Maverick Life


Slow-burn: Acknowledging and surviving intimate partner violence and abusive relationships

Image: CDD20 / Pixabay
By Téa Bell
14 Dec 2021 0

This year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence might have come to an end but crimes against women are a perpetual problem that demands our attention year-round. Here, we look at the warning signs of an abusive relationship, why leaving one is so difficult, and what to do if you or someone you know is in one.

The context

On 24 November 2021, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released a sobering report which revealed that one in two women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime or know another woman who has. Moreover, the report found that the global incidence of domestic abuse has increased over the past two years. The report speculates that this is, in large part, because women were confined to the same physical spaces as their abusers while global lockdowns were implemented to curb the spread of Covid-19.

According to the World Health Organization, the most prevalent perpetrators of gender-based violence are not strangers or acquaintances of women but their current, or former, male intimate partners. Abuse within relationships, or intimate partner violence, is defined as “forms of violence against women [including] physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviours by an intimate partner”.

The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women delineates the various forms that abuse can take in relationships: emotional or psychological, financial or economic, and emotional or financial. More often than not, multiple forms of abuse exist in the relationship at once and the onset of one form of abuse tends to pave the way for another.

What abuse looks like in relationships

Emotional abuse involves demeaning a person’s sense of self-worth by humiliating them, undermining their abilities, isolating them from their social networks, threatening violence and playing psychological “mind games” with them, usually by guilt-tripping or gaslighting their victim. An abuser gaslights their victim when they try to make them doubt their perception of reality and invalidate their feelings by attributing them to the victim’s “oversensitivity” rather than take responsibility for the abusers’ own wrongdoing. They might say things like “you’re blowing this out of proportion”, “you’re so needy” or “that never happened”.

A lesser-known form of intimate partner violence (IPV) is financial or economic abuse. The motive is to keep the victim financially dependent on the abuser so that the victim begins to rely on them for their children’s or their own livelihood. It usually involves the abuser maintaining tight control over their partner’s economic resources, withholding access to funds, or prohibiting them from getting a job.

Clinical sexologist, relationship expert and trauma counsellor, Dr Marlene Wasserman, describes a case of financial abuse that one of her clients is experiencing in her marriage:

“After she goes shopping, her husband will sit her down in a restaurant or a coffee shop and go through each and every item on the receipt and question why she bought it – it’s very subtle but that’s incredibly financially abusive.”

Physical and sexual violence are slightly different but closely linked. Sexual abuse in relationships occurs when the abuser forces their partner to engage in sexual acts without their overt consent. Physical violence involves the abuser inflicting physical pain on their victim, denying them medical care, forcing them to take substances against their will, or throwing and breaking objects near them.

While physical and sexual violence may manifest more blatantly than financial and emotional abuse and thus might seem easier to identify, Wasserman explains that this isn’t necessarily the case; what could be written off as “kinky bedroom play” might be a predecessor to more life-threatening forms of IPV.

“When I have a client come in, I do an assessment around abuse. I’ll ask them if they’ve experienced any abuse in the relationship and they’ll say, ‘no but we’re kind of rough with each other, sometimes we have pillow fights and he pushes the pillow into my face a little too hard and sometimes it becomes pushing up against a wall’. I’ll prompt them further and then they might describe how their partner is aggressive towards the children or will punch their fist through a door when they’re angry or regularly get in trouble with the law… That all hints at a tinder waiting to go off.” 

‘Why don’t they just leave?’ – the subtle and insidious trajectory of an abusive relationship

It’s probably one of the most commonly asked questions when the issue of intimate partner violence is raised. Unfortunately, for victims of abusive relationships, it’s rarely this simple.

One of the reasons people stay is because they don’t realise that their relationship is abusive until the abuse has festered for years and eventually becomes undeniable, to the point where their lives are undoubtedly in danger

Abusive relationships are sometimes described as “slow burn” by people who have survived them; the relationship can start out as extremely loving, and abuse creeps in gradually and furtively.

In her TED Talk, “Why domestic violence victims don’t leave”, abuse survivor Leslie Steiner describes how the warning signs of imminent violence were completely absent at the beginning of the relationship with her abuser.

“If you had told me that this smart, funny, sensitive man who adored me would one day dictate whether or not I wore make-up, how short my skirts were, where I lived, what jobs I took, who my friends were, and where I spent Christmas, I would have laughed at you because there was not a hint of violence or control or anger [in him] at the beginning. I didn’t know that the first stage in any domestic violence relationship is to seduce and charm the victim.”

What Steiner experienced is commonly referred to as “love bombing” and it is often a predecessor to abuse.

“One of the red flags of abusive relationships is that there’s immediately too much too soon. It’s not like a regular courtship where there’s a mutual and flowing, steady pace. There’s a feeling of really being overwhelmed by this person’s love and attention,” explains Wasserman, adding that this abundance of “love” is always short-lived.

“The narrative changes and this process of isolation begins, it becomes: ‘I care for your safety so I don’t think that you should be going out at night with your friends, or ‘I love you so I get to decide who’s good for you.’”

After the abuser has isolated the victim, their next step usually involves keeping tight tabs on the victim’s movements and activities by tracking, for example, their partner’s location and internet activity through non-consensual spyware installed on their devices. Wasserman says abusers often forbid their victims from going out with certain people or to certain places, masking their actions as “concern” for their partners’ safety.

Violent outbursts of behaviour followed by love bombing, pleas of apology, and promises to do better become a cyclical pattern of behaviour in abusive relationships. Through doing this, the abuser keeps their victim hooked and instils a false sense of hope that things might change if they give their partner more time. In reality it almost never does.

Perhaps the most pervasive reason victims stay in abusive relationships is that they fear what might happen to them, or the people they love, if they try to leave. 

This fear is not unfounded. According to the National Center for Health Research in the US, a woman’s life is most at risk after she tries to end the relationship with her abuser.

“The risk of them being murdered is higher when they leave than if they stay. If they stay, they have a chance of surviving and actually keeping the children alive,” says Wasserman.

What to do if you are being abused

On 2 December 2021, Swazi-South African actress and entrepreneur Amanda du-Pont uploaded a video to her Instagram page sharing the story of how her former intimate partner, Molemo Maarohanye (Jub Jub), allegedly abused her throughout their two-year relationship.

“I was raped, physically and emotionally… [Maarohanye] forcefully opened my legs and forced [himself] onto me… and made me believe that I had no way out… I just wish I had more information about how to get out and what to do when it happens to you,” says Du-Pont.

Du-Pont described how the crippling fear of Maarohanye and what he might do to her if she tried to escape kept her trapped in the relationship. She says she eventually decided to leave when she realised her life was hanging by a thread, and her abuser held the string.

“I left because he tried to kill me: he tried to suffocate me,” says Du-Pont.

The danger of leaving an abusive relationship is very real but it does not mean there is no way out of it; you can escape and you must escape, but it needs to be done cautiously and strategically.

“You must be prepared and you have to have a plan,” cautions Wasserman, suggesting that you secure some sort of financial independence from your abuser before attempting to leave. Seeking employment is one option but this can be extremely difficult if your partner is financially abusive and forbids you from doing so. In such cases, Wasserman recommends discretely putting aside a portion of whatever allowance your abuser gives you every week/month to build up savings over time.

The Office on Women’s Health provides a free, online, interactive resource to develop a safety plan to help prepare for your escape.

The recommendations include: Making sure that a car is fuelled up and parked in the driveway facing the gate so you can make a quick exit; memorising a list of emergency contact numbers; identifying a safe place to go like trusted a friend’s house or a shelter; packing a bag with essential items, and taking anything with you that can be used as evidence of abuse.

Before ending the relationship, try to reach out to the “right” people and organisations so that you have a support network in place when you do manage to leave i.e. friends, family and organisations who will listen to you, believe your experience, and are willing to help you.

In sharing her story, Du-Pont described how many of her friends failed to support her or disregarded her experience when she reached out for help.

“I hear it all the time, women will say, ‘but my friends say that he’s such a good guy, he’s so loving towards you and the kids – how can you think of leaving him?’ That’s the worst thing that you can say to someone who is being abused,” explains Wasserman. Doing so invalidates the abuse victim’s experience and exacerbates the sense of isolation that their abuser has already tried to instil in them.

To make matters worse, the victim seemingly takes all the “correct” steps in attempting to escape her abuser by reporting her case to the police or calling an emergency helpline – but still receives little help.

Du-Pont explains that she tried to open a case against Maarohanye at her local police station but the officer on duty was reluctant to do so, telling Du-Pont she was “sick and tired of women reporting their boyfriends only to take them back”, and advised her to “go home and think about [her] decision”.

If you have had a similar experience, it’s important not to feel discouraged. There are people in your life who will believe you and organisations specifically established to provide you with shelter, ensure your safety and offer trauma counselling.

Helpful resources

The National Shelter Movement of South Africa offers accommodation in every province for women and their children who have been victims of abuse.

They have a 24-hour, toll-free helpline: 0800 001 005.

The Warrior Project’s website offers a range of helpful resources to abused women, including guidelines about their rights under the Constitution and Domestic Violence Act, step-by-step instructions on how to report abuse cases to the police, and an extensive list of emergency contacts and helplines – all of which operate during lockdown. DM/ML


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