People often ask why did she not leave the abusive relationship? Why did she stay so long? Was she enjoying the abuse? Often when people ask these questions, it not only blames the victim but puts them in a position that screams nobody believes them.
In the same line, when victims are asked such questions, it not only demoralises them, but it also gives the perpetrator a power boost to continue to do it to someone else.
Now, I am no expert when it comes to relationships, but this is my understanding of the whole process. Abusive relationships have what is called coercive control. What this does is, it manifests in stages where the victim hardly notices anything wrong with it, until it is too late.
What is coercive control and what are the stages? Coercive control refers to a pattern of controlling behaviour that creates an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. These behaviours give the perpetrator power over their partner, making it difficult for them to leave.
Abusers first start with coercive control through the victim’s friends. They would say things like, ‘you are always with ABC and D. Can you limit the time you spend with them?’ The abuser will do this in such a subtle manner that the victim sees nothing wrong with it because they want to make their person happy and keep the relationship going. Often, this first stage is done during the honeymoon phase, where the victim is likely to agree because they are in a state of ‘like’. As a result, the victim would limit contact with the close friends that the abuser asked her to stay away from.
During this stage, apart from limiting the victim’s interaction with friends, the abusive person may exert control by deciding what the victim wears, where they go, who they socialise with, what they eat and drink, and what activities they take part in. The controlling person may also demand or gain access to the partner’s computer, cell phone, or email account. In order to not appear controlling, the perpetrator may also try to convince their partner that they want to check up on them because they love them. However, this behaviour is not part of a healthy or loving relationship.
Secondly, the abuser will use emotional manipulation to get to the victim. This is often done in such a manner that the abuser will use insults to undermine a person’s self-esteem. This may involve name-calling, highlighting a person’s insecurities, or putting them down. Eventually, the person experiencing this abuse may start to feel as though they deserve the insults. As a means of disguising their abusive mannerisms, the abuser would soothe the victim by gaslighting them. In this instance, they would often use phrases like, “look what you made me do.” “You made me be mean to you because of” A, B and C. They do this, knowing very well that the victim will feel guilty and apologise. This automatically makes the victim fear and worship the abuser.
Thirdly, physical abuse would then come into play. When the physical abuse happens, the first two stages contribute heavily to the victim not leaving. This is because, when it starts, the victim has been isolated from their immediate friends by the abuser, and secondly, they worship this person and are made to believe that the abuse is their fault. Automatically, this means that they have no one to tell, and they live in constant fear of the abuser killing them or doing something that will terribly harm them.
When all these three stages finally manifest, the victim will always be going back to their abuser, making excuses for their abuser and in general, just cut off friends because of the abuser’s manipulation. As such, we need to understand that, it is not an easy space to be in. And as much as this perhaps sounds wrong to say, often, victims leave on their own. There is very little that someone on the outside can do to make a victim leave the relationship. So, be kinder, be a listening ear and never ask why they are not leaving.
• Frieda Mukufa’s lifestyle section concentrates on women-related issues and parenting every Friday in the New Era newspaper. She also specialises in editing research proposals, proofreading as well as content creation.