Healing Space | How much violence should you put up with in a relationship?

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In a healthy partnership, accusations don’t get as heated as to make personal remarks about the other; arguments remain at the level of the issue. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

In a healthy partnership, accusations don’t get as heated as to make personal remarks about the other; arguments remain at the level of the issue. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

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How much violence is okay between partners? Should you leave the first time they hit you? Isn’t that an overreaction? After all, you love them, right? Isn’t this a lifelong commitment? You can take a few blows here and there. After all, isn’t that what love is? There are a hundred ways to justify violence, but not a single one of those justifications makes it acceptable. The answer is inversely proportional to how much self-worth you have cultivated. If you value yourself immensely, the answer is zero, not even once. If you do not value yourself, your life, your body, or have been taught that your life and limb are subservient to or the property of your partner, you are more inclined to accept violations of it.

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthViolence or physical abuse from a partner is not a part of a healthy relationship. Someone who values their partner will not find any excuse whatsoever to slap, throw things, hit, pummel, kick, curse. To understand how different it is from a healthy relationship, ask what healthy partnerships look like.

In a healthy partnership, first of all, accusations don’t get as heated as to make personal remarks about the other. Personal comments relating to character, body size or image, capability or efficiency as a parent or provider, mental bandwidth, illnesses are below the belt and exploitative.

In healthy relationships, arguments remain at the level of the issue. If the issue is financial, you may argue about how you need better options to make or save more money, but it would not descend to blows or expletives. You might say: “We need to start curbing our expenses and let’s both sit down and see where we are spending too much and can cut back” instead of “you are a sinkhole who is consuming all the household resources with your spending” or “you inefficient (expletive), you can’t even provide”.

Healthy partners focus on the issue, finding a solution, and they remain a team (“we”, “our concern”) through the most difficult phases. If things do get heated, the acceptable response is to cut short the argument. “Things are getting heated, I can’t talk to you right now because I don’t trust what I will say or you will say in anger, so I’m out. Let’s take this up when we’re both calmer,” is an acceptable way to exit an argument. If you are really upset, you might leave the room, go for a walk or a drive, to the gym to work off the rage you feel, or simply lie down or talk it over with a friend you trust.

People in healthy partnerships are aware of the boundaries they are not willing to cross. One of the keys to that is respect. While you might be understandably angry at your partner for some reason, let’s say you’ve been building a fund to buy your dream home and they went and booked a needlessly expensive (and non-refundable) vacation as a surprise. And you’re surprised alright, just not in a good way. You may be going “oh my god, what have you done?” but it would not occur to a healthy partner to raise their hand. It is acceptable to lay blame at someone’s door, but there is zero justification to inflict physical violence.

People who are victims of abuse, physical violence in particular (there are other forms of abuse in relationships such as emotional, which results from verbal invective, manipulation, gaslighting, and exaggerated blame for trivial upsets, or financial entrapment, bonded labour extracted in terms of household chores, or unfair financial contributions while excluding the partner from assets such as jointly-owned property), must seek medical help, inform family members or friends and colleagues, and file written police complaints where necessary to keep a record of the continuity of abuse and for their safety.

It is also important to seek therapeutic intervention for their loss of self esteem and self worth. This is necessary for them to come to an insight into what is happening with them and how to exit a toxic relationship should they wish to. They may have concerns about how it will affect their custodial rights over children, their rights to property, matrimonial home, or what their source of income will be, what family and friend or NGO support they can practically avail of and may seek legal counsel or further understanding of their options from a social worker. There is a lot to think about before exiting a violent atmosphere, which is why many choose to stay even when it is difficult. Many fall into severe bouts of anxiety and depression and counselling is recommended.

However, it is the violent partner, the person inflicting the violence who most needs to seek therapeutic and medical help to control their rage, anger, and lack of impulse control. Normalising violent behaviour, and rationalizing acceptance of it, as ‘deserving’ socially, within the family and community network, points to the protection of criminal activity and extended family that does nothing to intervene can also be linked to abetting the assaults. Whether there was too much salt in the food or a partner having an affair, there is no excuse whatsoever for violence. You may choose silence, a comment, divorce, withholding of affections, or seek the interventions of elders and well-wishers, but physical partner violence is always and without exception, unacceptable.

Taking anger out on someone else, whoever they may be, parents, children, spouse, domestic help, anyone who is physically weaker, in a lesser position of power, and cannot retaliate, needs to be recognized as a problem that the person needs to seek treatment for. It could be arising out of addictions such as to alcohol or drugs, or it could come from childhood abuse, or it could be linked to a mental disorder that has gone undiagnosed, it could be a neurological abnormality presenting as a result of intoxicants or concussions, congenital defects and deficiencies, or it could be stemming from a childhood environment that never trained them to see violence as inappropriate, abnormal and harmful as a response. There could be any number of reasons or a combination of them. Either way, violence in a partnership needs to be treated and violent individuals need to be supported to gain the help they require.

What a healthy conflict between partners looks like

1. Maintaining respect while disagreeing or blaming. No name calling or personal comments.

2. Not talking over the other. Allowing them to respond to the accusations.

3. Listening actively. Hearing where the partner is coming from without dismissing their reasoning as ‘excuses’.

4. Focusing on the problem and its solution.

5. Seeking the intervention of qualified therapists, elders, friends, well-wishers to both parties’ satisfaction. If one partner doesn’t trust the person intervening to be fair and unbiased, that’s not an acceptable intervention.

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