Recently, I accompanied a group of students for a trip to Rwanda. As we visited various genocide memorial sites and interacted with genocide survivors who had harrowing stories to tell, for some reason, I thought about violence in relationships.
Here are some of those thoughts.
Anyone can be violent: Many spouses who have been abused physically could have sworn that their husbands or wives had no violent bone in their body. In fact, for some, their seemingly gentle nature was the characteristic that drew them to their partners.
But even more telling is the testimony of some abusers who confess to being surprised by their use of violence on their spouses. Also, the notion that men are the perpetrators of domestic violence no longer holds water. An even more disturbing trend is violence between young people in informal relationships.
It starts small: Violence begins with what one may consider negligible actions, such as pointing a threatening finger at your spouse, or threatening her with a fist. With time however, these seemingly inconsequential threats become more regular, requiring less and less provocation.
In majority of cases, violence follows a definite pattern, at least at the beginning. First, there is a build-up stage where the person appears agitated or stressed. This might result from an argument with the spouse, but sometimes, there’s no identifiable cause.
In the next stage, the perpetrator acts out the violence either verbally, physically or sexually or in all three ways. Next, the violent spouse may express regret and remorse for the action. He or she may try to explain the action either by taking responsibility (I was angry, or I was stressed) or blame their spouse for what happened.
For some time, the relationship will seem to settle back to normal or even appear better than before, since the abuser will be on his/her best behavior.
For some people, it actually ends here, and the violent act is never repeated. For many others however, this may be the lull before the storm, and when the cycle begins, the consequences may be devastating.
It has far reaching consequences: Violence solves nothing, and this is a reason anyone tempted to use violence should seriously re-examine him or herself. Violence only creates pain and bitterness, and has far reaching psychological and emotional scars.
If the couple has children, they too are affected for a long time to come, or even for the rest of their lives. For some, their ability to be in a relationship is badly damaged by what they observe at home.
The perpetrator also suffers some consequences. Although it is still under research, the concept of Perpetrator Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P-PTSD) is gaining currency. It suggests that while victims go through the pain of being violated and dehumanised, perpetrators suffer from discovering the loss of humanness, a hardening of the aspects of care and gentleness in them and with time, it becomes difficult for them to relate with people in a normal way.
They further suffer guilt and shame for the harm they have caused their families, including break-up, physical harm, and delinquency in children.
Violence is humiliating and dehumanising to both victim and perpetrator. This can be avoided if couples choose to handle their conflicts and personal issues in more mature ways.
Key questions in this area include why people resort to violence, why people take violence quietly, and how to handle an abusive relationship.
We will discuss these issues next week.