For my research on the matchmaking practices of the professional middle-class in Delhi conducted between 2011-’12, I interviewed men and women in the age group of 25-33 years. In due course, I became privy to their romantic experiences before marriage.

They described heart-breaks, struggles with self-confidence as well as success stories where they married the partner they were dating. Unexpectedly, a few women shared experiences of violence in romantic relationships, ranging from being slapped, shoved, pushed, badly beaten and/or emotionally manipulated and controlled.

I was taken aback, for during my academic training, works on domestic violence largely focussed on wives, daughters-in-law and daughters. There was little on violence against girlfriends. The predominant question then was not why the violence exists – the answer to which seemed more straightforward that these relationships are constructed in an inherently gender inegalitarian society.

Rather, it was why women continue to be in relationships to which they are not bound by law or societal pressure, as in the case of marriage. My female interlocutors provided two primary responses for this: “I was in love” and “I knew it was wrong but could not completely accept it”.

Love is a complex emotion and makes us behave in odd ways, such as by rationalising problematic behaviour. Yet, it also seemed that there was another reason and emotion underlying these responses, perhaps unrecognised or unacknowledged or unwittingly muted, namely, a hesitance or guilt in accepting that one’s carefully thought-out choice could go so wrong.

This was evident when a few women expressed that they were embarrassed to discuss the abuse they suffered, even with their friends (let alone their family), as they did not want to be judged especially for having let down their “feminist” image. I found that it was not always the woman who ended this relationship but in fact their boyfriend.

Love, here, is entangled with the pressures of modernity, the guilt of exercising choice, and a deeply gender inegalitarian society, leading to a sinister and insidious form of violence that hides behind the language of romance.

My research was conducted a decade ago, but clearly, not only does this form of violence still exist, it remains largely unrecognised forcing us to confront it only when women are gruesomely murdered by their romantic partner, as in the horrific case of Aaftab Poonawala and Shraddha Walkar.

Yet, there is a tendency to brush off the seriousness and structural roots of this violence. These cases are analysed as being one-off and often the onus is entirely on the woman who did not exercise her choice to leave the relationship. This is a simplistic argument that assumes choices exist in a vacuum, overlooking the central role played by society’s structures (gender, family, law, neighbourhood) that belie a woman’s confidence.

It is barely considered that the reluctance to leave an abusive relationship might be a result of the systemic oppression a woman faces, especially being constantly picked at for her decision-making in matters ranging from food, clothing, profession, love and sexuality.

As a result, whenever a woman makes a dissenting choice, she internalises the pressure of making her choice work. In fact, much scholarship has captured that women who opt for “love marriage” receive little support from their family to resolve marital problems than women who agreed to an arranged marriage.

The first step in addressing this form of intimate partner violence is to accept that these relationships exist and are now an established experience, as it were, of an individual’s life. These relationships can be as intense as ephemeral. This is not simply a cultural change as much as a consequence of a demographic shift whereby the age at marriage is increasing creating a phase of “elongated singlehood”, typically in one’s 20s.

It is in this phase where the population experiences a range of intimacies: short-term relations, non-serious, long-term committed, one-night stands and so on. Some of these types of relationships are intense, and much like a marriage, involve emotional, sexual, and financial dependency. Significantly, these too can become dysfunctional and abusive, much like other intense interpersonal relationships.

A mural of Shraddha Walkar. Credit: PTI.

Second, it is important to understand that this form of violence is very much like the other forms of domestic violence and therefore, the courage to walk out of an abusive romantic relationship does not solely rest with a woman’s ability or capacity to do so. Rather, it also depends on how society provides women the courage to identify abuse in these relationships at an early stage and supports her decision to walk out. This is not a moment of victim blaming or questioning the essence of a relationship (live-in or not) as “bad”, “immoral” or contrary to Indian sensibilities.

As the nature of romantic love, and indeed its occurrence, is transforming, so is its language. For example, concepts such as “gaslighting”, “negging” (emotional abuse through back-handed compliments aimed at undermining a person’s confidence), and “toxic” are increasingly being used to identify corrosive power dynamics in a relationship. Technology, too, has introduced safety measures, including the option of flagging a profile that is abusive or inappropriate. These are productive steps but are not enough.

The law, family, neighbourhood and community at large, technology and media together have to provide a supportive environment where men and women feel confident and safe to discuss intimate partner violence beyond marriage.

The Aaftab Poonawala and Shraddha Walkar Bumble (reports say the two met on the dating application) love story came to a gruesome end, and therefore drew the nation’s attention, but there are several other women that are quietly suffering in their modern love stories.

Parul Bhandari is a sociologist at the University of Cambridge, and author of Matchmaking in Middle Class India: Beyond Arranged and Love Marriage. Her forthcoming book is on love and intimacy in India.

Also read:

Interview: ‘Police officers who dithered over Shraddha Walkar letter about Aftab must be prosecuted’

Interview: Despite Shraddha Walkar murder, the most dangerous space for women is their marital home

What the Delhi murder says about Indian masculinity and everyday violence against women