‘I saved myself. I saved my children.’ How to escape an abusive relationship
Women and one man share stories of being trapped, and breaking free
Lockdown has been a time of unprecedented danger for people in abusive relationships. Photograph: iStock
In the beginning, he was everything Kate could have asked for in a partner. He was generous. He made her laugh. He would drive an hour just to pick her up from work. He would turn up at work events unexpectedly. If anyone wondered why he was there, he was such good company, they didn’t mention it. “I really felt this was a good, solid relationship,” she says now.
Kate is not her real name. It has been changed – along with other names and several identifying details – for her protection.
Everything moved fast between them, Kate says, sometimes faster than she would have liked. But she was ready to settle down. And, she rationalised, why wait when you’re in love?
Within two years of meeting they were engaged, then they emigrated to the US and got married. “I thought he was crazy about me. Looking back, what my friends and my family would say is that there were times when we expected you to attend an event or be with us and you weren’t. But I never looked at it that way. I just thought, he and I are madly in love. ”
A decade later, the relationship ended with Kate, then seven months pregnant, fleeing their home in the US with her 20-month-old daughter, a nappy bag, their passports and a bottle of Rescue Remedy a kind neighbour slipped into her hand at the airport. “I remember my neighbour grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes and kept saying, ‘You’re going to be okay. You’re going home’.”
She is still struggling to come to terms with how the relationship she thought they had at the beginning, became the one she had to run away from. “I had a fire in me that week. I saved myself and I saved my children. I had this absolute burning certainty that...” she pauses, choosing her words carefully. “I could see that it was going to end badly.”
Kate’s husband never hurt her physically. His weapon was what is called coercive control. He isolated her from her friends and family. He made her question her own perceptions. He took control of their finances and shut down escape routes.
Coercive control, which is a criminal offence, is defined as a “persistent and deliberate pattern of behaviour by an abuser over a long period of time designed to achieve obedience and create fear. It may include coercion, threats, stalking, intimidation, isolation, degradation, physical and or sexual control,” says Safe Ireland, the national social change agency.
Sarah Benson of Women’s Aid adds that “an abusive relationship is not about a single act of violence or psychological abuse, it is a pattern of behaviours. And two of the most common are to blame the victim for their own abuse, and to isolate them from those individuals – allies, friends, family – who would counter that narrative”.
This is what is meant by gaslighting. “Your whole sense of what’s going on is twisted by this totally manipulative behaviour.”
Calls at night
Lockdown has been a time of unprecedented danger for people in abusive relationships. Calls to Women’s Aid went up by 43 per cent between March and June, and visits to its website rose by 71 per cent. “We got, on average, up to 1,000 more contacts each month in lockdown,” says Linda Smith, the manager of the 24-hour freephone helpline with Women’s Aid.
Worryingly, the calls have not slowed down since. “That anxiety is still there for people in abusive relationships, especially if the abusive partner is working from home…We got more women calling with suicidal ideation than we normally would.” There were more calls at night, when the abusive partner was asleep, and lots of messages to the online chat service.
As society ground to a halt, and the pressures on people in abusive relationships intensified, the cracks in our system of supports were thrown into stark relief. Because of the need to social distance, capacity in refuges was reduced by 25 per cent. In terms of physical space, “we have a 19th century infrastructure trying to deal with 21st century problems,” says Mary McDermott, who was appointed co-chief executive officer of Safe Ireland in January, which has 38 member organisations around the country.
“All the supports had to go remote. There was a complete collapse of face-to-face supports like court accompaniment… Courts themselves were put under huge pressure. We’re working strongly on trying to get remote court hearings in place.”
In the face of the challenges, national helplines and local organisations rallied to offer refuge and protection to vulnerable people, some of whom were in increasingly terrifying situations. McDermott cites a call to a local helpline from a woman who had a phone put into her car to track her movements during lockdown; another who was locked in a box room at home and denied access to bathroom facilities.
All of those working in the area praise the Garda’s Operation Faoiseamh, which made contact with thousands of people who had previously made reports of abuse. By June, it had been in touch with more than 8,000 people and initiated 100 prosecutions. Deputy Commissioner John Twomey said recently that “victims of domestic abuse remain a priority” in the next phase of lockdown.
“The gardaí were able to reach in and support people. They had the resources and the reach to do it. What that says to us is that the capacity is there to do it,” outside of lockdown too, says McDermott.
The Department of Justice also ran a powerful Still Here campaign, and Tusla put domestic abuse among its top three priorities.
But the support systems for victims alone are not enough. “We need to get to a place where personal intimidation, violence and coercive control simply doesn’t happen. That’s where we need to go,” says McDermott.
Since taking up her role, she has been struck by “the fear, the fatalism and the inertia in the general population around domestic abuse… We need to understand this is a systematic pattern. And gender is a huge driver of it. There’s no argument here that women are morally superior; what we’re talking about here is a system of gender roles that burden both men and women.”
The pandemic gave people who have never been abused a sliver of insight into what it might be like to have your freedom and choices curtailed, and to feel out of control, says Benson.
It has also been a time when people like Kate have felt themselves becoming retraumatised: revisiting old feelings of being out of control, isolated and fearful. “We didn’t anticipate the number of women who were safely out of the relationship ringing us up to say that they felt with lockdown they were in the abusive relationship again. But that is the essence of living with trauma day in and day out. It never really leaves you,” says Smith.
Noeline Blackwell of the Rape Crisis Centre says her organisation’s helpline was quieter during lockdown, but in common with organisations across Europe, experienced a surge in calls once restrictions eased, with people reporting both recent and past sexual violence. “The general anxiety and distress that Covid-19 caused has opened old wounds. It has made people reflect on innate causes of anxiety.”
Anecdotally, she says, helpline volunteers are reporting calls “from people saying that people at home with them are angrier. They’re drinking more, they’re more frustrated. And where is it easiest to offload that anger? If you’re abusive, the easiest target is somebody in the home”.
Now settled back in Ireland and living with relatives, Kate is still struggling to come to terms with the lingering trauma of the abuse meted out by her ex-husband.
After they moved to the US, she felt increasingly isolated and disconnected, though in the beginning she attributed it to homesickness. In hindsight, she can see how he began a process of removing her from all forms of support. He took control of their savings and told her he was making investments, but was frustratingly vague about the details. After she became pregnant, he didn’t want to make plans for the baby, or when they might return to Ireland. When she finally began to settle on the west coast and make friends during her pregnancy, he insisted on a move to the east. It was only later she would discover his reasons for pursuing the move. “He decided he had to get me away, because he didn’t trust the friends I’d made.”
Kate was in a dangerous situation, living with a man who had always been controlling, but now was increasingly paranoid. But she was unaware of the extent of it, putting his erratic behaviour down to the stress of a new baby, his new job, and sleepless nights, combined with the fact that, within a few months, she became pregnant with their second child. “He was taking all these extra shifts at work. I thought he was really stressed out, and he was letting his thoughts run away with him.”
What she didn’t know is that he had begun demonstrating odd, paranoid behaviour at work too and was put on involuntary leave. He told her he was taking time off due to stress and exhaustion. At this point, Kate finally opened up to her family about the fact that things hadn’t been great. With their help, she started trying to plan for them all to return to Ireland once she was on maternity leave.
He had maintained a semblance of normality, but now he began to unravel and she saw the anger he had been keeping under control. “It sent shivers down my spine. I had never seen that kind of anger… I was like a pressure pot, just trying to keep it together until I could get home, trying to keep him calm. And then, one day, I dropped our daughter to daycare, and he sat me down and said, ‘I don’t want you to be scared, but you’ve no idea what your family has been up to’.
“He told me that they had been in cahoots trying to get me away from him. So I very calmly said, ‘Okay, thanks for telling me all this’. I could see by his eyeballs he was disconnected. I knew in that moment he was literally out of his mind. It all fell into place for me. And then he said we were going to have to sever the ties with my family.”
Still maintaining a semblance of calm, Kate walked out of the house and went to a neighbour’s home, who helped her call a GP and an aid organisation for women in abusive situations. She didn’t return to the house, but had other people check up on him, and managed to get him to an appointment to be psychiatrically assessed. The psychiatrist warned her that it was not safe for her to be alone with him; that he was having a psychotic episode and refusing medication. “They asked me, ‘Did you think he was very controlling?’ I didn’t even know how to answer that, I was so controlled for so long.”
For the first time, on the phone to her brother that day, she spoke the words aloud that had been echoing in her head. “I’m terrified of him.” Seven days later, with her family’s help, she was on a plane back to Ireland with her infant.
Years later, back in Ireland and living with family, she is still trying to come to terms with it all. Her now ex-husband also returned to Ireland, and she has limited contact with him, exclusively about the children’s welfare. “I spent the first 12 months asking myself how I had the wool pulled over my eyes. How I believed him. I blamed myself. I sometimes think am I such a weak person. But those types of personality are so skilled at tricking you.”
Mostly, though, “I’m really proud of myself. I have my two children. I got back to work part-time. I have a life. I’m content. I’m lucky. And I look at him and think, you nearly ruined me, but you didn’t. You’re all alone, and you’re pathetic”.
Shame and stigma
It isn’t just fear or isolation that prevents people in abusive relationships seeking help; shame and stigma also play a part. A survey conducted by Women’s Aid of more than 1,000 people online found that the number one barrier to asking for help was stigma. “Number two was fear of the perpetrator,” says Benson.
“Part of it, too, can be people not wanting to be perceived as victims. But at some point in all our lives, there will be a time where walking alone through whatever journey it is can feel unbearable and lonely. And just reaching out to lean on somebody, even if it’s just for a moment, even if just for some respite, there’s absolutely no shame in it.”
For men who are victims of abuse, the shame and stigma can be intense. Robert – not his real name – wanted to tell his story “for the men out there whose voices are not heard as much”.
In the beginning, his relationship with his ex-wife followed a similar pattern to Kate’s. “Within two or three months, we were living in a house together. I just fell into it. She was beautiful, vivacious, gregarious and really bubbly.”
There was an incident at the beginning of their relationship where she wanted sex, and he didn’t. “I was saying, no, no, I’m in no hurry for this whatsoever, and she physically jumped me. As a guy, you don’t get to complain about such things,” he says, but he was distressed by it.
Later, as the relationship evolved, there were “full-on fights, she would just come at me. I would just sit back and take it. Her eyes would go piercing black and I knew, ‘s**t, I’m in trouble’. The next few hours would be torture. If I said I was leaving, she would threaten to kill herself. She’d take off in the car and text me that she was going in the river. Then there were nights I’d lie awake because I’d be afraid she’d stab me in my sleep,” he says.
“People are always asking, why didn’t you leave? But it’s more complicated. That was where the coerciveness came in. She was threatening me that she would tell people I raped her. She would come at me physically. She would hit me.” She also used guilt and shame to manipulate him. Sometimes he argued back, sometimes he didn’t. But he never retaliated physically, he says.
They went on to have children together, and he felt even more trapped: now he was afraid to leave because of the impact on them. “I had to wait until she got into a better place. I was on tablets for anxiety. I put on weight. I was miserable. I kept thinking, how do I ever get out of this? Sometimes, it was the physical fear that somebody was going to kill me. Sometimes, it was that I couldn’t even go for a pint with my buddies because of the week of war it would lead to.”
After the children were born, they began counselling both as a couple and individually, and she got involved in further education. Things improved for a while and, during a prolonged period of calm, “I saw my chance to get out”.
In the end, though, there was one last, explosive argument that ended it. “She blew up again at me over something. And I couldn’t take it. I put my fist through the wall. And then I knew I had to go before I did something else. I said that’s it. I told her I was leaving.”
In the end, leaving was relatively straightforward, which is not always the case for people in abusive relationships. Often, as it was for Kate, the point at which they try to leave is the most dangerous.
Afterwards, both Kate and Robert’s friends and family spoke about concerns they had about their relationships, but weren’t sure how to approach it. The key, says Benson, is “to be empathic and open, but not to be making value judgments. It could be as simple as saying, ‘if you don’t mind me saying, you seem a little bit unhappy. Are you okay, is there anything I can do? Is there anything you’d like to talk about?’”
Too often, people are afraid to say the wrong thing, and say nothing at all. Louise was in an abusive relationship that became physical towards the end. Years later, a friend told her that when she moved back to her home town after the relationship ended, “it was like seeing a whipped puppy for the first time”.
Through her work, Louise had met women who had been abused by a partner, and was familiar with the pattern it often takes. But it’s much harder to spot it when it happens to you, she says. He swept her off her feet and then quickly began alienating her from her family. “He thought it was childish of me to have a good relationship with my parents. To my eternal shame, I jeopardised my relationship with them in an effort to show him that I was grown up.” She fell into a pattern of placating him, going along with his plans, even when she had misgivings.
The relationship lasted seven years; she had a child in the final year. After their daughter was born, “I realised I needed to be the adult. When she was 10 months old, we were having a fight, and he said, ‘A trained monkey would do a better job than you’. I thought I can’t bring up a child in a house where I’m so disrespected. I picked up my child, walked out the door.”
A week later, Louise agreed to move back in until they sorted the practicalities out. One night not long after, “he came home drunk and assaulted me. He dragged me out of the house, threw me out of the front door on to the pavement”. The following Monday she got a barring order; he moved in with his girlfriend the same day. She was free, though it took a long time for her to recover her sense of self.
The anatomy of an abusive relationship often follows a similar pattern, no matter what stage in life it happens. “Younger women often don’t have financial independence, can’t access legal protections in the same way an adult would.” Even if they’re not living with the abuser, “a lot of the tactics are generally the same thing: constantly sending messages and then getting mad they’re not answered; telling somebody how to dress; saying I don’t want guys looking at you. Pushing the boundaries up to the point of forcing sex,” says Benson.
That was the pattern for Avril, who was 26 when she met her ex-partner. In the beginning, he was “booking up my time well in advance. There would be insecurity if I hadn’t texted back. He got jealous that I got on with his friends. There was a lot of guilt-tripping, a lot of emotional blackmail. But I’d dated a lot of assholes and I thought I was stupid for not being happy”.
It escalated dramatically after they moved in together. He would make sexual demands and abuse her verbally. “There was a lot of squaring up to me, clenched fists, speaking through gritted teeth. I didn’t think at that point it would go beyond that.”
The first time it did, he crushed her in a doorway. “I was in shock. I remember saying, ‘you’re scaring me’. He said, ‘I don’t care, I want to shut the door’.”
She became more resolute. She wrote a list of all the horrible things he had said to her, and read it back to him. By then, he was shouting at her in public, disparaging her in front of friends. One morning, “he grabbed me by my wrists and threw me on to the ground. When I was sitting on the floor, he was laughing at me. I remember thinking this is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for”.
The next day, she left. Leaving him was relatively straightforward but the process of unravelling the damage he had done took longer. “I lost 90 per cent of my social circle. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t trust myself.” That was several years ago, and though “my life is amazing now”, during the first lockdown, she was house-sitting for a friend and realised she was still jumpy. “I’ve been jumpy for seven years. And I had no idea.”
She has thought a lot about what it would be like to be stuck in an abusive relationship in lockdown. “I could imagine him interrupting my work, sabotaging it, turning off the wifi. I would imagine that perpetrators would be using the lockdown to isolate their partner. Work was a relief for me. When I was at work, I was out for eight hours and had other people in my life.”
It’s heartbreaking, she says, to think of people trapped in an abusive situation, feeling that they have no escape route. But there is always a way out. Help is there, she says. Her advice to anyone worried about the trajectory of their relationship is “if you feel it’s wrong, it’s wrong. You don’t have to wait until it gets more wrong”.
The 24/7 National Freephone Helpline for Women’s Aid is 1800 341 900. There is an instant-messaging service on womensaid.ie operating mornings and evenings during Covid-19 restrictions and a text service for people who are deaf and hard of hearing on 087 959 7980.
SafeIreland.ie offers a list of 38 domestic abuse services and Covid-19 updates in towns across Ireland.
There is a national Male Advice Line for male victims of domestic abuse on 1800 816 588.
An Garda Síochána is also there to help. For urgent assistance, call 999 or 112.