The most recent social media hashtag party invited all and sundry to #SaveMelania. … Yes, the new First Lady of the US. That Melania.
Even the most casual of observers would have noticed that the former model is not the most expressive of people, and when she does, she often looks forced, and dare we say… pained? This is lead to the Internet going mad with theories from the ridiculous (Botox freeze) to the more serious (is she the victim of an abusive marriage?).
While we will be drawn into speculating whether she needs saving or not, it has raised an important issue; does wealth, privilege and a higher socio-economic status make it easier to leave an abusive relationship? If we were to take it further, the question that follows, is if one is strong, independent and of a higher socio-economic status, is it easier to be abused without knowing it?
The latter is something that I have experienced on a personal level. It has taken many years to admit that and to put it behind me. Growing up Indian in Durban comes with the stereotypical, but painfully true, archetypal lifestyle of living with the parents, studying toward a good qualification, staying away from the improper hangouts if you don’t want to be spotted by family and considered a disgrace (note that to spot you they too would have to be there), and of course dating someone respectable.
I mostly toed the line, having been given a bit of rope by my liberal yet somewhat traditional parents, until I met the man who would be a part of my life for four years, and ultimately see me led down a path of emotional abuse and the eventual physical jolt that forced me to escape.
I grew up financially privileged, by most people’s standards, and to an extent, being sheltered. Being rather politically inclined and socially aware, my mindset had slipped into the role of if I were to be abused emotionally, I thought I would be able to spot it and dispatch the perpetrator forthwith. Funny how life works out…
My friends had seen the signs; the excuses of why I could not go out (because he didn’t like the venue), the change from a carefree spirit to one who chose her words, music and even meals carefully, and the physical changes like dressing down instead of up, and shoulders hunched whenever another man spoke in my general direction. Despite their wisdom, I did not once think of it as abuse, it was I keeping him happy, and in that way, I would be too… I would be….
I hear you shouting: “You were not married, you could have left him” It is not that easy and being married or not does not exclude you from abuse. The backstory was that we were different races and he fought for me, for us… “I owed him everything,” I thought. That thought was the first sign of abuse because this feeling of not being able to leave due to obligation keeps many people in abusive relationships.
I couldn’t leave him because I had convinced my family, my friends and even my lecturers that he was a good man – abuse sign two – being afraid of looking foolish to or losing the respect of your loved ones.
I was highly educated; I never backed down in any argument yet I became putty in the hands of an adult child who had to have his way or else. The small nudges became tight squeezes of the hand, the dagger like stares became cutting words, words like: “you’re beautiful in those jeans” became “you’re slutting up for another guy?” Abuse sign three.
I remember the day it exploded like a shook up can of cold drink, the pent up hurt I kept inside had collided with his seething rage and lack of self-confidence. He hit me. As I walked to the car to go home I hid behind my sunglasses, holding the pain in, a frozen face. The shock was secondary to the first thought I had was “If I had to ask for help, who could help me? Everyone had given up and left me to him because I stayed despite their warnings.”
I stayed because I was afraid of leaving. Despite my position, I saw no way out. Despite my strong will, I could not see myself living a life with no support. That was until a friend sat me down and told me: “It’s not easy, its painful. You will hurt like nothing else, perhaps for a lifetime. But you must do what you need for your life as if his wickedness had not touched you.”
It has been many years since this chapter of my life. One would think that as I have become older and more aware, it would be easier to spot abuse again. Well unbelievably, I find myself in an abusive situation again, this time emotionally. As I write this I am allowing myself to be treated as a tool in the ego workshop of someone who asked for my heart and then proceeded to play a chess game with it. The difference between now and then is that I have spotted this quickly.
The point of this tale is not to elicit a pity party. It is perhaps my own realization that wealth, privilege, and being socially awake doesn’t make it easier to leave an abusive relationship. I would go as far as to say that sometimes being these also makes it harder for people to consider you as abused because you having the resources and will power to leave.
It isn’t that black and white.
Leaving an abusive relationship is the hardest decision one can make because you feel shame, fear, guilt, and pain at the same time. Being educated made it worse for me because I imagined the whispers: “She’s pretends to be so smart but she stuck with that man, what an idiot she deserved it.”
Abuse is the leveller as far as privilege and socio-economics is concerned. While I agree that wealth does sometimes make it easier to consider leaving, it is not always enough. The psychological barrier we have is the common link all survivors of abuse have regardless of status.
In the end, it does not matter if you are from Westville, Wentworth or indeed the White House, leaving an abusive relationship is the most difficult thing a person can contemplate and even harder to action.
Perhaps we should bear this in mind before we think or say: “She deserves it.”