Domestic Abuse Awareness
By a member of staff
I’m not a “victim” of domestic abuse, I’m a “survivor”, as is my child. And we continue to survive it, not only because there will always be a relationship which ties us to the perpetrator of the abuse, but also because anyone might say something or behave in a way which triggers memories and associated emotions. We both have continued support to manage these, but unfortunately, more could have been done, and sooner, by the people who knew us. In a time when more of us are working from home and more often, the incidents of reported domestic abuse is rising, which is a real concern, because between 20-50% (depending on demographic) of domestic abuse goes unreported and 4 years is the average duration of abuse before support is sought. I’d like to share my story in the hope that it will assist others to identify domestic abuse or to encourage survivors to seek support.
You cannot always identify a domestic abuse perpetrator. The stereotype is of an angry, testosterone fuelled, misogynist, who watches football and enjoys binge drinking, which all ends in frustration being taken out on the wife or girlfriend. Wrong, or at least this is the minority of cases. They are actually the good looking male or female, who is a popular, suited professional who would do anything for you, often active within the community, a person that anyone would be “lucky” to be associated with. That was my ex-husband. However, close the car or front door and he was calmly vicious.
In the 8 years that we were together, “for the good of our family” he had convinced me to leave my Senior Management role (he was always scathing about my employer and “they never appreciated all the hard work and extra hours [I] put in anyway”) to be at home and to sell my house to move 250 miles away from my family and friends, literally weeks before I was due to give birth. It wasn’t until talking about this after I left, that my friends, family and work colleagues discussed the changes that they’d observed in me. I lost my sense of humour and became more reserved or “serious”, I was the social organiser who later seemed to need permission to attend events; and as the primary earner, I was always supporting him financially. The red flags were there but people assumed that I was aware of them and choosing to ignore them. Not recognising them has been a considerable source of regret for me and it has taken a considerable amount of introspection with the support of a Counsellor to understand why.
After the move, I made new friends through baby groups but I had lost my confidence and self-esteem by then. My career was a considerable part of who I considered I was and to find myself in a new role as a “Mother” and seemingly not very good at it, was a real set back mentally. As a new Mum I felt vulnerable and was struggling to process all of the changes, physically, mentally and emotionally. These are exactly what my husband used to control me. He used these vulnerabilities to his advantage, and took great pleasure in describing exactly how people, including my own family and friends, perceived me, “ugly”, “old”, “fat and disgusting”, “a frump”, “mental”, “selfish”, “incapable”, “overprotective” and relationships were undermined by changing the context, even suggesting they were abusive or that I was having affairs. I was excluded from social events because our child was “a little rat” and “too badly behaved” and he explained my absence saying I was ill or by suggesting I was struggling with mental health issues. Depending on what was going on, he would be overly nice to visitors so that they didn’t believe what I said, or he would make them so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t return. Nobody discussed this with me – they just avoided us.
My husband also decided that he didn’t need to work as my maternity pay and savings would see him through the next 6 months and only went back to work once all the money had been spent, and continued to stay out, sometimes for days, drinking, gambling and maintaining relationships with other women. To this day he will assert that the money was spent by my going for “too many coffees”. It was exhausting and resulted in complete isolation partly due to the finances but mostly just to maintain the peace. People still observed, “your husband is lovely, you’re so lucky”.
I never really discussed any of the above with anyone, I just assumed that everyone was going through the same. It took a one-off discussion with a friend about demands from my husband for me to pay back money that I’d borrowed for food, for the situation to be observed for what it really was. I had originally owned my own house and had a good career, I was now living hand to mouth whilst my husband was maintaining a considerable social life and being the perfect companion to everyone else.
“Why didn’t you leave?”, “why did you put up with it?”, “didn’t you realise it’s not normal?”.
What is “normal”? That is why I hadn’t realised what was happening. It’s insidious; individually, each instance can be excused, “he’s had a bad day”, “he’s jealous because he loves me”, “he’s working so he deserves a night out”, and so on. It’s not until you consider the cumulative impact and the overall picture that the situation is understood. And this is the frustration: those third parties, observers, were actually in a better position to identify the abuse than I was.
It doesn’t end when the abuse is identified. I had to register as homeless to leave. That is when the stalking began and my child became the target of the abuse. Someone who is subject to domestic abuse doesn’t have a better alternative, there is no positive choice. To stay is for the situation to continue and maybe worsen, to leave is an unknown. Statistically, it is when the survivor decides to leave that violence starts, escalates or ends in murder. In cases where violence isn’t present, the risk is that the survivor is not believed, their resulting mental fragility opens up the possibility of capability issues and the potential for losing custody of children. This is what happened in my case – my husband who had little interest in our child, filed for full custody as a way to impact me when I disengaged. He also dragged out the divorce process. 5 years after separating, I finally managed to complete my divorce in this year. The process has cost me all my expendable income and he purposefully left the house in a state of disrepair to reduce the value when it sold.
The pandemic provided further opportunity for continued abuse and harassment, especially during lockdown when I was isolated from support and witnesses, and had nowhere to go if he turned up at the house. He exploited the situation to attempt to change access arrangements and even not return my child after contact. If I had known what I would go through, I’m not sure the “me” I was back then, would’ve chosen to leave, but I am so glad I have.
I wish that my family, friends, health professionals and colleagues had spoken to me about what they’d observed. I’ve discussed this with them and responses have included “I was concerned that you would be offended”, “it was none of my business”, “I didn’t know what to do to help” or “I thought it would affect our relationship if you subsequently stayed with him”. Whoever it is that you are concerned about NEEDS you to step in.
It is not enough to identify abuse; you need to report your observations and the survivor needs support. Putting the survivor in touch with supporting agencies and organisations is imperative to ensure they can create a support network and strategy for dealing with whatever comes next – it can very quickly escalate. Your report could make all the difference to the outcome – without bruises, who will the authorities and courts believe? Despite legislation, my outwardly charming husband had them all fooled and it is my child who has to continue to deal with the consequences.
In a time when we are using video conferencing, signals can be used to indicate that someone is experiencing domestic abuse – the most commonly used signal is a raised hand “hi” signal, where they then fold the thumb in and close the fingers over the thumb, into a fist, and hold it briefly before lowering. This is used to indicate “violence at home”. If you see it, report it to the Police immediately.
Please don’t underestimate “R U OK?”, and don’t be afraid to discuss what you’ve observed and why you are asking. If you suspect domestic abuse, record what is said and ensure that you know how to report it. More advice can be found at www.scotland.police.uk/keep-safe/domestic-abuse/
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