What you need to know about Intimate Partner Violence: Part 4

Trigger Warning: Intimate Partner Violence

We like to think that if we’re careful, we could prevent horrible things happening to us. And this makes sense, doesn’t it? We wear seatbelts, cross from pedestrian lights, lock our doors at night and we’ve been told all about stranger danger as children. So when disclosing one’s experience of being on the receiving end of violence, someone will invariably ask, “But didn’t you see the signs early in the relationship?”

The difficulty of recognizing intimate partner violence lies in the subtle covertness with which it creeps in. Slowly but deftly, the abuser sets up a regime of unwritten rules, laying a series of hidden traps and planting mines in the field of this relationship. The abuser doesn’t come with a warning sign on his back. On the contrary, he comes with grand gestures of love and charm that could sell ice to a polar bear. He wants to spend time with you, he takes an interest in everything you do, he gives you a lift to work and back on most weekdays, so you won’t need to use public transport in a pandemic, and in a world of Tinder hook ups, this guy wants commitment. He asks you to move in with him and start a family. He works hard so you won’t have to. You can stay home and raise a family just like you’ve always wanted to. This is a picture perfect romance. Isn’t it?

We could say that dating, or the early days of a relationship are like a marketing pitch. Each person is trying to entice the other to ‘buy in’. But the abuser’s pitch is a scam, and when a scam looks this genuine, you easily get sucked in. Just like any scammer, an abuser singles you out. They target you because you are kind, you have empathy, you long to be loved, you are still young and perhaps a bit inexperienced. They already know you are more likely to want to please, to give second chances and to eventually become dependent in some way.

Slowly, he starts putting you down in front of family and friends. He’s only joking of course. “You shouldn’t get upset”. If you do, “you just have no sense of humour!” If you want to talk about it when you get home, “you’re making a storm in a teacup. Get over yourself.” He’ll advise you on what you should or shouldn’t do, and if you don’t take his advice, “you’re being silly”, “stubborn”, or “stupid.” If you show you are upset by crying, “You’re pathetic. Get a grip”. When you bring things up with your friends, they tell you that all relationships have ups and downs. It can’t be rosy every day, they say. “Check your expectations”. Your best-friend suggests it could be work related stress, and your mother reminds you that he always comes home to you at the end of the day, implying that this is a small price to pay. And the first time you try to break it off, he changes, he becomes his old self, he’s sorry, he doesn’t know what gets into him, he needs you, he doesn’t know how he can live without you. Because of all the self-doubt, the subtle gaslighting, the diminished self-esteem, the pressure to forgive, you brush it aside as a rough patch and turn a new leaf. The man you fell in love with is back.

Statistically, women will try to leave 7 times before succeeding.

Over time, the insults get worse, the confrontation more edgy, more severe. They become more frequent. His control tightens until it is hard to make decisions for yourself, hard to speak, hard to breathe. He finally controls everything. And each time you try to leave, he threatens to hurt you or kill you. He tells you that he knows just how he will do it, and that he knows he will get away with it. Or perhaps that he doesn’t care if he goes to prison.

Increasingly severe physical beatings are used to intimidate, punish and cause victims to be terrorised. Attempted strangulation and rape are manifestations of total control over the victim’s body and total control over her life. When she finally leaves for good, he doesn’t accept her choice to end the relationship and he starts to stalk her, call her incessantly and switch between begging her to go back, threatening to kill himself, threatening to make her life a living hell and threatening to killing her.

These are all major risk factors, big giant red flags. They are showing that the situation is very dangerous. It’s on all of us to recognise them when we see them at any stage and ask the question: Is everything ok at home?

Recognising these risk factors is not only useful to the victim, but it is important that those practitioners and professionals working with the victim, the abuser or the children can recognize them too and know how to talk about the issue and where to refer. Specialists in domestic violence support are trained to understand risk and support the victim to plan for safety. It is important to understand that leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim of violence. One look at the femicides that happen globally and in our own backyard clearly show this. As friends and family who care, we cannot rush the victim to ‘just leave’. Leaving requires a bit of planning and strategy to do so as safely as possible.

How can you help?

If you are a practitioner or any professional that works with families, including children, who could be in such a situation, consider getting yourself some training.

If you are a friend, family member or colleague, you can support in a number of ways. Always think of safety first:

  • Be a non-judgmental shoulder to cry on
  • Accompany her to specialist services or help her find resources online if it is safe to do so
  • Offer to keep an emergency bag of essentials at your home for her

If you or a loved one are in a toxic relationship and need help, please reach out to the national crisis support service, the Domestic Violence Unit at Appogg by calling 179.

You may also use the following services: Violet Chat vso.org.mt, WRF Legal Advice Freephone 8006 2149

For training on domestic violence, risk and the DASH Assessment Tool contact SkillifyMe on 77356059