Photo courtesy of The British Museum
I have been thinking for the last few weeks how similar the current political situation in Sri Lanka is to a domestic violence situation where the victim takes some time to face up to the brazen exploitation, abuse and narcissistic gaslighting of the perpetrator of violence against her.
As in many abusive situations, the perpetrator initially displays a jovial, amiable and even respectable facade, presents himself as a family man, and creates a photogenic facsimile of unity and masculine leadership according to the criteria established by the patriarchy. The emphasis is always on family values, stability and prosperity. Fertile women, designer label clothes, branded accessories. Picture perfect embodiments of prosperity. Relatable but elevated to a higher state.
Thus, when the victim of abuse speaks out, people question her sanity. It takes her a long time to find the strength and courage to stand up and challenge the perpetrator of the systematic violence against her as it means facing up to her own poor choices, her unrealistic expectations and her weakness in believing the constant justifications and lies that are delivered to her when she questions why she is being mistreated and subjected to treatment she never expected to endure.
Many victims of narcissistic abusers made initial choices and judgments based on external appearances and so it was relatively easy for the perpetrator to play to their expectations and hopes. Often the very virtues of the victim of abuse are turned against them while their financial and emotional resources are cynically utilized by their abuser.
At first, perhaps even for several years, the facade continues. But events start to occur that make her uneasy: not directly impacting her but incidents in which people known to her suffer cruelty or indignity as a result of the person whom she has chosen to settle for. Assaults. Altercations. Insults. Threats. She always knew he had a temper. Sometimes, when things have not gone his way, he has used terrible language or even threatened people.
She tells herself that she is exceptional,and so safe; she never thinks he will turn his brutal anger and contempt on her. But one day, he does. And she knows then that it will keep on happening.
She discovers that he has drained her economically, that he has been maintaining another household on the proceeds of his life with her, and that her rights and her dignity have been cumulatively eroded.
She perhaps questions him at this point and finds that she is threatened with violence. Does she want to end up in hospital with a dislocated jaw for daring to question him? Isn’t it better not to speak up at all? She finds herself doing all the physical and emotional labour in the relationship. This once joyful woman has become drained and lifeless.
She finds no joy or freedom in her life; she has become a spectator, to his brutal, performative bruiting of his prowess. And because there is no reciprocity, she becomes first an appendage and then expendable and once she has no resources to offer him, she is publicly cast off.
Many women in this situation are beautiful, intelligent, strong and capable but they almost get destroyed by relationships like this. As the humiliations start to increase and the creeping sense of unease and their questions and challenges go unanswered, they start to painfully wake up.
There is an intense period of back and forth where part of an abused and eroded woman tries to defend the perpetrator and give him the benefit of the doubt, to blame herself for all of it or cite that contextual circumstances are the cause. But eventually the bad she has experienced outweighs the good, even the remembered good, and the hoped for future fades. And it is then that she starts to see that there are alternatives.
She has never allowed herself to think this way before as her sense of personal duty was so strong, instilled in her by her traditional upbringing and her romantic and sentimental dreams. But she cannot deny the evidence in front of her.
Like every bully, her perpetrator looms large in her eyes until she stands up to him. He cannot believe the woman he has systematically weakened has the spine to stand up to him. He mocks her, as he has often done, knowing how to shame and paralyze her with her sense of her own harrowing ineptitude. He cuts off her access to many essential things in an attempt to control her through fear for her survival. He plays on her anxieties for her elderly parents and her young children.
But this time she does not step down. She makes her plans for the future, which do not include him or anyone or anything related to him. She decides who she feels safe with and chooses to associate only with those to whom her welfare is a high priority. If he refuses to leave, she negates him by demarcating the areas in which he will impact her life and reducing the size of that area over time. He has acted in such a way that he has made himself irrelevant to any woman of strength, decision and purpose. She wonders when she is free of his grip – how she could have been so taken in, was it a fusion of her idealism, her trust and sincerity and hero worship and the act he was so good at putting on?
Thoughts of revenge and retribution are natural at first as she realizes very sharply that she had lacked self awareness, had treated herself as if she had no value, and so did not protect herself at all in this situation. But she realizes that she will need all her energy and focus to build a new future and that now she has seen through this man and his plausible artifices and empty promises, he is of no significance to her.
It takes some time but her courage and honesty and determination to choose better for herself inevitably win the day. She incrementally builds a life that she loves, which includes people she had long been forbidden to associate with, and enjoys the abundance and prosperity she was always promised but which she has now learned that she could generate for herself.
It has taken her 74 years. But by the time she turns 75 she will be freer than she has ever been.