Leaving Abuse

[content note: this post covers my personal experiences with domestic abuse in some detail]

“Why don’t they just leave?”

“If someone did that to me I’d be out of there straight away!”

“If they were really being abused they’d run at the first chance!”

I’ve had all of these statements thrown at me and I’ve heard them applied to others living with domestic abuse. Aside from being generally unhelpful and blaming the victim for the abuse they are receiving, they are also based on a central faulty premise; that leaving domestic abuse is easy. For many of us that live(d) with it, it is exactly the opposite. It’s that difficulty that I’m going to discuss today.

To start with we have to remember a few things about domestic abuse;

  • The abuser has pathological entitlement issues at the root of their behaviour. They believe they deserve to be treated in specific ways, they believe that their “partner” is there to fulfil specific physical, social and emotional roles, and they believe they are doing nothing wrong. When they don’t get what they want they get angry. This might show itself as physical or sexual violence, or it might well be emotional manipulation or terrorisation. The abuse is a way of life for them.
  • When non-abusive people grow up, the childlike entitlements we all start with are grown out of and put aside for healthier ways of connecting with the world. Dodgy ideas get challenged, new ideas are formed, and things progress. Abusers have not grown out of some of those dodgy ideas around what their lives should look life, and they cling to them. It gets to the point that to admit that those ideas are “wrong” they would then have to admit that their actions up to that point have been wrong too. Instead of deal with that pain they act out aggressively to re-enforce their world view. Examples of these views are things like; “Women are sluts that tease men and will stray immediately”, “They should keep house and be glad that a ‘good’ man is looking after them”, “They’re not as good as men”, “They should sense their partners emotions and know how to respond appropriately”, or frequently, “A man rules his house with a strong hand.”
  • Unlike a person with a severe mental health problem (say, psychosis) or a serious behavioural disorder (ie. as a result of an acquired brain injury) an abuser will tailor their behaviour and slowly escalate over time. If someone truly can’t stop themselves from lashing out then they’ll do it at work, with friends, and in the early stages of a relationship; an abuser won’t. Normally they’ll seem perfectly charming to those around, as well as to the person they are abusing a lot of the time. Their relationships often won’t appear abusive.
  • They’ll mould their social circle to cut out people that threaten their relationship. This will include people that have clocked the partner’s poor treatment. This isolates the person being abused.

It’s important to have this in mind, because the context of leaving an abusive relationship is very different to that of leaving a non-abusive one. The environment the person being abused exists in is filled with fear, guilt, and the projected self loathing of the abuser. For me that was a world of contradictions. To the outside world I was the smart one, but behind closed doors I was to know that I wasn’t as smart as him. He supposedly pretended to be ignorant to others to make friends and I should know when he was doing that and go along with it. If I didn’t then I’d see “the look” and I’d know that I’d be punished for it. If I was lucky it would be through being made to feel guilty for committing a cardinal relationship crime, or as time went on it might be sexual humiliation or punching a hole in the wall next to my head in rage. That would be the punishment for accidentally not agreeing with his version of reality in public. There were many other rules, often contradictory, but they all needed to be followed to minimise his volatility. Can you begin to imagine what kind of reaction I could have expected from leaving?

Ah, then comes the point that the police could have protected me. To start with, he had me honestly believing that I was completely responsible for everything that happened to me. If I was smarter, if I was kinder, if I was prettier, if I’d just ignored the pain and done that thing he wanted… I was to blame, and everyone knew it. He’d taken the time to tell me how other people thought he was too good for me, how other women threw themselves at him, how my family didn’t love me and how I was too poor to be wanted by my university friends. I knew I was to blame, and I honestly believed the police would blame me if I went and told them how I’d driven him to lash out. If that barrier wasn’t enough I knew all too well that in the case of a domestic altercation they would just remove him for a hour or two, maybe a day, then he’d be back – and he’d be angry. There was also the knowledge that I was studying at university so couldn’t leave the city, and that he’d been unemployed for the majority of our relationship and had been spending every penny I earned. Where was I to go? At the time I thought refuges were for married working class women with black eyes and broken bones. Not for people like me. I was never going to go to the police.

Like the police, friends and family were out of the question. The ones that I was allowed to keep were ones that were mutual friends. No one felt like an option and, to be fair, even if they had I didn’t want to tell them how horrible I was led to believe I was and potentially make them hate me too.

In the end it was a twist of fate that helped me leave. He decided to be magnanimous and invite a friend to stay, and as a result I got a reprieve. For the first time in years I started to feel as if maybe I was likeable. Maybe I wasn’t universally despised. Maybe I could have more. Then he got ill and had to go into hospital. Suddenly people crawled out of the woodwork that wanted to see me, not him. They liked me. Some said they didn’t like the way he treated me (and they’d only seen little incidents). I laughed them off but the points stuck. Horrible as it may sound, him getting sick was the best thing that happened to me. It gave me the time to start to doubt the stories he told me. In the end I realised I wasn’t in love with him. I still didn’t think I had been abused at that point, but I did realise that what I felt wasn’t love. Filled with guilt I told him and I asked him to leave (I was paying the rent and was tied to the property). He was very nice about it all and left only taking a pair of socks away with him, an action that should have been telling.

Time would show that he didn’t believe I was leaving him. He thought I was being “dramatic” and one night apart would fix it all. Of course it didn’t. This is when one of the other reasons it’s hard to leave an abuser kicked in. They become massively more dangerous when you leave. They have nothing left to lose and a great deal of rage.

He started threatening to kill me, and backing that up with action. He would break into my house and search through my drawers looking for proof I was some kind of she-devil so he could attack me “legitimately”. He smashed windows and my door once I had gotten the locks changed. He poured petrol on me and threatened to drop his lighter on me. He stalked me at work and would stand there flipping that same lighter at me. If he saw me anywhere he would start yelling. Once he came into a restaurant and grabbed me by the hair and started shouting about how I was asking for it by being visible in there from the street. He started telling even more desperate lies to cover for his behaviour; I had been cheating (one alleged incident was with a guy living over 200 miles away at the time), I had been cruel, I had taken advantage of him and abused him, I had stolen all his money (he had been unemployed for nearly half of our relationship), and the most harmful one in the long term; I was a “psycho”. He made me everything his entitled male nerd friends hated in women, and then he set them on me too.

I did what you should do and called the police who initially cautioned him for criminal damage and then started building a harassment case. They always took his word that the threats to kill were just “turns of phrase” and that I was over emotional; even when there were witnesses who spoke of his complete rage. He started pretending to be autistic (copying the mannerisms and phrasing of one of my autistic family members) so that the police would go easy on him. Once he even sent them around to recover a list of property I had “stolen”, a list which had things on it like two blue dice, one arm of a warhammer ork, a poster & tv stand I had purchased after he left, cds he had lost years ago, and a whole host of other things. It backfired on him, but never made it stop. When he wasn’t doing it himself his friends were and if I complained to the police about them they’d get no more than a friendly warning.

Eventually the police decided they had enough evidence to take it to court. They taught me what domestic violence was and showed me that I had been a victim of it. They were taking it seriously and they were going to prosecute. That’s the holy grail of this stuff. If the police can’t stop it, court will. Well, court didn’t. I gave evidence via video link, sick to the stomach with terror that we were in the same building. Throughout I was stopped so the magistrates could tell him to sit down, calm down, or stop shouting. I was a wreck. It was then I discovered that the caution the police had given for criminal damage also covered all of the domestic abuse up to that point, and that I wasn’t allowed to discuss it in court. It meant that I couldn’t give context to his threats or explain why they were so terrifying without being held in contempt. He had his representation ask me about loads of events he had totally fabricated with people I hadn’t heard of. It was a farce. In the end they returned a verdict of not guilty because I was ‘overly emotional’ and that threw my testimony into doubt, especially given his “she’s psycho” defence. They didn’t call half of my witnesses. They didn’t ensure him claims were truthful. They did give him a strong warning that he couldn’t plead ignorance any more, because his actions did appear to constitute harassment and that next time he would be sentenced.

None of that mattered. Not guilty was all his friends heard, and they used it to fuel their campaign of hate. I had a nervous breakdown; it got to the point a doctor was coming to my room every week to inject me with powerful drugs to keep me sedated and stop my suicide attempts. I had to run away to start a new life, and even then it took 3 years for the online threats to vanish completely.

Leaving was anything but easy, as I hope this has shown. Women are thought to be 70% more likely to be killed in the weeks after leaving an abuser, and most experience a massive upswing in the threat. But even before that there is the huge barrier to deal with that the abuser has spent a lot of time re-enforcing; the belief that the victim is not being abused, and is quite possibly the abusive one themselves. It’s so strong that simply being told that it’s not the case won’t do, it’s designed to fend off those simple attacks. It’s been adapted and strengthened to fend off every incoming doubt and suggestion that things aren’t as they should be, that this isn’t deserved. It takes a lot of work to start weakening it so that in the end sections start to fall. I’ve been free for a decade now and I’ve still not smashed mine fully. These barriers are built to last. There are myriad other reasons that I’ve not gone into, but this is a blog post not a novel ultimately.

I hope that my story has helped to show why leaving is so very complex, difficult and potentially dangerous.

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  1. Reblogged this on disue.

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  2. I’m 10 days out, awaiting first court date, have restraining order etc, but am expectant of the projected blame, character assassination, maybe even love bombing that may come. But we are women who have shown enough strength to keep us sane thus far, and we must hold on to that strength at all cost x

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