The Tribune - Spectrum

, October 13, 2002
Lead Article

Laceration doesn’t breed love


The most important question that the Aishwarya-Salman relationship raises is why did an obviously 'empowered' woman such as Aishwarya Rai continue in an abusive relationship? Perhaps, she was as vulnerable and as soft a target as are women next door, says Aruti Nayar.

THE story has all the ingredients of a potboiler—a beautiful woman desperately in love with an impetuous, impulsive macho man who is devoted to her but is also given to bouts of uncontrollable aggression. She decides to distance herself from him. He runs amuck, even killing a poor pavement dweller in the process. Her parents lodge a complaint with the police to prevent her from being harassed. Not once does she acknowledge the fact that he was 'violent' with her despite the fact that he has been so many times. She accuses him of 'cheating' her. The only difference is that this potboiler does not have readymade solutions and a happy ending at the end of three hours and raises more questions than it answers.

The most important question that it raises is why did an obviously 'empowered' woman such as Aishwarya Rai put up with violence and continue in an abusive relationship. This is more pertinent in view of the fact that Salman had a history of having abused at least two other women in his life.

Talking to women who are trapped in abusive relationships and listening to details of torture—physical, emotional and psychological—that they endure reveals the common patterns of denial, shame and self-flagellation. Irrespective of their educational and academic backgrounds, childhood experiences and professional attainments, all the women I spoke to were equally reluctant to snap out of the relationship initially, despite the enormous toll it had taken of their self-esteem and ability to cope with life. (All names have been changed to protect identities.)


Swati M, a doctor in a metro realised that her husband was habitually violent within days of her marriage when he flew into a rage over as flimsy a reason as a badly cooked meal and flung it at her. "The yellings led to slaps and punches soon and I was so traumatised that I started avoiding contact with him. He would beg forgiveness and would be back to his old ways within weeks. This see-saw battle continued until our daughter arrived. It was only when he hit me in the presence of my sister, who was not only aghast but angry at me for lumping it for three years, did I snap out of it. And to think I was an assertive and confident young girl! I realised he won't ever change and that I would end up as a wreck. It's just that you hope it will end on its own. Looking back, I wonder how I put up with it for so long."

What are the common fallacies that women who are in abusive relationships nurture?

Almost all of them believe that things will change one day. Just as they believe in the power of love to transform the perpetrator of violence into a caring guy full of tenderness. A majority of women believe that "I have some role in bringing it upon myself...Perhaps, I am too stubborn or self-willed". This self-blame and guilt exists because the primary responsibility to make a relationship work still rests with the woman. Another common thread that runs through the responses of women who put up with abuse is how they continue making excuses for the man. Either they try to pin the blame on his childhood trauma, financial crisis or state how he has to face a tough time at work and has had a raw deal in life to be like this...The underlying message is: a basically good guy has gone astray and his behaviour is an aberration due to an x number of factors...for all of which he is not to be blamed.

As Vaishali, a fashion designer, who ditched a boyfriend who was abusive but only after she found another friend who was caring and gentle, says, "While you are in the relationship you are governed by a strange inertia that prevents you from taking rational decisions. You try and push what is happening to the back of your mind. I remember making excuses for the bruises on my face and somewhere I started blaming myself for him not behaving in a human, leave alone a civil manner."

In fact, women in such a situation are not defending an abusive person but are "trying to defend my choice of him as a partner." From a proactive subject who is capable of taking decisions and governing the direction of one's life, one is reduced to an hapless object who is at the receiving end of abuse and violence that mutilates the spirit more than it scars the body. Even leaving an old relationship seems more traumatic than outsiders would believe because a woman who tolerates abuse loses confidence in herself and her capability to handle a relationship effectively.

As Priti, an MBA, says, "The choice is often to put up with one man’s abuse or lend yourself to being abused by society. A woman can put up with a lot within the four walls of her home but outside she feels more vulnerable and might have to cope with many more wolves than she can handle." This fear of being alone is what the men cash in upon and test the limits of her tolerance. If only women invested half as much effort they do in trying to mask the abuse in actually breaking free, they would discover reserves of inner strength, they were unaware of. And by endorsing such behaviour women are helping to increase the number of men, who as Sagar Sharma, an eminent psychologist, says "resolve their stresses by stressing others. And who are these others? The meek, the weak and the dependent." Most men do consider a woman to be emotionally dependent on them, even if she is financially empowered.

As it is our child-rearing practices that not only condone but also reinforce violence in a boy in the same way as submissiveness is extolled in a girl. Often boys grow up thinking of violence as an acceptable way of demonstrating control and aggression as a suitable means of redressing their grievances. This cycle of violence and capitulation, more violence and even the complicity of the victim, is a Catch-22 situation from which it is difficult for the woman to escape. She almost becomes addicted to it.

According to Rajshree Sarda, a clinical psychologist, "the idea of love turning into an addiction might sound bizarre but those in an addictive relationship get a paradoxical high and so are more likely to be abused and misused. A person who is dependent either stifles or gets manipulated. The inability to break away from an abusive relationship depends on whether the relationship has already imposed involvement or dependence. Love becomes loving too much and unlike substance abuse, it is intangible, thus more difficult to get rid of."

Whereas, financial security, and the future of the children might be issues for the wife and might bind her to a relationship, the same is not true of a girlfriend. The looks of a guy, his charisma, his financial status, his capacity to wield influence over you and emotional vulnerability all contribute to the appeal a boyfriend has for the partner and of course, women remain suckers for a sob story any time any day. The more you get intimate physically the more difficult it is to snap ties. Somewhere the caveman, macho image does dominate the psyche of women who admire force and rippling muscles but do not contend with it being directed at them.

According to Gurmeet Anand, psychologist, "It is the emotional dependence as well as the manner in which women are reared that is responsible for them not snapping out of an abusive relationship." She feels a sense of belonging is what a relationship gives women and they do not want to lose out on this feeling of belonging at any cost and are willing to go to any length to retain an existing relationship. Shail Nagpal, a social worker, feels the fear of being alone is so overpowering that, coupled with the conditioning of most girls to "make relationships work at any cost ,even at the expense of their own sanity", ultimately it increases their potentiality for becoming a victim and takes a toll of their sanity, too.

Neelu Kang, a sociologist, is of the view that had the system been egalitarian, a woman would have opted out of an abusive relationship easily. A relationship fulfills the need for social security. A sense of shame is attached to breaking up. It is this concept of shame that is a deterrent for her and prevents her from disclosing the fact that she is being abused. For a woman others matter more than herself. Norms and values change at a slower pace, those who do opt out of a relationship are termed "deviant." In the process, her spirit gets as mutilated and bruised as her body. Scars on her psyche benumb her responses and blunt her reactions. A woman in the USA, married to an extremely handsome guy, while she was barely 18 put up with his battering until the first child came. He was not doing well but did not allow her to work. He even locked her up when he went out. He turned very caring and tender when the first child was due. She thought another child would mellow him down and things would change. They only worsened. One day, he battered her so much that the neighbours called in the police and she was taken to a home for battered women. Her cousin in Toronto rushed to her rescue and was shocked to see the disfigured woman who had become a zombie. So shell-shocked was she that she had become atrophied and lost the capacity to feel and express her emotions. Her story at least has a happy ending. She did a course in nursing and is married to a sensitive man who has helped her erase the scars of her traumatic past.

A woman in the hallowed hall of fame, who is privileged, at least, in the eyes of millions of ordinary women, hangs on to the guy who bashes her up because even she does not cease being as vulnerable and as soft a target as the woman next door. Ultimately, it is about emotional empowerment. Sometimes, an unsung household bai or street labourer can show more spunk in dumping an abusive man.


  • The desire to attain that one special person makes a woman give all. It is beautiful and then he becomes a habit. More beautiful a woman, harder it is to first, find a guy and then reconcile that someone as wow as her can also have a bad relationship. Meghna Virk, Miranda House, New Delhi.

  • A modern woman is unable to rid herself of the ingrained complex of male supremacy. She holds on to the benefits of love, respect of yore, while retaining the non-subservient attitude of today. This confusion and the samskars about male supremacy prevent her from breaking free. Neelam Bajwa, lecturer, Chandigarh

  • I can’t think. Why should any one be forced to go through an abusive relationship? I’d rather, the woman washes utensils but lives with self-respect. Amandeep Singh, MBA, Chandigarh

  • Women have been treated as ornaments to decorate the otherwise languid existence of men as accompaniments to men. Emotional, physical and economic dependency of women on men is celebrated. Piya Malhotra, St Stephen’s College, New Delhi.

  • Women carry on in a relationship even if they are being abused because they are socially dependent on their marital status. They are too dependent economically and morally on their husbands, therefore, the greatest gift that can be given to a girl child is a good education which will lead to financial independence. Chander Malhotra, an entrepreneur.


Celebrityhood & the art of strategic coping

Sagar Sharma, eminent psychologist and former Professor Emiretus, Psychology, Panjab University, says that in absence of individual case studies, it is unfair to pass judgement or interpret actions of individuals, especially celebrities, concerning their personal lives. Certain general observations can be made. As per cultural conditioning, the woman might be initially guided by the sentiment "To have and to hold...and love and to cherish." She can also feel partly responsible for her boyfriend's misadventure due to the feeling that she might have provoked him in some manner. Basically a nurturant woman, with an internationally acknowledged, ever-enhancing celebrity status could have felt empowered to salvage her partner and might have faced and accepted some unpleasant situations as well. Unsuccessful in her efforts, along with the feeling of being a failure as a woman and as a friend, may come the real feeling of being trapped and powerless. Only after such a failed attempt did she realise that she deserved to have power over her life and make it safe and happy. Mid-course correction of her coping style was necessary. Subsequently, to escape self-blame for crisis in the relationship, she resorted to an intelligent "strategic coping" by passing the blame to the "other" for "cheating" her. This way she safeguarded her personal and social image and professional interests as well. Salman Khan exemplifies how performing stars show excessively narcissistic tendencies, which might be encouraged by the adulation of their fans/professional image builders and extensive media attention. Such a personality is marked by an excessive sense of self-importance coupled with a need for constant attention. Frequent preoccupations with fantasies of untold success, power, beauty and ideal love relationship also exist. At times, the behaviour of such narcissistic persons seriously violates the basic rights of others and major rules of society. Obviously, the rejection of such people by "highly significant" people in their life space is an ego-shattering experience for them and results in conduct disorders. Only a few can successfully cope with a low self-esteem and rejection. Being a celebrity is a double-edged sword. A celebrity is punished by a loss of face and rejection.

He is abusive if...

  • He does not listen to you or respect the boundaries of your personal space. Shows hostile feeling for women and proclaims that women are meant to please and serve men. Or he drinks heavily and takes drugs. He is inappropriately possessive.

  • Demonstrates a desire for excessive control and comments on your clothes, figure, body parts and remarks on how men look at you.

  • Has bouts of bad temper and keeps tabs on you. Plays on your guilt and even reinforces it by making unreasonable demands as far as sex is concerned. Is only concerned with the satisfaction of his own desires and shows utter disregard to your sensitivities. May call you too uptight or a prude.

  • Puts you down in front of family, friends and even acquaintances. Is a maladjusted adult and has other dysfunctional relationships as well.

  • Has been abused as a child. This makes him four times more prone to be an abusive parent and partner. Uses his fists more than his reason.