Creating Safe Spaces

Saturdays With Shivani

Every time I read a post on domestic abuse it leaves me with a tinge of sadness. Most of them are nameless and faceless people who linger in my mind as I wonder what they finally chose to do. I may not comment there but they are in my thoughts as I pray for them to have the courage to move out of the abusive relationship.

However, when it happens to someone I know, I realise the impact is much worse. There is an urge to jump in and do something to fix the situation. Since that is usually not possible, I find myself waiting in the wings, seething in my helpless rage. I may not have any personal experience of abuse but from the few personal accounts that I have heard, what is most striking is their silent acceptance.

Domestic abuse often comes from a place of love or at least where love was expected. There is an initial disbelief and they don’t even realise when they start walking on eggshells around their abuser. It is appalling for me to see that they can go to any lengths to avoid conflicts. This only means shrinking to fit into the allotted space, being trampled over and to eventually becoming invisible.

This constant adjustment extracts its price. Every time they step back, every time they allow a personal invasion, they give up a piece of themselves in turn settling for an inferior version of themselves till a point of time where they are unable to recognize ourselves. I have witnessed this insidious transformation that creeps over ever so silently and takes over the person.

I am not a therapist and I admit that I used to find it tough to believe how such smart, intelligent, capable women accepted the abuse in the first place. Why didn’t they take a stand? Why didn’t they put up a good fight? My questions weren’t answered satisfactorily until I realized that if I would shut up, at some point they talked.

When I listened, I began to understand how their initial disbelief gave way to a sense of hurt and betrayal. Throw in intimidation and fear in the mix and that was enough to immobilize and discourage many. Often women lack the wherewithal to be independent but even if walking away is a choice, it doesn’t come easy to them. There is often a sense of shame, misplaced as it may be, that paralyses them into inaction.

While experts maintain that staying in a relationship for the sake of children is always a bad idea, it is understandable that having children in the equation makes it difficult to circumvent the abusive situation. What has been hardest for me to understand is how some of the victims still harbour love for the perpetrator. I don’t judge them for that any longer but I have to say I still find it tough to wrap my head around this.

Before I end this, how can I not mention the most massive deterrent of them all- our patriarchal culture? I have seen even the most progressive and supportive parents buckle under its pressure. The judgemental attitude and an inherent attempt to fix the blame on girls is heart breaking for the victims. It is a huge blow to those who are already low on self-esteem and confidence.

From my humble experience, I feel that is where we need to start from- validating the feelings of the abused. Unless that happens, forget taking any corrective action, the abused are sometimes even incapable of acknowledging their situation. Often it is only physical abuse that gets acknowledged because it’s the easiest to be picked. Abuse of the sexual, emotional, mental or financial kind are tough to discern and even harder to prove so until we empower them to believe themselves, there is no way that they can find their way out.

I write this today, not as an expert (because I am not) but as someone who was trusted enough by abused women that they could pour their heart out to. The only reason for me to put this out today is to make us think what we can do where we are. Those who are abused need support, they need someone who can listen to them without judging them and just be there. Are we ready to move past our biases and our judgements and be their safe space? I shall leave you with it to answer it truthfully and to do the hard work that it entails.

Love and light   

Dr. Shivani Salil