Can something that at one time felt completely unreasonable and excessive suddenly feel completely normal? Normalisation is a term that explains how something abnormal can become normal, such as violence in a close relationship. Normalisation enables the violence and abuse to continue and escalate over time.

The rate at which normalisation occurs varies from relationship to relationship. Even if the abuse begins early on in a relationship, normalisation usually occurs gradually and is often subtle at first. It can begin with the man telling the woman how much he loves her and how important it is to him that they have time alone together, while asking her to stay home with him instead of meeting up with her friends. This is something the woman may find flattering. The next time the same scenario plays out, the man might get mad that the woman chooses to do something else instead of being with him. Then, the next time, he might call to question whether she really loves him and accuse her of seeing another man. The woman might gradually stop meeting up with her friends to avoid making him angry and “causing” a fight. The man could start picking her up after work or after she’s been out with her friends. The woman and her friends and co-workers might think this is thoughtful.

This is just one way that the man takes more and more control over the woman’s life. He begins criticising her friends and family. He is jealous and cross-examines her when she comes home from activities or when she greets a male co-worker she happens to run into on the street. He begins to have an opinion about how she talks, who she talks to, how she acts, and what she wears. He “advises” her on how to act. The advice transitions into constant criticism. He makes jokes at her expense and punishes her by ignoring her for hours or even days. He calls her ugly and worthless. Tells her that she should be happy that he’s willing to be with someone as awful as her and that she is not smart enough to study or hold down a decent job. He calls her a whore and a bitch.

At this point, the limits for what is OK have shifted and blurred, and things that were unacceptable at the beginning of the relationship now seem to be a normal part of it. At this point, the man might start pushing and being heavy-handed – breaking things and even striking the first blow. The first blow usually comes in a situation where the woman is trying to take back a bit of her life. When she wants to go a conference, meet up with friends, or dares to argue with him. It’s not unusual for the man to be full of regret and cry afterwards, but put the blame on the woman. She provokes him. If only she hadn’t done this or hadn’t acted this way.

An abusive man will also have moments of being loving and kind. He alternates between abuse and warmth, making it difficult for the woman to break up with him. She hopes things will get better, and the fantasy of the “kind man hidden deep inside” is like glue holding her there. As the woman becomes more and more isolated from those around her, the man becomes “bigger” and she replaces her image of herself with the one he gives her. His reality becomes her reality.

In addition to being physically and mentally abusive, the man often becomes sexually violent, and it is common for rape and violence to go hand-in-hand. Giving in to having sex can be one way to avoid serious violence and keep the man in a “good” mood. When it comes to an abusive relationship, saying no to sex is often not an option. Studies show that it is common for domestic violence victims to be forced to perform sexual acts the man has seen in porn.

During the normalisation process, the woman tries to adapt to make the man happy and avoid being subjected to verbal and physical abuse. This adaptation is often made possible through the slow introduction of abuse, where the limits for what is OK have gradually shifted. At the same time, she might resist by arguing to see her friends or family. She may try to explain and reason with him, which is impossible since the man is only thinking about maintaining power and control. It is never a matter of fact and logic. He is not willing to listen to her and her needs.

By the end of the normalisation process, the woman may have internalised the man’s critical image of her. The woman’s self-esteem has been broken down and she may even blame herself for the man’s violence. It is very common for the woman to play down and make excuses for the violence she is experiencing and to take responsibility for the man’s abuse. Things that would be completely absurd in the beginning of the relationship are now a normal part of everyday life. The limits for what is OK have gradually shifted and blurred, and the woman no longer knows what is acceptable and what is not in a relationship. At this point, she may feel exhausted and overwhelmed and may have given up. Leaving the relationship can be very difficult.