Cover Neerja Birla, an education and mental health advocate who is a member of the Asia Gender Network (Photo courtesy of Neerja Birla)

Neerja Birla, a leading mental health advocate and philanthropist, shares how mental instability is often the catalyst for relationship abuse, which can escalate from love bombing to gaslighting to trauma bonding

I am from India where there is lots of socio-economic disparity. One of the common narratives is that abuse in relationships takes place in the lower socio-economic brackets, spurred by a lack of education and financial frustrations. But this is a myth, as relationship abuse exists behind even the fanciest closed doors. 

We also tend to think of abuse as physical, yet it also takes mental and emotional forms. Abuse of any kind has to do with many factors including the mental instability of the abuser. That’s why therapy and spiritual help are of the utmost importance if you feel like you are harming or being harmed by anyone.

See also: Why Do Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Abuse Still Exist?

In the beginning, you get into a relationship with the best intentions. Those initial butterflies, the new spark, that exhilaration makes you feel like you are the luckiest person out there. While the honeymoon phase feelings naturally subside as time moves along, respect, care and understanding must always stay. This takes effort and is something to be consciously vigilant about in your relationship. Sadly, I have seen these qualities of respect missing in many marriages.

For those unhappy in a marriage, the fear of having to start over, of loneliness and other similar emotions can be deeply crippling, especially if you are living in trauma. This is a reality for many people, and I have seen it up close. However, I want to spread a hopeful message that it is absolutely possible to rebuild and that there are a variety of people who will help you to do this.

See also: Why I Go For Therapy and What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started

Below I've outlined three all-too-common scenarios of how abuse can play out and escalate in relationships. 

1. LOVE BOMBING

Here, the verbal and emotional abuse creeps in sneakily. You feel confused that the same person who could be so attentive and loving could also put you down in such harsh ways.

So what is love bombing exactly? When your partner showers you with an unhealthy amount of attention, which can come in the form of excessive gifts, compliments, requests to spend less time with your loved ones and sweet forms of manipulation to get you to spend all of your time together—while expecting to be put on a pedestal for this devotion. 

It can be easy to confuse this with the honeymoon phase, so here is a tangible way to demarcate. In the honeymoon phase, both partners want to spend a majority of their time together and do sweet things because they are falling in love. Love bombing is when your partner bombards you with affection to the point where you feel smothered. A common initial reaction is not to say anything because it is supposedly all in the name of love. Do not respond like this, however, as it is the beginning of that partner’s unhealthy control.

See also: 5 Love Languages For Couples: How To Show Appreciation The Right Way

2. GASLIGHTING

‘Am I overreacting?’ or ‘What is wrong with me to not reciprocate?’ or ‘Why do I always say the wrong thing?’ If your partner regularly makes you feel badly and second guess yourself, you are experiencing gaslighting. It's a form of emotional abuse that makes you question your own beliefs and perception of reality, eventually wearing down your self-esteem and making you more dependent on the gaslighter. If discussing your concerns with your partner ends in guilt tripping or the trivialising of your feelings, you are being gaslighted again.

See also: How to Know if You're Being Gaslighted: 5 Telltale Signs

 

3. TRAUMA BONDING

This emotional attachment develops from a recurring cycle of abuse, devaluation and positive reinforcement. If you feel you are being pulled into this cycle, leave or start couple’s therapy immediately. Do not believe that you have the capacity to be a version of a martyr and change your abuser. While it is easier said than done, take heart that it is possible to walk away and the sooner done, the easier it should be. 

That said, the trauma-bonding phase is dangerous because the typical justifications and apologies of the abuser may make you wonder if this behaviour is in the category of ‘this happens sometimes.’ Profuse begging, crying, swearing it will never happen again and then more love bombing is enough to make you feel like you have an extra special albeit twisted bond with this person. It’s possible to get weirdly addicted to this toxicity without even realising it until you are in deep and at a point where working it out between the two of you in a healthy manner is no longer possible.  

See also: “How I Moved on From Domestic Abuse and What You Should Know About This Issue”


In an abusive relationship, your body and mind are in a continued state of distress and to think clearly is extremely hard. You feel emotionally battered, confused and as if you are walking on eggshells constantly. The key takeaway I want to share with anyone in such a state is that you are not alone and even if it feels impossible in the moment, with time and help you can redesign your life—and you should because you deserve to be happy, loved and, more importantly, respected.

This opinion piece is part of a collaboration between Front & Female and Asia Gender Network, the first pan-Asian network committed to mobilising capital for gender equality, whose influential members include Neerja Birla. She is chairperson of the Aditya Birla Education Trust and a recipient of accolades including the 50 top global mental health leaders award by the World Mental Health Congress in 2019  

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