On Valentine’s Day 2008, with a clarity that was long overdue, I left an abusive relationship. The hearts, the flowers, Barry White on the radio – they all brought things into sharp focus. For three years I’d been paralyzed with doubt. That’s the insidiousness of it. By degrees, like a frog being boiled – before you know it, you’re soup.
When it’s good, he’s charming: holds your hand in public, and lets you share his sweets in the cinema. When it’s bad: the constant criticism, the sulks, the explosive rages, the intimidation, the isolation – it’s so relentless, lonely and bewildering, you start to doubt reality. “Maybe it is me?” you think. You say sorry. Try harder.
It took time to see how scared I was, to realize how my sense of self had disappeared. The shame was awful. I lost my high-flying job due to “stress”; and worse, I lost my confidence. I was financially dependent, utterly confused. “Couples therapy” turned into two against one. I’m not sure what was more traumatic: being shouted at by the therapist, or the huge rows that ensued when we got home.
“Why doesn’t she just leave?” is an ignorant question. There is a pattern to abuse: how it starts, escalates, and how it messes with your mind. My ex never hit me (threatened to, yes), but abuse is not just physical violence. According to Refuge, it is, “the repeated, random and habitual use of intimidation to control a partner … If you are forced to alter your behavior because you are frightened … you are being abused.”
In the UK, the police receive a domestic violence call every minute; every three days, a woman is murdered. Maybe you work with one of these women, or say hi at the school gate; maybe she’s your friend.
My friend’s worst beating was with her newborn baby in her arms. Thrown down the stairs, her head bounced off the patio doors, her nose exploded from the force of his boot. She now helps other survivors (she helped me more than she knows), and is happily engaged to a good man. Her ex still threatens her, using access to his son to harass her. She logs everything with a solicitor; she has taken her power back.
There will be one significant, early red flag, so at odds with the man you thought you were dating, it won’t compute
Here’s what I’ve learned since I left:
Constant anxiety is not because you are neurotic, it’s called FEAR – listen to it.
Telling yourself that “all men are bastards” will keep you with the bastard you’re with – “all” men are decidedly not bastards, most are decent, some are really special.
Minimising his outrageous behaviour with: “all relationships have their ups and downs” will keep you in the shitty relationship you are in.
Charm is integral, look out for red flags – coming on too strong; using words like “always” and “forever”; calling all the time; turning up unannounced; keeping you so busy with romantic surprises that you don’t see your friends; bombarding you with presents; buying you a new phone (to check where you are, or even to track the GPS); picking out your clothes. We’re conditioned to see this as romance, but it’s control.
There will be one significant, early red flag, so at odds with the nice man you thought you were dating, it won’t compute. Mine? He sent me a barrage of abusive texts late at night in fluent Spanish (I don’t speak Spanish). By the time I got up the next morning, his apology was already in my inbox. Anyone telling you to “detach with love” and “work on your boundaries” or to “stop playing the victim” is not your friend. You are being victimized. I’m all for boundaries, but they are futile against a bulldozer.