Understanding the dynamics of an abusive relationship

16 Days Activism

Know the signs of abuse and don’t be afraid to seek help

Despite the many initiatives and campaigns over the years aimed at ending gender-based violence in South Africa, we still bear the unwanted title of “rape capital of the world”. A Google search for statistics on gender-based violence yields disturbing results: “Between 25% and 40% of South African women have experienced sexual and/or physical intimate partner violence in their lifetime.” “Close to 10,000 rapes occur every quarter.” “Roughly 28% of South African men admitted to raping at least one woman, and 46% of those admitted to being repeat offenders.” “The rate at which women are killed by intimate partners in this country is five times higher than the global average.” These figures all come from sources within the last year.

Against that backdrop we prepare to observe the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, which runs from 25 November to 10 December. The campaign focuses on raising public awareness of the damaging effects that violence and abuse have on women, children, and the social fabric of our society. At the risk of sounding cynical, public awareness does not need raising. Very few South Africans are unaware of the impact of gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse in our communities. Almost everyone knows someone who has been raped. The fact that the 16 Days campaign has been around since 1991 suggests something is not working. It should have undergone built-in obsolescence. However, while it has not succeeded in ending gender-based violence, the 16 Days of Activism campaign does more than just raise awareness; it facilitates some tangible services to women and men, and we applaud these. It aims to raise funds for NGOs that provide support to survivors of violence; provide survivors with information on services and organisations that can help reduce the impact of violence on their lives; and engage with men and boys about combating violence in our homes, our communities and in the workplace. Arguably this last aim is the most critical in terms of effecting social change.

Meanwhile, what can you do to protect yourself and your children from abuse or violence by a partner? We don’t want to suggest that it is women’s responsibility to keep themselves safe. Ending the scourge of gender-based violence is the duty of government and society as a whole. But, unfortunately, those efforts are failing. So you have no choice but to empower yourself with knowledge and tools. In this article we examine the dynamics of abusive relationships and shed light on the signs that may signal you are in an unhealthy relationship. In the next article we will look at the steps you can take to move away from fear and go towards safety and freedom.

Types of abuse and spotting the signs of an abusive relationship

When we hear about gender-based violence, or any of the other names given to it, it is physical abuse that usually makes the headlines. This is partly because of our high rates of rape and femicide (murder of women), which are physically violent acts, and partly because it is the most obvious form of abuse. If abuse can be placed on a spectrum, many people would view physical abuse as “more serious” than other types of abuse, such as emotional or financial abuse. HOWEVER, all abuse is abuse. No form of abuse is “less serious” because the victim didn’t wind up in the emergency room covered in cuts and bruises. Abuse of any description is unacceptable, and you have every right to seek help if you are experiencing any of the following behaviours. Furthermore, non-physical modes of abuse are often precursors to physical violence, so recognising early signs and taking action could save your life. Different sources cite different numbers of abuse types, to some extent simply reflecting different methods of classification. Women Against Abuse lists six types and their characteristics, and this is a useful framework for understanding abuse.

  1. Physical abuse is easily recognised and may include behaviours such as:
  • Hitting, slapping, punching, kicking
  • Burning
  • Strangling
  • Damaging personal property
  • Denying the partner access to medical care and/or controlling medication
  • Coercing the partner into substance abuse
  • Using weapons against the partner
  1. Emotional abuse happens when an intimate partner seeks to control the other by:
  • Name calling, insulting
  • Blaming the partner for everything
  • Exhibiting extreme jealousy
  • Intimidating the partner
  • Shaming, humiliating
  • Isolating the partner – cutting them off from friends and family
  • Controlling what the partner does and where the partner goes
  • Stalking
  1. Sexual abuse is mostly a type of physical abuse (though not entirely), but is listed separately as it indicates very specific behaviours, and may exist without other physical abuse. It is also less visible to an outsider. Sexual abuse is not about sex. It is about power, and includes any sexual behaviour performed without a partner’s consent. Examples include:
  • Forcing a partner to have sex with other people (human trafficking)
  • Pursuing sexual activity when the partner is not fully conscious or is afraid to say no
  • Hurting the partner physically during sex
  • Coercing the partner to have sex without protection/sabotaging birth control – this is also a form of emotional abuse
  1. Technological abuse, which could also be considered a type of emotional abuse, includes the use of technology to control and stalk a partner, such as:
  • Hacking into the partner’s email and personal accounts
  • Using tracking devices in the partner’s cell phone to monitor their location, phone calls and messages
  • Monitoring interactions via social media
  • Demanding to know the partner’s passwords
  1. Financial abuse constitutes any behaviour that maintains power and control over finances. This is particularly common in South Africa because sociocultural norms in some communities define women’s role as subservient to men and primarily domestic. Because it is socially acceptable for a woman to be financially dependent, the tipping point where financial dependence becomes financial abuse is often overlooked. Examples include:
  • Not allowing the partner to work
  • Causing the partner to lose their job through direct or indirect means, such as inflicting physical harm or injury that prevent the partner from going to work or harassing the partner at their workplace
  • Controlling financial assets and putting the partner on an allowance, or even withholding funds altogether
  • Not allowing the partner to have their own bank account, credit card, or other financial asset
  • Demanding to see bank statements, receipts for purchases, etc.
  • Damaging the partner’s credit score
  1. Immigration abuse is less common, but may go on where the partner is an immigrant. In South Africa this is a legitimate concern, as many immigrants have come from other southern African countries in search of economic opportunities. Abusive tactics that may be used against an immigrant partner include:
  • Destroying immigration papers
  • Threatening to hurt the partner’s family in their home country
  • Threatening to have the partner deported

A word about coercive control

The term “coercive control” has become more familiar in recent years, and the UK has introduced  legislation which established coercive and controlling behaviour as a criminal offence in its own right in the Serious Crime Act 2015. South Africa does not have specific legislation addressing this behaviour, but we have laws that deal with various forms of domestic violence and abuse which encompass elements of coercive control, such as the Domestic Violence Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act.

Coercive control incorporates elements of all of the behaviours listed above. It is at the heart of almost all domestic abuse. It may or may not include physical violence, at least not at first, and it tends to develop insidiously. By the time the abuse is apparent to onlookers, the victim herself is often so intimidated that she doesn’t realise what is going on or feels completely trapped. Coercive control is defined as a pattern of abusive behaviour used to instil fear and restrict freedom. The aim is total control over the partner. Coercive control can include psychological and/or emotional abuse, physical or sexual abuse, financial abuse, harassment and stalking, and technological abuse. If the partner is an immigrant, it will almost certainly include immigrant abuse. What better way to control someone than threatening them with deportation or detention?

Impact of an abusive relationship on women and children

The psychological impact of all types of abuse on women includes anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. Physical violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health, and effects include headaches, pain syndromes, gastrointestinal disorders, limited mobility and poor overall health. Children exposed to violence in the home may suffer a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances and may experience long-term emotional and psychological trauma.

There are also social and economic costs of abuse. Women in abusive relationships often experience isolation, inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities and limited ability to care for themselves and their children. The whole community suffers when women cannot play an active role in society.

Breaking the silence and seeking help

If you are living with an abusive partner or experience any type of abuse at the hands of your partner, whether you share a home or not, there is something you can do about it. You do not have to suffer in silence. Even if you live in a small community or are financially dependent on your partner, there are steps you can take to move on. We know it is not easy. In the next article in this series we will  look at barriers to leaving and how you can safely report abuse and secure a protection order against an abusive partner.

If you need help with an abusive relationship NOW

We will be writing about moving on from abusive relationships throughout the 16 Days of Activism. However, if you need help right now, call us immediately. SD Law & Associates are experts in family law with deep experience of helping women escape abusive partners and find peace and dignity in a new life. We can serve a protection order on a controlling partner and help you initiate divorce proceedings, if appropriate. We will connect you to relevant support services and make sure you and your children are safe. Some resources able to provide immediate support and guidance are listed at the end of this article.

At Cape Town Divorce Attorneys, we understand how deeply distressing abuse can be. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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