An article on living in and leaving an abusive relationship.
Those four words. I F***ing hate them! They are probably the most common words uttered to someone if they finally get to a point when they can leave an abusive relationship. Or, when it is about someone, “why didn’t they leave?”. That probably drives me even more mad because I KNOW I was guilty of it at some point in my earlier life when things seem clear cut and simple, before I understood.
Firstly, let me make this clear, you will never FULLY understand what its like living in an abusive relationship unless you have the misfortune to experience it. Your home is supposed to be your sanctuary from any dangers or troubles of the outside world so unless you’ve experienced otherwise its so difficult to understand. However, I hope to give you a good understanding so you can have some idea and perhaps you won’t be one of those people who asks that awful question.
Abusive relationships, although different for all victims of different forms of abuse, rarely ever start off with abuse. Nor is every day filled with abuse. And that’s the hook. Most abusive relationships start with a type of “love bombing”. This is where the abuser literally showers the person with love and affection. Sometimes an astute outside observer may think “that’s a bit much so soon”, but for most people they see it as sweet and romantic. They usually prey on people who are vulnerable or insecure. Let me make this clear, they have a radar and can spot it a mile off. Some of the supposed “strongest” people you know are battling demons you have no idea about. An abuser can see this and manipulates it to their advantage. They learn your insecurities and, in the beginning, use them to flatter and compliment you. They may be, what they call themselves “overprotective”, which can make you feel safe and secure. It’s all part of the love bombing. The saying, “too good to be true” is around for a reason, because usually if it seems to be too good to be true, IT IS. The same can be said for someone who is “Too into you”. To know the signs and for help and information on someone who is too into you click here.
Albeit a VERY brief overview that’s often how it starts. You are so “loved” and in love that you don’t even notice the abusive behavior beginning to creep in. Violence rarely starts with a smack. It develops from love bombing to slow erosion of your confidence and self-worth. Those insecurities, that were previously used to flatter you, start to be used against you. They start to get louder and more intimidating when there’s an argument. The name calling an abusive language increases each time. The arguments get more frequent. Then there’s the odd little shove here and there. You do not really notice as it’s happening because it’s nothing spectacular all at once. But you might notice that you start to feel a bit more on edge a bit more often. They seem to be more argumentative and aggressive. You can almost feel a thick tension in the air, then bam. The “first”* time they hit you.
I still remember the “first” time I was hit. 17th July 2015, beautiful sunny day outside. You know, I don’t really remember why, and there was far more violent incidents than that over the next two years, but that I remember as clear as day. I don’t know what the argument was about, they’d gotten more and more frequent and he’d gotten more aggressive towards me. Pushing me out of the way, spitting in my face, calling me horrible names, but “he’d never hit me”. Until that day. I remember hearing the stomping on the floorboards above me, him bounding down the stairs as I stood in the kitchen, he must have taken the stairs from top to bottom in one go, he was ranting and raving all the while, as he came towards me I knew something was about to happen and I remember feeling afraid, I think I tried to and possible did say “don’t”, then crack.
If you’ve never had an open hand slap from a man in a rage let me tell you, it’s not like the “mammy slap” your ma gave you as a kid, or like Peggy and Pat in the queen Vic (EastEnders Ref sorry!). It stuns you and the side of your face, and your skull feels kind of hollow. Then the skin burns, almost like sunburn, and there was a kind of tinnitus like ringing in my left ear for a while.
He walked out of the kitchen and back up the stairs. I stood there, silent, dazed, confused, not moving, stunned, trying to process what had just happened for what seemed like 5 minutes, but, was probably about 30 seconds or less. I turned around and looked out the window and with a sudden, surprising wretch, threw up in the sink. I think that is when I started crying. I remember him coming into the kitchen at some point while I was crying and mocking me for crying, saying things like stop faking it, it was only a tap, and if I didn’t stop he’d give me a reason to cry. He went back upstairs and stayed there. I stayed downstairs, and I think at one point I peed in the mop bucket because I was bursting but too afraid to go up the stairs.
So here comes the question, why not leave right then and there? I don’t blame you for thinking it. However as I have tried to explain its really not that straightforward. First initial reaction was shock, then fear, then disbelief (which sounds like shock but is entirely different!), then they blame you which leads to questioning yourself which leads to self-doubt, blame and shame. Then oftentimes the love bombing happens after an ‘incident’ and/ or emotional manipulation starts. And thus the circle begins again.
In my case here, he initially was cold and made me feel fearful and after a few hours he started finding excuses to come down the stairs a bit more often and gradually started trying to talk to me normally. In doing this he made out like it was no big deal and tried to make me feel bad for being so upset. Then he started blaming me, it was my fault I made him so angry, and the best part was, he was so on edge because he’d a lovely day planned for us the following day, that was all about me and spoiling me and now it was all ruined. And do you know what, by the next morning I was getting ready, putting make up on, going out with him and his aunty to have a “lovely family day” pretending the previous day had not happened. I even did the thing I found myself doing more and more as time went on, and I have since come to realise is quite commonplace in situations like this. I documented the day and share it on social media to prove how happy we were and how perfect my life was. I don’t know who I was trying to prove it to more, the outside world or, myself.
I did that all the time, I made a point of sharing the good times in a thousand and one pictures for everyone to see. It was so important to me to document when he was nice to me, or we were happy.
You see, that’s the thing with an abusive relationship, its not all abuse every day all the time. At least not for most people from the very beginning. After the “first time” I got smacked, I am not sure how long it was before it happened again. I know over time there was less and less time between “incidents” but at the start it was probably about a month. I do remember, exactly two weeks after it, he, yes HE, not I, sat down in the kitchen and cried, told me he was so sorry, told me I deserved better, told me how disgusted in himself and how I should just leave him. And there it is, the hook, again. I had seen this man cry twice in all the time id known him, and one of them was his father’s funeral, and that was not even to this extent. So, you know what I did. I sat and cried with him and held him in my arms and promised never to leave him and told him it was ok and that I loved him and made him feel better. I sh!t you not. THAT is what living in an abusive relationship does to you. It entirely skews the lens you view normality through.
Now, I can see it now clearly for what it was. But, you must remember by now I have been through two years of counseling, finished a degree in social care, read journals, articles etc. to research domestic abuse, and been in support groups, all to hep me heal.
Then you fall into a loop or pattern of behavior, and gradually the abnormal behavior your encountering becomes normal. Then its all about keeping the secret. Nobody must know what’s going on. They can’t know, because your afraid of repercussions, you’re ashamed, you feel guilty, you’ve nowhere to go, and so many more reasons beside.
There is a stigma attached to domestic violence. Perhaps because as I mentioned at the start you can never fully understand it unless you have lived it, and it varies from case to case as does its impacts. With any stigma, comes feelings of guilt and shame. They go hand in hand. That is a sociological thing, not solely related to domestic abuse, but applies to most areas of life which have a stigma associated to them. Compound this with the abuser eroding you mentally and emotionally daily and you begin to question yourself and start believing them when they blame you. There you have just one perfect storm of factors resulting in someone not leaving the situation.
Another reason quite simply is financial or family ties. If the person is married, cohabiting, owns a home together, has child(ren) together, or a combination of these it can be extremely difficult to extradite them or you from the home you share. They could be the earner and you have no financial income. In some migrant cases a partner could be here on their partners visa and have little to no rights in their own regards. So, it’s not as simple as wanted to leave and building up the courage to do so.
A reason most confusing to those who are outside looking in, Love. You love the person, despite what they do / have done to you. Maybe you married your prince(ss) charming and this is your happily ever after, how can you walk away. They promise they will change. The suppress the aggression for a period afterwards so you believe them. The go out of their way to ‘make it up to you’ with romantic gestures and you’re hooked. It’s called of ‘trauma bonding’, what a lot of people may understand better with the phrase ‘Stockholm syndrome’. And those feelings are very real and VERY powerful. It’s often at least partly why so many people return to their abusers after finally leaving. It’s also a reason why when people do leave they have such conflicting emotions and can’t see things in the simple way others do. “Why do you still love them after how they’ve treated you?”, can be asked by well meaning friends and family of victims. The victim hasn’t the emotional capacity themselves to answer that until they heal and understand it.
It’s also why its so important for you if you are supporting someone who has left an abusive relationship to know that there’s a good chance they are still drawn to their abuser or still feel in love with them. Do not be judgmental or make well meant, but insensitive thoughts on their feelings. You want them to feel comfortable confiding in you. If they have to keep their feelings to themselves for fear of judgement, they are much more likely to be susceptible to being manipulated by their abuser and returning to that relationship. They need to know that whatever feelings they have are normal and OK. Leaving an abusive relationship is like going through grief stages, and, as with grief, people can move back and forth through these stages for prolonged periods.
Remember too, this is not an ideal situation for well meant ‘tough love’. I know some people think they are doing well by trying to use this technique but please bear in mind this person has gone through a VERY traumatic experience. Abuse, as I have tried to explain RARELY happens in stand alone, one off occurrences. Whether there has been physical or sexual violence or not, you can take it that there was other types of abuse ongoing also such as coercive control, mental abuse and emotional abuse. This person probably has EXTREMELY low self-worth, self-belief and self-confidence. They possibly will second guess themselves and seek approval from others for a long period of time. Riding roughshod over them to try kickstart them just wont be good for them. How you handle them disclosing to you their abuse or any aspects of it could impact them long term. Particularly if you are the first person they tell.
Be kind, be compassionate, be empathetic not sympathetic, be encouraging, be complimentary to them, focus on their positives when they focus on their negatives, and most importantly, BE PATIENT. Healing from a traumatic experience takes time. Some things they may get to grips with given enough time and support, some things will always stay with them, little things may impact some people while big events may trigger others. It is different for everyone who comes through it.
Finally, having looked at what its like to live with domestic abuse, some of the reasons people don’t leave, and how you can support someone who does leave, I want to circle back to one of the main reasons people don’t leave, because I believe facts and statistics are more powerful than even hearing a lived experience. FEAR. Fear is one of the biggest factors a person stays in an abusive relationship. Fear of what will happen if they leave. That fear is well and truly justified when you consider “Women are approximately 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship” (Kasperkevic, 2014). That alone is terrifying, now tie into that the fact that more than half (56%) of resolved femicide cases in Ireland are committed by a current or former partner and maybe you’ll understand how real the fear of leaving is.
So please, take what I have told you on board, and at the very least, the next time you think “why didn’t she just leave?”, think again.
*I emphasie “first” because when you leave a relationship and slowly begin looking back you realise the “first” hit was not the first act of violence towards you.
**I would like to note that domestic violence is not just an issue for women, it affects all kinds of relationships and genders. This article was written mainly focusing on the female lived experience as that is the experience I have and today is UN Day Opposing Violence against Women**
Women’s Aid: https://www.womensaid.ie/ 1800 341 900
Men’s Aid: https://www.mensaid.ie/ 01 554 3811
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: https://www.drcc.ie/ 1800 77 88 88
TU Dublin free counselling services https://www.tudublin.ie/for-students/student-services-and-support/student-wellbeing/counselling-service/