As a young girl doted on and pampered by her family, Maheen* always imagined that life with her husband would be a bed of roses, and looked forward to marriage with rose-tinted glasses.
Her dreams were soon shattered. Soon after her wedding, her husband began isolating her from her friends and family, finding fault with those she was closest to. He monitored her phone calls, forbade her to leave the house without his express permission and perpetually kept her on her toes with his mind games. Maheen was only 18 when she got married and her husband, 16 years her senior, soon broke her spirit.
But now, after 30 years of living with psychological abuse, Maheen has finally found the strength to walk away. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says simply. Almost 50 years old, she is now trying to pick up the pieces of her life and start afresh. The overprotected, innocent young girl is now a woman who exudes a quiet determination. If there’s anything more unfathomable than a woman putting up with that kind of abuse for 30 years, it is this: at which point does one realise that one can’t take it anymore?
“Better late than never,” says Maheen wryly.
For some the liberating realisation dawns sooner. thirty-year-old Saira* spotted the signs early and realised that her husband was not going to change. “The mental torture became unbearable. Every day he would find something new to pick on me with,” she says. Having divorced her husband of five years only recently, her voice becomes remote and almost toneless as she recalls her marriage. “If it wasn’t my clothes, then it was my hair, or my cooking or the house being dirty, just something … anything.”
She pauses, then quietly says: “I went through hell; I’m relieved this is over.”
She refuses to say anything more. But Saira is highly educated and still young. She is slowly getting her life back on track: she has started working, is back in touch with her family and her friends and is slowly regaining her self-confidence.
Saira and Maheen both suffered psychological abuse at the hands of their husbands. Characterised by the wilful infliction of mental or emotional anguish by threat, humiliation, or other conduct, psychological abuse may not leave any visible scars, but its long term effect can often be more debilitating than physical aggression. Women across Pakistan face physical violence, with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reporting 163 incidents of domestic violence in 2009, a grossly under-reported figure that mostly includes beating, acid attacks, shaving and other physical assaults. Psychological abuse, on the other hand, is more of an urban phenomenon; there is scant data on this kind of torture and awareness of the issue is low.
“The urban woman in Pakistan has progressed leaps and bounds over the last two decades, from being competitive in education to achieving professional success. Many women now walk shoulder to shoulder with men, if not a little ahead,” says resident director for Aurat Foundation, Mahnaz Rahman.
But in marriage and relationships, power dynamics haven’t changed much over the years and many women are vulnerable to psychological abuse. A psychotherapist with more than nine years of experience in the area, Zohreen Murad sees many patients — almost exclusively women — dealing with psychological abuse. Most of these women know that their spouse’s behaviour is harming them, but “they keep pretending that the situation is not as bad as it seems or make excuses for his behaviour.”
Psychological abuse is all the more pernicious for being subtle. Most people are unable to grasp the magnitude of the abuse suffered by these women, including the women themselves. It is difficult to quantify or even explain the name calling and mind games that are a big part of psychological abuse, which is why many sufferers do not prioritise it, and end up living with their abuser for so long.
Mohadesa Kalantarzadeh, a psychologist with more than 17 years of experience in the field, says: “In physical aggression, you can see the scars and you can tell the extent of the damage but in cases of psychological abuse, the impact is like an invisible tree. It slowly branches out into every aspect of your life, surpassing physical boundaries to your personal, social and professional relationships and capabilities,” she explains.
“Many people tell me that I would rather he (the husband) just hit me than torture me like this,” says Murad.
Maheen recalls how her husband would ensure that there was always something that he could criticise her for. “He would have exacting requirements for how I should lay the table,” she says. “But when I’d follow them precisely, he’d yell at me for not using my own brain. ‘This is all you have to do, and you can’t even do this right,’ he would say.”
According to experts, constant psychological abuse not only affects a person’s self-confidence, it can also cause severe depression and anxiety. The mental strain of being constantly ill-treated eventually manifests itself in deteriorating health. Rahman remembers a childhood friend: “She was such a beautiful and graceful woman but her husband would never let her leave the house, let alone work. Over the years, she began to fall ill a lot and was eventually bed-ridden.”
“There is a definite link between mental stress and physical health. When you start feeling worthless, you are unable to cope with things and take care of yourself. The long-term effects of such (mental and emotional) abuse are definitely far worse,” says Kalantarzadeh.
Dr Haider Ali Naqvi, consultant psychiatrist at Aga Khan University, agrees: “Psychological abuse is more dangerous. One can recover better from physical ailments but mental health recovery takes longer and requires care and sustained help.”
If recognising psychological abuse can be difficult, coming to terms with it can be even more so. Many women continue to make excuses for their husband, but those who have walked away understand one thing: “A man may change his habits but he cannot change his nature.”
According to Dr Naqvi, “Behaving in an abusive manner indicates personal weakness. The person who inflicts abuse is insecure about some aspect of his life, therefore, in order to demand respect and control others they resort to psychological abuse.”
“Most of the time it is a man’s insecurities about his personal and professional life that lead him to subject his wife to psychological abuse,” says Rahman.
Farah’s* husband turned nasty when the successful architect started earning a fatter pay cheque than him. “He would speak to me like I was his slave. Once, he made me change my clothes and make-up right before we were leaving for a wedding, saying I looked…indecent,” she says, as a tear rolls down her cheek.
But the 35-year-old, who has been married for 10 years, says she spotted signs of an abusive relationship even during her two-year engagement period. “At first he had a problem with my best friend, saying she wasn’t a good influence on me. Slowly, he began cutting me off from all my other friends as well.”
This is a common modus operandi with abusers, who first socially isolate their wives and then start killing their confidence by making them feel insecure and inferior.
“Many men in our society are of the mentality that their wives are their property to behave with and treat as they please. This involves verbal, social and moral abuse. Meanwhile, most women suffer quietly,” says president for the Pakistan Association for Mental Health, Professor Haroon Ahmed. Consequently, many men and even society at large does not see anything wrong with such behaviour. Rather they treat it as something normal: a husband making his wife conform to his likes and dislikes.
Even when they realise that there is a problem, many women find it hard to make a clean break. Farah continues to live with her husband for her two children — a fairly common decision, according to Murad. Many women opt to stay with their abuser for the sake of their children. Then of course, there are the social taboos and stigmas attached to divorce which prevent many women from ending the relationship, in some cases leading them to spend their entire lives with the abuser. Some cannot leave because of their financial dependency while for others the fear of being alone is simply too great.
But staying also comes with a heavy price tag on the children’s mental health. Witnessing their mother subjected to psychological abuse can have far-reaching effects on children. “The effects could range from identification with the victim or the perpetrator. This sets the mould for deviant behaviour, based on parental role modelling, until they change it consciously. And, of course, it interferes with the process of their growth and psychological development,” says Naqvi.
“It is very difficult to quantify the correlation, but children who consistently witness abuse or have been abused are more likely to grow up to be abusers as well. However, having said that, it is not necessary that all abusers have been abused in their childhood or at all,” Ahmed argues.
Interestingly, many women who have spent decades in abusive relationships, and have financially independent grown up offspring may be unable to leave their abuser because their own children are unwilling to take them in. Those women who are unable to break away must maintain a strong emotional support network, experts advise. But for now, a vast majority of women stuck in such relationships continue to suffer in silence.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 16th, 2011.