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Abuse doesn’t always look like black eyes and bruised ribs

A mother writes about surviving and escaping an emotionally abusive relationship, to encourage others to find help should they need it.

Content warning: This post describes an emotionally violent and manipulative relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, help is available. The 0800 Family Violence Information Line (0800 456 450) provides self-help information and connects people to services where appropriate. It is available seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm, with an after-hours message redirecting callers in the case of an emergency.

I always thought I would be the kind of woman who  wouldn’t put up with abuse in a relationship. I always thought I was smarter than that. That I had a better sense of myself than that.

But I wasn’t and I didn’t. And here’s why.

Abuse doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone. I wasn’t immune because I was educated or middle class. Abuse is not relegated to other people, other communities, it exists right here, in front of us.

Looking back at it now, I wonder how I let it happen. I remember how I was treated and the anger I should feel toward him seeps inward and I beat myself up for not getting out sooner.

I see myself how my friends and family saw me at the time and I wonder: What the hell was she doing?

I try to remind myself that he got me at a vulnerable time. I was weakened, and he only made me weaker. I was in my late 20s and I had just broken up with a man I had thought I’d spend the rest of my life with. When I was with him I thought I had my whole life sorted in terms of partnership and romance, and I was happy about that.

Being thrust back into the single life after four years of living with a partner made me feel unsteady and lonely. I couldn’t recognise it at the time, but I was desperate to be loved and be in a relationship. So desperate I’d put up with much more than I should have because being in a couple felt so important.

There were so many red flags. I should have recognised them at the beginning. By the time I saw things for what they were, it felt too late. I was too invested.

We were living together.

I was pregnant.

Our lives were too enmeshed, it was too complicated. I thought we needed to try.

I never recognised the abuse for what it was because it was never violent. I thought abuse had to be violent. I thought it had to be black eyes and bruised ribs. The abuse I experienced never felt big enough to be called “abuse”. It felt small time, insignificant. It felt like passion or fire, when it was just manipulation and undermining.

I felt like I deserved it, because he was smarter and more creative than I was. I thought it was my fault, that I had pissed him off somehow.

It started with very small things, which I now recognise should not ever be small.

He would tell me I was average looking. He would rank me next to other women. He would tell me my voice was too deep, that it was manly. That my eyes were small.

He’d comment on the face I made when I was concentrating, saying it bugged him and could I stop it. I’d look up from reading a book and he would be scowling at me: “you’re doing it again”. For months I couldn’t totally relax, because I was trying not to pull that face.

He would tell me I wasn’t funny and not to try to be. I was so serious. So sensible. So straight laced. He was the funny one. I could be his fall guy, the butt of his jokes. What an honour. He was the creative one. I tried to show him some writing but he wouldn’t read it. I proofread his crappy novel. He was the writer.

He told me all the time how I had it easy; he’d had it tough. Somehow he rewrote my own family history. I was a spoilt rich girl, and he was someone who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Nothing was handed to him, he had worked for it – unlike me, who from his perspective, was born with a silver spoon in my mouth.

When we had sex and I tried to ask for something or encourage him to do something for me, he’d tell me, while laughing, that he didn’t care whether I was enjoying it. It was a point of pride for him that he didn’t care. When he got a bit rough and I told him to stop, he’d get moody and pouty, saying I was always telling him off, that he couldn’t do anything right.

In public and in private, he’d grab at me and push my head towards his crotch. Four weeks after my daughter was born he got angry when I said that doctors and midwives recommend you wait until at least six weeks after birth to have sex again. “You hardly tore,” he said, as if I was making things up, making excuses. We did it. It hurt.

He was the master of the silent treatment, and when his silence would lead to me yelling, just to get a response, he’d behave as if I was the violent one.

He took great pleasure in creating imaginary love triangles. He would tell me about women who had flirted with him and how easy it would be for him to have them. He pointed out ex girlfriends and told me how they still liked him and he could go back to them if he wanted. He told me how when we first started dating he was tossing up between me and another woman. He chose me. I was lucky. He wanted me to feel precarious and unsafe in our relationship, and I did.

When I told him that it had gotten back to me that a new colleague liked me, he was furious. Somehow I had caused this, despite having never even talked to this colleague.

Every break up he had experienced before this had been the woman’s fault. She was a cheater, a liar, she didn’t let him be himself. After we broke up, I apologised to his recent ex for believing everything he had said about her. I wondered what was being said about me. To be honest, I already knew.

When we got pregnant, he joked that I had tricked him into it.

This “joke” became his battle cry. He complained that I was anchoring him, trapping him, that he had wanted to travel overseas and now he was stuck with me.

He complained that previous girlfriends had never invited him out with their friends, that he felt excluded and unwanted. I invited him to everything, and he complained about having to leave the house. He made fun of my friends, and made me feel guilty for having any at all, when he had so few.

He took an online IQ test and lauded his score over my own. He was the smart one, the talented one. I was lucky to have him.

When I moved in with him, he gave me a bedroom for my things, while his family pictures and photos of himself dominated our shared spaces.

So why did I stay? Of course, there were the good moments. The moments that make you think maybe it will be OK. He would stop in his tracks sometimes and tell me I was beautiful. Or he’d kiss the top of my head when we were cuddled on the couch. I’d become so starved of normal affection, these moments buoyed me. I thought they gave insight into how he really felt. I ignored 80 percent of his actions and focused on the remaining 20 percent that allowed me to believe what I wanted to believe.

During my pregnancy, he made an effort. He wasn’t perfect of course. He continually reminded me that he could be travelling the world if I wasn’t weighing him down. And our weekly antenatal classes became a regular point of friction. He would moan about having to go to the classes, tell me resentfully that I should go by myself. In the weeks he didn’t come, I’d lie to the other couples and tell them he was sick, or working late, so they wouldn’t think he was horrible.

For almost seven months he could be attentive and sweet. I was relieved. I wondered if maybe this baby would bring us together. I didn’t know what I was in for as a parent but I thought maybe this would be the making of him. Of us.

But he was pretending to be that person, that good dad, that attentive partner, and it didn’t take long for the stresses of parenting to be too much for him. For us.

Before we had even reached the sleepless night stage he had broken things off, saying he never did love me and I had tricked him. I was just some women he got pregnant.

One day he turned to stone and refused to look me in the eye. My daughter was eight weeks old.

I didn’t recognise all of this as abuse until it was over. To recognise it as abuse at the time meant I had to do something about it. And I couldn’t. I didn’t want to have failed another adult relationship. I didn’t want to be single again, over 30. It felt so lonely and sad to me.

Becoming a mother changed how I saw it though. I started to see our relationship and him for what he was. I saw  that I was always better off alone than in that relationship. I saw that my daughter needed me to put myself, and her, first. I saw that I wouldn’t let someone treat her that way, so why was I letting it happen to myself? I saw that I had been so beaten down emotionally that I thought his behaviour was OK, normal.

My daughter showed me I was worth more. She showed me I was someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, a human being, and I deserved love and respect just like anyone else.

I saw that my daughter needed me to be strong, and it helped me get through knowing I was doing this for her, as well as for myself. My sense of self was so degraded by him, but my sense of her wasn’t.

I see now that it wasn’t my fault. But I also see that I will never let someone treat me like that again. I see that my daughter and I deserved better. So much better.

I see that it can happen to anyone, and that the judgement I might have felt for people who stay in abusive relationships was misplaced.

It never belonged on the victim, but always on the perpetrator.

Because while I was weak, and put up with too much, it was always his fault.

He should have made me stronger, not weaker.

 

Where to get help

If you are in immediate danger, dial 111 and ask for the Police.

The Family Services Directory lists information about social services that provide services and programmes for New Zealand families.

The 0800 Family Violence Information Line (0800 456 450) provides self-help information and connects people to services where appropriate. It is available seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm, with an after-hours message redirecting callers in the case of an emergency.

 

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