The Stereotype of Abusers as ‘Bad People’ May Prevent Survivors from Recognizing Real-Life Abuse

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This is the third article in a three-part series on the psychology behind abuse survivors who are often unable to escape – or even acknowledge – the abuse within their relationships.


Leaving your abusive partner isn’t easy due to a variety of factors, ranging from financial and cultural constraints to social shame, the emotional attachment one can feel towards your abusive partner – and finally, the fact that the survivors may struggle to recognize their experiences as abusive. Pop culture, and its unrealistic portrayal of abuse, often plays a role in it.

On the one hand, countless films like Daraar, Daman, Agni Sakshi, and Mehndi try to portray the justice given to survivors of abuse by portraying their “wicked” attackers dying in a moment of cathartic glory. In contrast, more recent films like Bulbul and Oudan – which do not end with the death of the abuser – always present their characters in the same way: as one-dimensional “bad” people. In Mehndi, for example, not only was Rani Mukherji’s on-screen husband violent towards her, he was also violent towards the only queer character in the film as well as her parents, bribed and harassed women . But by portraying abusers as people whose only trait is to be abusive, the movies tend to promote harmful stereotypes about abuse.

The first batch suggests that the only recourse available to survivors is to uphold law and order and confront their abuser – except that survivors don’t often. want to clashes; they just want the trauma to end, according to Diane Shoos, associate professor at Michigan Technical University in the United States, who has written a book on portrayals of domestic violence in movies and its impact on how people view violence. violence.

Second, the very idea that an abuser is evil embodied – so much so that he doesn’t deserve to live – may actually prevent survivors from acknowledging the abuse, let alone leaving their abusive partner. Human beings – even abusers – are not one-dimensional characters. In real life, in intimate relationships, even abusive ones, people are aware of the many facets of their partners, including the vulnerable aspects of their personalities. This can make it difficult for them to reconcile the image of their partner with that of a stereotypical abuser.

Samantha, 25, struggled to recognize the emotional abuse she faced in her relationship because her partner had the “ability to empathize with different causes.” He joined her to feed and care for the stray animals, opened his home to friends who were new to the city so they had a place to stay until they found their own. house and seemed accommodating to people. “He seemed to really care,” she recalls.


Related to The Swaddle:

We have abused the word “abuse”. Here is why it is hurting the fight for gender equality.


We’re reluctant to think that the person we love might not be the right person for us. “We don’t like information that is not what we would like to believe,” says psychotherapist Zohra Master, associate member and supervisor of the Albert Ellis Institute. She explained that this leads to a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance – where even though one recognizes harmful patterns in their partner’s behavior, which they otherwise believe to be “an amazing person”, they find ways to rationalize behavior and say to themselves that it only seems problematic when taken “out of context”, that it was “just a one-time thing” and that they were “just stressed”, or even that it is not “as bad as relationships with other people” they know.

This inherent resistance is exacerbated by the unrealistic notion that we have abusers, which abusers usually do not embody simply because of the fact that they are human beings and, therefore, have multi-faceted personalities. Because her partner seemed to be a “good person” outside of the relationship, “I blamed his behavior towards me on his negative experiences in his past relationship… I thought it would be better if I behaved differently. But it was never enough, ”Samantha says. “It wasn’t until I went to the psychiatrist that I found out that I was being abused.”

As Master notes, “someone can be a really great person and act like a really shitty boyfriend – both at the same time.” She thinks it’s helpful for people to remember that their partner doesn’t have to be an absolutely horrible person for them to end their relationship.

Abusers can also be “very charismatic, have a circle that seems to like them,” says Samriti Makkar Midha, a psychotherapist based in Mumbai. This can lead to the questioning whether they are the ones who are overthinking their partner’s behavior – especially since they don’t see their partner fitting the image of a stereotypical abuser.

What further complicates matters is that media representations tend to normalize abusive behavior – especially that which seeks to control women – when they do not demonize it right away. Pop culture has often tolerated the attempt to control one’s partner and violate personal boundaries as an expression of love in movies like Tere Naam, Rehnaa Hai Land Dil Mein, and more recently Kabir singh – who rationalized the abuse by redeeming a “violent and destructive misogynist” as a “good-hearted man” who “loves purely” and “wears his emotions on his sleeve,” as BBC News described it.

This normalization of abusive behavior extends beyond the reels and into real life as well. “When a woman is’ asked ‘about her whereabouts – like,’ where were you? who were you talking to why did you go out so late? – it seems Ordinary because she probably grew up seeing the men in her family asking these questions of their female partners, ”says Midha. This can make survivors wonder if what they are going through is violence or if they are overreacting to their partner’s care and affection.


Related to The Swaddle:

Why survivors of sexual abuse often have distorted or delayed memories


The cinema tends either to normalize the abuses or to demonize them completely. However, in the non-fictional world, abuse often exists in between these two extremes – contrary to our understanding of abuse, which can be largely influenced by pop culture. But “kindness” and abuse are not mutually exclusive.

It’s not just the one-dimensional portrayal of an abuser that can make it difficult for survivors to recognize abuse in their relationships – the way people have been conditioned to think about survivors also plays a role here. The idea that an abused person is powerless, helpless, and dependent on the goodwill of their abuser can also make it difficult for someone. Actually are abused to recognize it – if they don’t fit that stereotype and, according to Midha, that’s a common occurrence.

“I have had clients who do so well for themselves – they are financially independent, in positions of power and authority at work, seem confident – but experience abuse at home,” she notes. .

In our rush to brand the abusers as nothing but seemingly evil, and the survivors as “bechaari– society may have denied survivors the truth about their attackers: like any other human being, they too exist in shades of gray. This not only prevented the survivors from acknowledging the abuse inflicted on them, but also allowed the perpetrators to live without being questioned for their behavior simply because they could feed stray animals from time to time, play with them. volunteering with NGOs, or in the case of Kabir singh, never love more than one woman.


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