“At first it felt like I was a helpless toddler being picked up gently by the nicest man in the world.
Coddled, caressed and loved, I forgot my entire life before him. But suddenly, without any explanation, the same man callously dropped me and left me without any remorse whatsoever. Addicted to his attention, I wanted him back. When he finally did pick me up again, I was so enraged by his previous behaviour that I treated him badly too, and once again, he’d break up with me. And of course, I’d long to go back to him. Like two psychopaths, we carried on like this at least five hundred times in a two-year-long relationship. Until, one day, he dropped me so hard that my head spun around and I finally had the courage to break the cycle,” says Hanniya Siddique, a twenty-seven-year old copywriter at a multinational advertising agency, sharing the highs and lows of a disturbed relationship she had with a man when she was in her early twenties.
Many people reading Hanniya’s account will blame her for being stupid enough to stay in a toxic relationship for so long. But don’t we all wonder what really makes successful, smart and educated women like Hanniya stay in relationships like this? And why do they leave one toxic relationship only to find themselves in a similar situation with a different man later on in life?
Toxic relationships, like other addictions, only get worse with time. Hanniya isn’t the only independent, successful woman who has been caught in such a situation. We read about examples every day: Rihanna, the young singer-songwriter, broke out of a toxic relationship with Chris Brown only recently, after being repeatedly assaulted by him. Even our favourite F.r.i.e.n.d Jennifer Aniston has been caught up in dead-end relationships ever since her divorce from Brad Pitt. From 2008 to 2009, she was in an on-again, off-again relationship with serial playboy John Mayer. None of these women are lacking in common sense, low on self-esteem or desperately in need of a man to complete them. So how did they end up falling into these relationships?
Laying on the charm
Sara Hussein, a former NYU student who works at her father’s business says: “It’s got to be the charm. Toxic men have an appeal about them that is undeniably strong. And they’re so unpredictable that they make your head spin. One moment they are writing a song about your beauty and the next minute, they could be sexting [a term used for sending explicit text messages/pictures] your best friend.”
Charm and unpredictability are a dangerous combination. And what’s the real meaning of ‘charm’ anyway? It actually means to put a spell on someone or deceive them. For some reason, the word has a more positive connotation associated with it today than its obvious negative meaning. No one wants to be deceived, right? Don’t we all want the truth as it is?
At the same time, unpredictability is an addictive drug. Contextually speaking, unpredictability is the complete and utter loss of control. A psychologist tells me that most people who have an obsessive control over a certain area of life, let’s say their career, may seek to completely lose this sense of control in their romantic life. This new-found freedom is so addictive that many will ride this rollercoaster for several years.
The negative or positive feelings resulting from this addictive combination of charm and unpredictability can be a source of brain stimulation. To test this, researchers in the 1950s conducted an interesting, albeit evil, experiment on rats. Each time a group of rats pressed a lever, they received a treat in the form of electrical stimulation of the brain. The rats were so addicted to this stimulation that they would press the lever constantly, until they collapsed from fatigue. After a while, this stimulation was changed to painful electric shocks. The rats were so addicted to the previous stimulation that they would keep going back to the lever again and again, hoping that the shocks would be replaced with something sweeter eventually. The shocks, unfortunately, were never replaced and all the rats died in this futile pursuit.
No scars to show
Most of us generally think of abuse in terms of physical assault — slapping, bruising, pushing and shoving someone around. How can a crime be worth reporting if there are no scars or bruises to show for it? And in fact, emotional abuse is often so imperceptible that we only realise that we were victimised when we have left the relationship altogether. The silent treatment, sudden or temporary abandonment, the small put-downs, when combined, can wreak havoc on a person’s self-esteem. As opposed to victims of physical abuse, who can see and feel their pain, victims of emotional abuse have nothing to show for their suffering.
“He ate my heart, and then he ate my brain.” (“Monster” — Lady Gaga)
The best depiction of emotional abuse in popular culture can be found in the film Gaslight. Ingrid Bergmen starred in the film, and won an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman, Paula, who is slowly manipulated by her husband into believing that she is insane.
This film became so popular that it gave birth to the term “gaslighting”, a form of psychological abuse often used on torture or war victims. The abuser usually makes false information available to the victim in order for them to start doubting their own memory and perceptions. An interesting tactic employed is the complete denial by an abuser that a previous abusive episode ever took place. If the abuser is even smarter, they will stage certain bizarre events to completely disorient the victim. In the film Gaslight, the husband, Gregory, staged certain events such as hiding a painting or item of jewelry and blamed his wife for losing it. He removed things such as letters from her family that she had seen a while ago herself and most importantly, caused the gas light to flicker, while dismissing it as a figment of her imagination when she aired her concerns.
When the abuser is trying to claw their way into a victim’s life, cutting ties with loved ones is integral. If the victim has a strong support network, they are bound to break free from the abuser when their loved ones point out the abusive strategies employed by the abuser. If the victim is caught alone, and constant abusive episodes take place, they are more likely to think that maybe they made a bigger deal of the abuse than it really was, they might deny that it happened altogether or they may think they deserve it.
Most intelligent abusers do not tell the victim to cut ties with their loved ones completely. Instead, they belittle the victim’s family members or ridicule their gestures until the victim starts thinking that she doesn’t need their support at all.
Forgetting the good times
“Even when I realised that the charm and unpredictability hid a monster inside, I still kept going back to him, hoping with all my heart that we could somehow go back to the good old days,” says Hussein, with a heavy heart.
For most, it is difficult to admit to oneself that the entire experience was an illusion which was carefully crafted by another person to lure them out of their comfort zone. The hope that things might change, or the denial that a problem exists can last a lifetime. Even worse, some people may jump out of one toxic relationship into another. Imagine riding a rollercoaster your entire life — would you ever get used to standing on steady feet?
“After fighting so hard with my parents, who rightly pointed out from the start that he was trouble, I couldn’t admit to myself that I was wrong about him all along,” says the now happily married Siddique.
Facing the truth means realising that you were played by another person, like an object or a lifeless piece in a chess game. Coming to terms with that is the most difficult part of recovery. For others, normal relationships which do not feel like hostage situations are almost boring. Normalcy in relationships seems too easy and dull.
“Watching romantic films convinced me that love is never easy. I thought you could never be in love with someone unless it is an all-consuming, self-destructive fire of passion. So when my significant other acted selfishly and coldly towards me, I took it in stride as one of the many challenges one has to face in love,” Hussein continues.
The need for closure
A lot of times, we are unable to cut off contact with the abuser because he or she never gives us true closure. As a society, we seek an explanation, a scientific reason or even a superficial justification for everything. Things that leave us dumbfounded intrigue us forever.
“Each time he left me without a reason or even a call, I would try to get over it for a few months. Then, one day some small reminder of him would make me go back for some sort of explanation for his horrid behavior. He would lay on the charm, I would try to forget what happened between us and we would be back in love again,” remembers Siddique.
True recovery only happens when one gives up the need for closure. With a disordered or toxic person, one can never truly attain closure. This is difficult to do because they never want you to close the door on them forever. If you do, they can never come back into your life whenever they choose.
“One day, out of nowhere he came back on his own and asked for forgiveness. By this time, I had figured him all out and told him exactly how bad he had made me feel through the years and there was no way I could be pulled back into his predatory cycle. Instead of admitting he had been wrong, he went ballistic and blamed me for everything that happened. I slammed the phone down on him and have never spoken to him since,” says Hussein.
The only way to recover from this abuse is to cut ties with the abuser altogether. Walking out without saying a single word is hard, but it is the only way to survive. One must remember that if the purpose of not being in touch with the abuser is to teach the abuser a lesson or to get him or her to realise their mistake, then no real recovery will take place.
“Once I walked out, I met a wonderful loving man and realised that loving someone is freeing; it doesn’t feel like a
painful obsession,” concludes Siddique.
*The names of the victims have been altered to protect their privacy.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine May 22nd, 2011.
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