happens. Do not wait or hope for it to get better.”