“It’s okay, it’s my fault, don’t blame him,” my mother tells me, for the hundredth time. She’s just had another altercation with my father, and yet again, he has made her believe that she is emotionally unstable, and that she is the culpable one in this situation, despite him having incited the argument in the first place.
A couple of years back, the hashtag #WhyIStayed, started by writer Beverly Goodman, began trending on Twitter, and women from all over the world began sharing their experiences of living with domestic abuse, both mental and physical, yet failing to walk away from such relationships. While the reasons behind staying were pretty diverse, I couldn’t help but notice that in many of these personal accounts, there was a common chain of thought. “I started to believe I deserved all of it,” wrote one Twitter user.
It made me wonder. Why do so many people, my mother included, choose to remain in such a relationship? Why don’t they just walk out? After a little bit of research, I found that what makes people stay in such situations is a scarily common phenomenon – gaslighting. The act of gaslighting by the abuser guilts a person into continuing to maintain the status quo and to try and make the relationship work. Because of this, many see their own abuse as something that’s legitimate, or worse, they become ignorant of the signs of abuse.
A government report in 2015 found that nearly 40 per cent of the women in India face intimate partner violence. But that figure doesn’t include those cases that remain unreported due to stigma, and those where gaslighting plays a part.
“My husband has been rough with me for years,” says Malati, a domestic worker in her late 40s, who has been married for over twenty years. From a young age, she has been conditioned to always give in to one’s husband, and to pander to his whims, and hence, doesn’t even recognize the abuse. “I thought this was common,” she says. And sadly, there are many women who think like this.
But even for women who do realize that they are in a toxic relationship or are facing domestic abuse, walking away isn’t easy.
“My husband is emotionally abusing me, and I feel violated every day,” says Shweta*, a 35-year old homemaker, “But I can’t do anything. I can’t openly accuse or reprimand him because my family and in-laws will continue to insist that he’s a good guy, because he has never hurt me physically.”
Gaslighting, which was a term derived from a 1938 play called “The Gaslight”, has long-term psychological impacts that are catastrophic, and it’s almost always the woman who has to bear the brunt of it in a relationship because the patriarchal power equation is skewed in the favour of the man.
The process makes them direct all the blame and responsibility of the abuse upon themselves, and to question the very nature of their reality. “It is important to realize that the gaslighting does not need to be severe in order to have consequences on the victim,” says writer and psychotherapist Christine De Cannonville, “it can be as subtle as being told that ‘you are so sensitive’, or that they should not do something because ‘you are not able to do it, leave it to me’. Even though the victim can rationalize that these statements are untrue, gradually their confidence is being eroded away to such an extent that they cannot trust themselves.”
In India, the deep-rooted patriarchy within marital and familial relationships makes it nearly impossible for the woman to terminate such a toxic relationship. This becomes an issue of even deeper concern because laws like the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act of 2005 leave its definition of ‘domestic violence’ vague (it considers anything that can damage the mental or physical health of the survivor, ‘abuse’). And on the basis of this law, hardly any cases of emotional or non-physical abuse have been convicted, or even seen as grounds for divorce.
Sadly, therefore, not only are these women continuously gaslighted by their partners to remain within their emotionally abusive relationships, Indian patriarchy marginalizes and silences them even further.