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Why do women find it difficult to leave toxic relationships?

That’s the question many are asking as details emerge of Shraddha Walkar trauma in her toxic relationship with Aaftab Poonawala. The answer is complex — often it may appear to a woman that the cost of leaving may be even worse than that of continuing to suffer abuse.

Aaftab Poonawala allegedly chopped up his partner Shraddha Walkar's body into multiple pieces. (File Photos)

Recent revelations about Shraddha Walkar’s life with her live-in partner Aaftab Poonawala, who allegedly threatened and beat her for perhaps two years before killing her this May and chopping up her body in many pieces, have had many people asking questions on Shraddha’s decision to stay on with her abusive partner.

“Why didn’t she just leave?”, they are wondering.

There are multiple reasons why many women end up remaining in abusive relationships for a long time. Their circumstances, conditioning, societal constraints, and response to toxic patriarchy all have a role to play, say experts and counsellors who have studied such relationships closely.

Denial of freedom of choice

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Chhote kapde mat pehno (Don’t wear short clothes), Bhaiya ko saath leke jao (Take your brother along with you), Ladko se baat mat karo (Don’t talk to boys).

Most Indian girls have heard some — sometimes all — of these lines while growing up. Often these demands — from parents, the extended family, neighbours, and society at large — are so persistent and powerful that living life in defiance of them does not even seem like an option. Girls and women are expected to do what’s already been decided for them, blindly, unquestioningly, unflinchingly.

Women who do choose to break out, and perhaps enter into a relationship with a partner they have chosen for themselves, do so at their own peril. Not only do they run the risk of being accused of bringing shame to their family and society, they also sometimes end up burning the bridges to turn back in case the relationship goes wrong, and perhaps becomes toxic as Shraddha’s did.

Ostracised and humiliated, many women find themselves trapped between an abusive partner and an unsympathetic society that does not give them the liberty to make mistakes.

Psychologist Manissha Sajnani says women often suffer from cognitive dissonance — confusion and mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. In this case, a woman wants to come out of the toxic relationship but she can’t because her parents won’t accept her, hence she tries to adjust.

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Jaspreet Kaur, a student of political science who has studied feminist literature as a sub-discipline, pointed out the difference in societal attitudes towards men, as opposed to women, going wrong in their choice of partners.

“If a man’s choice goes wrong, in all probability, people would call it bad luck. ‘They chose a partner, it did not work out; they were unlucky.’ But when it comes to women, there is no element of luck or chance involved — it is always them making mistakes, them making wrong decisions. And they have to suffer for breaking out of the norm. The refrain is, ‘We told you so’, ‘If you try to be deviant, this would be your fate’,” Jaspreet said.

The grip of patriarchy

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Many women say they have been conditioned to accept certain things as “normal”. From a very young age, they are told that they cannot manage things on their own, and that they would always need a father, brother, or a husband to protect them. It’s like Plato’s allegory of the cave: A psychology is built up by continuously affirming it to the girl that she is weaker, lesser than boys.

Experts say that given this conditioning, when some women enter into a relationship, they end up naturally seeing themselves as inferior to their partner, whom they tend to put on a pedestal. Toxic traits of the partner are often forgiven, or they go unnoticed.

Professor S Anandhi, who teaches gender studies at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, said, “Heteronormative relationships come with such an enormous cultural baggage that they tend to discourage the autonomy of a woman to have an identity of her own.”

The patriarchal narrative about men being protectors is glorified by society, which makes it difficult for women to recognise and acknowledge toxic relationships and to muster the courage and determination to move out.

Since popular media portray the unequal relationship of power between the male and female partner as “romantic”, it may sometimes appear to women that it is “normal” for their partners to restrict their dressing choices, to not allow them to have male friends, or to restrict their mobility. The glorification of subordination actually ends up making it look even desirable.

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“The toxic traits of patriarchy are wrapped in a cover of care, protection and alpha behaviour,” Jaspreet Kaur said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a young woman who has recently come out of a toxic relationship said: “Even when I tried to come out of the relationship, the conditioning that men protect us loomed so large that I would end up unseeing his toxic traits.”

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Shraddha Walkar was allegedly chopping up her body in many pieces by her boyfriend Aaftab Poonawala.

The sense of emotional stability

Sometimes women who have had traumatic experiences at home, look for a source of emotional stability outside it.

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Said the woman who is now free of her toxic relationship: “There were so many traumatic experiences at home that when I found a semblance of love or stability, I clung on to it, even when it started to hurt me.”

This in fact, is a fairly common story, say experts and counsellors: To escape an existing harsh or unpleasant situation, women are willing to make compromises with abusive behaviour. At times, it also becomes a kind of psychological need or necessity to stay.

There are other reasons too: the unequal power relations between men and women, the normalisation of violence by society, the denial of access to public spaces, the absence of people to talk to, the trauma that many girls carry into adulthood without they being ever addressed, teachings of religious leaders that tend to reinforce the belief that men are the caretakers of women, and the stigma that is attached to a woman who walks out of a relationship — all work to build a case for staying on in a relationship, even if it is toxic. In this bargain, walking out entails a heavy loss, and personal, intimate, and social trauma that many women are intimidated by.

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 14:31 IST
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