(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of assault. Reader discretion advised. Names of all survivors have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Leaving an abusive or toxic relationship isn't as simple as just walking out the door.
When 34-year-old Avni was married to her former husband, the most stressful part of her day was making his tea for breakfast. She would feel a lurch in her stomach, the build-up of tension.
"It had to be perfectly hot when he took the sip – not hotter or colder. Just the perfect temperature for a sip. If it was not, the cup would go flying – and before I know it, I would be gripped with fear, guilt, and embarrassment. Many a time, the hot tea was splashed right on my face."Avni, 34
The evening after the 'outburst' was some of the best times Avni remembers having with him.
"He would come back from the office, be attentive to my needs, share our household chores – and we would again be two people completely and hopelessly in love with each other. Until the next morning, or two mornings after that. Who knows..."
Avni, who hails from an upper-middle-class family in Mumbai and works in advertising, survived the vicious cycle of intimate partner abuse – the tension build-up, explosion, and the honeymoon phase – for four years before she decided to walk out.
While lack of systemic support makes it difficult for survivors to leave toxic relationships, what goes on inside their minds? We asked psychologists to explain.
Step 1: Denial & Confusion
The first sign of abuse – the first strike, or the first instance of cutting her off from the rest of the world – is, in most cases, seen as a "one-time thing" by the survivors, Rita Mendonca, a clinical psychologist practising in Mumbai, tells FIT.
"The first time that a person is emotionally or physically assaulted by their intimate partner, there is a tension build-up to it. It is followed by an argument or a certain trigger. So, the first thought that a survivor has is that her partner was going through something and this was a one-time thing. It could be a reason as common as stress at work or something bigger like financial stress. The survivor attributes the abuse to the so-called reason and does not underline it as abuse."Rita Mendonca to FIT
Dr Kersi Chavda, a practising psychiatrist and a consultant at P.D Hinduja & Medical Research Centre, Mahim, elaborates that the one-time abuse becomes a 'once-in-a-while' occurrence, planting 'confusion' in the mind of the survivor. The context here is important, he adds: The abuser is her intimate partner, someone whom she is dependent on emotionally – making it difficult for her to walk out.
"The survivor is now confused about why the abuse is happening more frequently. But she is also forced to concentrate on the good times – because the abuser often goes the extra length to shower love and apologise. She then hopes that the abuser will stop the act. She loves him and is dependent on him emotionally."Dr Kersi Chavda to FIT
Step 2: Guilt, Trauma Bonding
When abuse becomes a regular occurrence, survivors try to find a reason for the same. More often than not, they tend to think it is themselves, Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, explains to FIT.
There are many layers to this, she says:
In this stage, the self-confidence of the survivor takes a hit
She fears that he might hurt their children or parents
She starts looking at herself more deeply, what it is that she is doing 'wrong'
In a state of shock, because this is not what she imagined the relationship to be
"The confidence of the survivor takes a massive hit here. She thinks that if she changes something about herself, then he will love her better. The more and more the abuse happens – be it physical or emotional – the more difficult it becomes to walk away because the abuser always has an explanation. He puts the blame on the survivor, guilt-tripping her into believing that she should change – and not him."Kamna Chhibber to FIT
But a crucial thing also happens at this stage – trauma bonding, which is a psychological response to abuse, elaborates Mendonca. It is a pattern where the abuser will bombard the survivor with love and attention, and force the survivor to believe that love overshadows abuse, making it difficult for her to walk out.
"She fears that if she leaves the relationship, she will not get the love that she needs. Her sense of self-worth starts disappearing, and she starts believing that she will be lost without him. At this point, some people start seeing only the 'good days', and block other memories."Rita Mendoca to FIT
Step 3: Enlightenment, Destruction of Self-Worth
At some point, survivors start to realise that what they are going through is not okay, say experts, adding that this is also at a stage where their self-worth is "completely destroyed."
When survivors reach this stage, they are usually isolated, with their friends and family having no clear picture of what actually transpires between the couple. In many cases, the survivor feels that she "deserves the abuse," making it difficult for her to walk out.
"At this stage, she has no one to tell her to walk out, and that they're there for her. Either the friends and family do not have a clear picture, or if it is a love marriage or a live-in relationship, the woman survivor feels that she is no longer capable of taking any decision – and that she has no way to care for herself. She also feels embarrassed to talk to people about the full details."Kamna Chhibber to FIT
Survivors are also forced to believe that abuse is normal – especially if their parents have also been through the cycle.
"If beyond all this, she actually reaches out to people – they ask her to compromise. She starts to think that her mother put up with it, her grandmother did, so I will too. It is a mixture of complex aspects – where she believes it is no longer at fault but it's just the normal way of life."Dr Kersi Chavda to The Quint
What Is Needed: Active Guidance & Support
"When we talk to survivors, we work a lot on their self-esteem and worthiness. A lot of them are prone to disturbances in sleep, loss of appetite, eating disorders, etc."
But that happens at a later stage. First, the need is for a safe space for survivors to speak out.
"It is easy for everyone to say why they cannot just walk out. But it is also the last thing you must say to a survivor," says Dr Chavda. Instead:
Get her care – a third-party safe space with whom she can talk without the fear of being judged
Ask how she can be supported once she chooses to leave
Ask whether she has the financial means to walk out