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Help them when they can’t help themselves

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
12 December 2020   |   2:28 am
“You can’t help those who can’t help themselves,” goes the old adage. You definitely can’t help those who make their private business everyone’s business and then a couple of days and high level interventions later, ask you to “mind your business and leave my family alone.”

“You can’t help those who can’t help themselves,” goes the old adage. You definitely can’t help those who make their private business everyone’s business and then a couple of days and high level interventions later, ask you to “mind your business and leave my family alone.”

These were the words of Dr Ifeyinwa Angbo following her public outcry for help a few days earlier, her face battered and bruised. I first heard of the term ‘battered wife syndrome’ in 2001; I am just grateful that I must have had a relatively peaceful upbringing – my father was a gentle soul who would rarely raise his voice at anyone, let alone his hand. Growing up, I never knew of any woman abused by her husband.

It was when I became friends with a fellow Turkish woman ten years my senior, while living in London that I heard the term for the first time. She told me of how she stayed in a marriage for five long years, hoping against hope that he would change, would stop beating her up, believing that he loved her, he beat her up because he was jealous, or that he was too passionate. Any time she was beaten up beyond recognition, she would make up an excuse for him, and stay. She said, the final straw was when finally she realised that if she didn’t get out soon, she would never get out alive.
You see, ‘battered wife syndrome’ doesn’t just mean the syndrome of being beaten up. First developed in 1984, the term is described in medical journals as follows:

“Battered woman syndrome, or battered person syndrome, is a psychological condition that can develop when a person experiences abuse, usually at the hands of an intimate partner. People who find themselves in an abusive relationship often do not feel safe or happy. However, they may feel unable to leave for many reasons. These include fear and a belief that they are the cause of the abuse.”

Until I spent time with this woman and listened to her story, I had felt abused women who stayed with partners who abused them were weak or stupid. Shame on me it took me so long to realise this was actually a psychological condition afflicting some of the most helpless women in society.

Domestic abuse creates a vicious cycle that these women can’t break. The abuser will win over the new partner, often moving quickly into a relationship with tactics like “love-bombing,” grand romantic gestures, and pressuring for commitment early. The abuser will be emotionally or physically abusive. This often starts small, like a slap instead of a punch, or punching the wall next to their partner.

The abuser will feel guilty, swearing they’ll never do it again, and be overtly romantic to win their partner over. There will be a temporary “honeymoon” period, where the abuser is on their best behaviour, luring their partner into thinking that they’re safe and things really will be different. Abuse occurs, starting the cycle all over again.

Even those of us who’ve never experienced abuse may have at some point in their lives may have experiences signs of abusive behaviour. Some of us had boyfriends who were overly jealous or controlling; some encountered men who may not have been abusive physically, but who would hurt with patronising behaviour or insults. As a Gen X I must admit I first heard of ‘gaslighting’ about five years ago but I’ve witnessed types of gaslighting in past relationships.

According to medical research, there are four stages that women who develop battered woman syndrome typically go through:
Denial: The woman is unable to accept that she’s being abused, or she justifies it as “just being that once.”
Guilt: She believes she has caused the abuse.
Enlightenment: In this phase, she realizes that she didn’t deserve the abuse and acknowledges that her partner has an abusive personality.
Responsibility: She accepts that only the abuser holds responsibility. In many cases, this is when she’ll try to escape the relationship.

Sadly in many patriarchal societies, women are trapped in the first two stages, when elders interfere, or older women advise them to stay in the relationship, as “the man is always right” or “for the sake of the children.” Already in denial and blaming themselves for the abuse, they have no safety net nor exit strategy – until they either claw their way out of the dark pit of man-made hell they are stuck in to find enlightenment or they leave it in a casket.

When I first heard of Dr Angbo’s story, I felt like the 22-year-old me, baffled at the “battered women” who would choose to stay, over and over again, after every slap, punch, beating, judgemental, condescending. Then I remembered that strong and brave women who opened her heart to me and shared her story of abuse. I remembered then, what Dr Angbo and many others need is not ridicule or judgement. Nor do they need elders begging them on behalf of abusive men to stay or older women who tell them it is the way of the world. They need us, other women, to reach out, to make sure they are okay, to spirit them to safety when it happens again, because surely it will, to help them when they can’t help themselves.