“A life lived in fear is a life half lived”
I never understood the meaning of this saying until I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship. I was with my husband (let’s call him Matt) for five years and, aside from a couple of blissful months at the beginning where he was on his best behaviour, the entire relationship was built on a foundation of severe emotional abuse.
Until the relationship ended I had no idea what emotional abuse even was. I’m appalled to admit it, but I thought being an educated, outgoing, progressive feminist meant that I would, a) never attract an abusive partner and, b) be strong enough to end it immediately if I did.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first sign that something was wrong came a couple of months into our relationship. It was my best friend’s birthday and she was having a house party. As can so easily happen when we start a new relationship, I had been a social hermit since meeting Matt, so initially, I had a great time catching up with friends and colleagues I hadn’t seen for a couple of months. About 10pm Matt asked to speak to me privately, where he unleashed. He accused me of flirting with another guy at the party, told me his ex-girlfriend was a stripper and much better in bed than me, called me selfish, inconsiderate, and a host of other names.
While the accusations and insults were baseless, they were nothing compared with the unbridled aggression with which they were delivered and the way his anger manifested in him physically. I felt like he was completely out of control. It was the first of many times in our relationship that I was truly terrified.
At one point I was visibly trembling and I flinched as Matt moved towards me, thinking he was going to punch me. Matt was six-foot-five and weighed almost twice as much as me so that was a scary prospect. He jeered “Don’t worry, I would never hit you”. About an hour later he just left the party and, I found out later, he drove home drunk.
Looking back, I should have ended it there and then. Indeed the few friends and family members I told, were unequivocally insistent that his behaviour was unwarranted and unacceptable. And it was.
But he called me and said he was sorry, made excuses about his ex-girlfriend having been in an abusive relationship before she met him and told me that our fight was nothing compared to the fights he had with her; that he found it hard to trust people; was jealous and a host of other excuses. He promised to change.
And I wanted to believe him. So I did.
Over the next five years the abusive episodes started getting worse and more frequent. Every few weeks Matt would get angry about me talking to male friends, or going out with girlfriends while he was working, or not doing enough housework (which was somewhat ironic in retrospect considering I did all the housework). He checked my internet browser history and threatened to check my text messages. When I became desperately unhappy and tried to leave, he told me I was a depressive person.
When I actually did leave with the help of my family and some amazing friends, he wouldn’t let go. He called me relentlessly. He sent me text messages non-stop. He threatened to ruin my friends’ careers. He threatened to ruin my career. He stopped eating, lost ten kilos in a couple of weeks, and told me he couldn’t live without me.
Eventually it wore me down and I went back to him. I kept hoping he would change this time and tried to believe that the nice qualities he had (and there were many) would win out in the end. In between the anger there were good times. We were both passionate readers and loved chatting about books and history. We travelled, went to nice restaurants and watched movies.
But over time I saw my friends and family less and less. Matt pushed me not to tell them anything about the abusive parts of our relationship because (in his words) they were “judgmental” and people would “hate him when they were only getting one side of the story” (mine).
Slowly but surely the person that I was began ebbing away. In between the massive fights he would constantly say things that eroded my self-confidence. I had bad judgement; I wasn’t trustworthy; I didn’t work hard enough; I didn’t deserve a promotion; I had ruined his career; I wasn’t supportive; I was lazy; I was too skinny; I had let myself go; were all verses underscoring the chorus, I was a selfish person who didn’t do enough for him. Over time these daily remarks offset the times he told me he loved me and that he thought I was beautiful and smart and funny.
I kept asking myself over and over, how can you love someone and think all these horrible things about them?
Then I got pregnant. The odds were infinitesimal. I was on the Pill. I had PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). But, I had always wanted babies. As soon as I found out I was pregnant I knew I wanted to have my baby, but I was so worried about who I was having him with. After my gorgeous boy was born things got worse again. The violence became more physical and although Matt didn’t hit me, I constantly worried about making him angry in case he did.
So to all of you out there (and I know there will be many) who have a mother, or a sister, or a friend in an abusive relationship and are asking yourself why they don’t leave when this person treats them so appallingly; the reason is simple.
Fear that if they do leave, their partner will come after them. Fear that if they go it will be the final straw, the excuse for their partner to lose control and unleash their aggression physically. Fear that when your partner is bigger than you and stronger than you, that one clear punch, or a single shot would be enough. Most of all fear that your partner will start hurting the people you love most; your children, your family and your friends.
As a woman who has experienced domestic violence, in my view there are two key things you can do to help:
- Talk about domestic violence and emotional and physical abuse. As a starting point read this incredible speech by Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police Ken Lay. Domestic violence is one of very few subjects that are not discussed openly. Help change that. Ask your family and friends, particularly your male family and friends, how they think society should change so that an Australian woman is not murdered as a result of domestic violence every week. When people you know make offensive comments towards women, call them out on it. Organise a fundraiser for White Ribbon Day at your workplace.
- Support the women you know going through this. The World Health Organisation estimates one-third of all women will experience domestic violence or sexual assault in their lifetime. If you suspect a friend is experiencing domestic violence, I’m begging you; please support them. Catch up with them without their partner. Ask them point-blank how the relationship is going. If they tell you things about their relationship that make your blood boil let them see how angry you are at the way they’re being treated, tell them that it’s not their fault and that they deserve better.
You can’t make the final decision to leave. No one can do that except them, but your support can be the difference between that woman spending a few years in an abusive relationship or her whole life. I know that there were points where my family and friends despaired that I would ever leave. And it did take me far too long. But eventually the support I received was what eventually gave me the strength to leave.
I used the stockpile of anger and strength and wisdom and kindness and love that they had given me to tell Matt that it was over. I told him that I had thought long and hard about the kind of woman I wanted to be and the kind of role model I wanted to be to my son and that it wasn’t a downtrodden abused victim.
And I left.
Some days are good. Some days I can’t wait to get to the end of the day and cry once my little boy is asleep. For so many years I have felt ashamed that I let someone treat me like this. Ashamed that I wished he would hit me so that I would no longer need to question whether I should stay or go. Ashamed that in many ways a broken arm or a black eye would have healed faster than the damage he has done to me.
I’m no longer ashamed of telling people that what I’ve been through was domestic violence. And slowly I’m starting to realise that it was not my fault. And that just because he didn’t hit me doesn’t make the experience any less traumatic than if he had.
I used to be so angry that he was able to do this to me with so little consequence to his own life. He will still see our gorgeous son but be able to focus primarily on himself and his career rather than the day-to-day responsibilities of parenthood, which he never enjoyed. He will still be the golden boy at work earning three times what I do and on track to become a CEO, while our mutual colleagues have no idea what kind of person he is behind closed doors.
But while the injustice of it rankled, I realised that being angry wouldn’t change anything that had happened. It just meant that he had succeeded in making me as miserable as him; that he had won. So I’m getting less and less angry as time goes on.
While I’m still scared of him, I’m learning to manage that fear. And I hope that one day I will get to the point where I’m not afraid of him anymore.
And I can start living a normal life again. Free from fear.
About the author
This article has been written by one of our ‘Anony-mums’. Our ‘Anony-mums’ are those mums who, for sensitivity or legal reasons prefer to remain anonymous, but never-the-less wish to share their stories, tips and experiences in a positive, supporting and uplifting way.