There was no such thing as an emotionally abusive relationship 20 years ago. Well, there was – I know because I was in one. But society pretended they didn’t exist. If you didn’t have a black eye or a broken arm, you had nothing to complain about. Now, the media is abuzz with the conviction of the man who killed Allison Baden-Clay. Some of her friends have appeared in the media saying they had no idea things were that bad. She kept those things to herself. They just didn’t know.
And domestic violence advocates are hoping that this will be a watershed moment for society to learn to talk about domestic violence in a new way. Especially about that insidious type that nobody can see, that leaves no bruises – emotional abuse. (Anecdotal evidence suggests there was also physical violence going on in the Baden Clay marriage well before that terrible night as well, just for the record.)
People who know me now wouldn’t have recognised the shit-scared, insecure and needy person I was when I was 17. And I was like that for a whole host of reasons that don’t matter now: I’d just had my heart broken for the first time, I had huge daddy issues, I craved affection and approval from the world, I was adrift after finishing school without any direction… but the point is that person isn’t me now. In my mind, I divide my life up into those five dark years between the ages of 17 and 22, and the rest of my very normal life.
But this man came along at a time I was vulnerable. I wasn’t really interested in him but he was persistent in his pursuit of me, which I found incredibly flattering. He sent flowers to my work and wrote soppy cards, he remembered little things I told him I liked and went out and bought them for me. He wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself just to impress me. Eventually, he wore me down. We started dating and he was charming, witty, attentive – all the things a nice guy is supposed to be.
Then came the isolation. He was a master manipulator and when I look back now, it was all so text-book. He slept with my closest friend at the time, which I didn’t find out about until much later, but it was enough to drive a wedge between her and I. He compared me to all the other women we knew, so I was always aware there was some form of competition going on. But of course it was me he loved. Lucky me! He set us up as a great love against the rest of the world. And then, slowly but surely, he started attacking me too, when I had nobody left to turn to.
He was jealous of every man I spoke to – I had to explain every conversation. I could never go out without him because he was so sure I couldn’t go out without being hit on. And it wasn’t me he didn’t trust; it was other guys. Naturally.
My clothes were either frumpy or too slutty – until he started choosing them all. He picked me up from work every day so I had no opportunity to go anywhere or see anyone else. My confidence eroded at lightning speed, and I relied on him more than ever. I even had a falling out with my mother over this relationship, and although I know now I could have called her any time, back then my ego wouldn’t allow me to admit I was in too deep. That, and I thought I loved him.
I remember one conversation we had when we had broken up and got back together (we did that a lot) where he went through a list of all the women we knew and told me why it was more logical for him to want to be with them. “A is beautiful . B is smart and has a great career…” And when he got to me, he said, “You’ve got nothing going for you, but it’s still you I want.” Then he shrugged. “I guess I must really love you.”
And I was thrilled. Wow, even though I’m nothing, he must really love me!
We then travelled overseas together for a few years, which was even more isolating. You would think travelling the world would be liberating but it just deepened my dependence and fear of him leaving me. Between arguments and break ups and the myriad affairs he had during that time, we returned to Australia and got married. Our wedding was tiny because we didn’t have many friends.
About a year after we married, his grip on me loosened when I ran into my best friend from high school. I could see in her face she didn’t ‘get’ this relationship – and she hardly recognised me. Years later she told me I seemed a shell of myself – defeated and sad. And it’s true. I had no dreams for my future. I had no plans. No goals. All I had was the fear of losing this douche that had somehow ended up being the centre of my life.
Lucky for me, I found the strength to leave him. It was ugly. He threatened suicide and became homeless for a time. His efforts to manipulate me were exhausting and terrifying. I thought he might die. But I knew I couldn’t hold myself responsible for that.
Soon after, I dated a really nice normal guy who showed me what a relationship should be like. Of course, that nice guy had no chance of staying around for the long haul because I was still seriously fucked up, but I will be forever grateful to him because he helped me build the confidence I needed to move forward on my own. I don’t even have any friends around from that time, I think partly because I wasn’t that nice a person when I was trying to get my shit back together, and partly because I found seeing those people was a painful reminder of a time when I hated myself.
But get my shit together, I did, and the feeling of relief was immense. It was like I woke up. Or that bit in the Wizard of Oz where all of a sudden everything is in colour.
So what I want to say is this: if you know someone who is in a relationship like this, please don’t disappear from their lives. They need you to be around. They need to not feel alone. You don’t have to hang out every week, and you don’t have to love the partner. Just be there. Be available. Be on their side. But don’t say the guy is a dick, or tell them what to do because you’re just feeding that ‘us against the world’ mentality.
Just be a friend and be around. Because one day, hopefully, they’re going to need you.
For more resources, click here for family friends and neighbours information. Or if you need help yourself, google ‘domestic violence resources’ to find someone local that can help.