Stories of abuse: ‘You must have said something to set me off’
Men sometimes say something like ‘those breasts are for me, they are not for the baby’
The housing crisis of recent years has made it even more difficult for abused women to move on to a new life. As one put it to a support worker recently: ‘Essentially what you are saying to me is that I have to make a choice between hospitalisation and homelessness?’ Photograph: iStockphoto
When Kate started dating Peter there was no waiting and wondering would he text back or call, because he was unequivocal that she was the ideal woman for him.
“I was put up there on the pedestal and that is very seductive; it kind of hooks you very quickly,” she says.
A university graduate, she had a good job, her own house and car and, outwardly at least, was a confident, single mother with one child. However, her own mother had died the previous year so she was probably “a bit vulnerable”.
She recalls how Peter did behave oddly on their first meal out in a restaurant together, when she poured herself a glass of wine and then asked if he would like some.
He told her angrily to put the bottle down, that a proper lady would never pour her own wine, she would wait for a gentleman to do it. That was news to her. Although she did start to question her manners, she quickly saw that was ridiculous and it was his issue not hers.
“But at the same time, right up to the time we split up, I never poured myself wine again in front of him,” she says, her eyes already beginning to glisten as we sit in her private office in Dublin city centre and she recounts her descent into a hellish, abusive relationship.
Peter’s remarks about the wine set the tone for the controlling behaviour that was to come. He moved in with her early on but didn’t contribute to any of the bills – saying they were Kate’s bills. He used rental income from two of his own properties to pay the mortgages on them and then had the salary from his job, while Kate found her disposable income shrinking at the added expense of a third person in the house.
“We’d go out and he would pay so he did spend money but he was in control because he would buy the dinner, the wine and so on; I wouldn’t have money to go out on my own.”
One night she arranged for the two of them to go out with one of her best friends, a gay man, and his partner, but the dinner ended in a big row and Peter walked out, accusing her of having an affair with her friend’s partner.
“I ended up forgiving him but of course my friends never forgave him,” she says. None of her friends liked him and didn’t want to see her if he was there.
The more her social life waned, the more she relied on him.
“From the time we met, he kept wanting to have a child and I said no.” With her son nearing the end of primary school, she didn’t want another child on her own. But after various ups and downs, “he said ‘let’s get married and then we can have a baby and that will settle me down’ – and, yes, I was stupid enough to fall for that”, Kate says, likening her situation to the boiled frog syndrome.
Place a frog in boiling water, it will jump out; put it in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
They married and as soon as she became pregnant, Peter became more aggressive and controlling. Five months on, during a row after a night out, he assaulted her.
“The next day I was covered in bruises. He was sleeping downstairs on the sofa and I don’t think he remembered half of it. But when I showed him the bruises, he said, ‘What did you do, you must have said something to set me off?’”
She told him to get out of the house, he refused and she threatened to phone the gardaí. “He said, ‘You won’t and you know you won’t,’ and he was right.”
But increasingly desperate to make him leave, she threatened to ring his two children from a previous relationship, then in their early teens, and tell them to come over and see what their father had done to her. Peter stormed out.
“For about two days I was in the house on my own, shell-shocked.” Self-employed, her work was badly hit by the recession; she didn’t know how she was going to pay for childcare to work. She couldn’t see how she was going to have enough money to live and pay the mortgage.
“I remember being in a blind panic and thinking I couldn’t do it on my own, I needed to take him back. I couldn’t see any other way out. I had never had social welfare in my life so couldn’t see what supports were there.”
Peter kept phoning her and, after about three days, she was worn down and suggested he come over and they could talk.
“In my head I was clinging to anything he could give me to make it okay. I knew it wasn’t but I wanted to be able to justify taking him back.” He said he was sorry and that he shouldn’t have gone so far and that banging her head was an accident.
“I said to him, ‘You keep saying it won’t happen again but how am I ever supposed to trust you?’ . . . His response was shocking. He said, ‘How are you supposed to trust me? What about how am I supposed to trust you? You were the one willing to go to the guards about me; you were the one willing to go to my children about me and ruin my relationship with them. I am willing to trust you after all that.’
“I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Oh good God, he doesn’t get it.’”
She knew he wasn’t giving her anything to justify her taking him back but with all her worries about how she would cope on her own, she said simply, “Okay, then we’ll make a go of it.”
As she was saying it, she knew he now had complete control over her. “It was as if I gave him the green light that day to do exactly as he pleased. There were no boundaries and he knew it. If I wasn’t going to leave [the relationship] then, I was never going to leave,” says Kate, a tear trickling down her cheek.
Risk during pregnancy
There are times when the levels of risk of domestic abuse for women go up – and one of those is during pregnancy, says the director of Women’s Aid, Margaret Martin. A study by the Royal College of Midwives found that 25 per cent of women who had been severely physically abused had been abused for the first time when they were pregnant.
“We know from listening to women that they are abused a lot around the time when the baby is home first,” Martin says. “If she is breastfeeding, a lot of that behaviour would be about blocking the attachment to the child. Men sometimes say something like ‘Those breasts are for me, they are not for the baby’.”
Women’s Aid was founded in 1974 – one year after the end of the marriage bar in the civil service – to help stop domestic violence against women and children. In public life, there have been huge advances in gender equality in the 40-plus years since, yet this lifeline for women abused within the walls of their own home is needed as much as ever.
Indeed, the housing crisis of recent years has made it even more difficult for abused women to move on to a new life. As one put it to a support worker recently: “Essentially what you are saying to me is that I have to make a choice between hospitalisation and homelessness?”
Women’s Aid estimates that roughly one in five women in Ireland suffers domestic abuse – most commonly emotional abuse, followed by physical abuse, financial abuse and sexual abuse.
In Ireland, 60 per cent of abuse starts before the age of 25, so the organisation is now trying to raise awareness of the signs of an unhealthy relationship among young dating adults, through a campaign called 2in2u. (Ironically, at the time of writing, the website had been hacked by a porn site.)
“It’s easier to leave a relationship when you have not bought property together and when you don’t have a child in common,” says Martin. Once there is a child, there will always be an attachment and you are probably going to have to provide access.
If the father is very dangerous, there are a lot of deficiencies in the system, she warns. These include the lack of a separate risk assessment for the child when the courts are ruling on access.
“There’s this absence of understanding the dynamics of abuse and the relationship between child abuse and domestic abuse,” says Martin. There are cases where there is no co-occurrence “but it still justifies a risk assessment”. Last year there were 5,966 disclosures of child abuse to Women’s Aid.
While Martin acknowledges the very welcome move to encourage men to bond more with their children, some mothers are deeply distressed when their children are self-harming or begging not to go to their father.
Women’s Aid was bitterly disappointed that after a two-year pilot of a child contact centre by Barnardos and One Family, and despite a very positive evaluation, there was no funding to continue it or to establish others. Instead, sometimes women have to place themselves, their families and their friends at risk by the need to have somebody to supervise access.
Research published by Trinity College Dublin last summer found that contact between children and fathers in the aftermath of parental separation “facilitates the continued abuse of women and children”.
For women in abusive relationships, children are “very key” in their decision-making process, explains Martin.
“Very often they may have been abused for years and then they find out he is also abusing the children – and that is when they decide to leave. Or they may decide to stay because he is not abusing the children and they feel it is not having a huge impact, despite the fact that it is recognised that witnessing abuse is emotional abuse as well.”
When Kate found herself increasingly trapped after the birth of their daughter, all she was concerned about was the future for her two children
“I couldn’t work; I couldn’t get out of the house. I ended up having no money coming into my account but all the bills were coming out of it.”
Isolated and depressed, she was trying to put on a “happy” face for her teenage son, who was just starting secondary school.
“I was in a really dark place and I could see no way out.” She was worried her children would end up homeless.
However, her life insurance was still in place and she knew it covered suicide if there was depression. The children would get the house then and there would be some money left over. She believed she had to kill herself so that they could have a life and a future.
Kate arranged her daughter’s christening first and, 10 days later, took an overdose. Referred to a psychiatrist afterwards, it was quickly pointed out to her that she was in an abusive relationship and she was encouraged to contact Women’s Aid. But she was reluctant to do that, not seeing herself as a victim.
It was only when a nurse dialled the organisation’s helpline before handing her the phone and walking out, that Kate started to look for support. “All the research shows that when a woman is separating, it is the six months before and the six months after that she is most vulnerable,” says Martin. “That is a very well-established risk indicator but it is not well known.”
Itching for a row
One evening at home some weeks later, Kate sensed Peter was itching for a row, so she went up to sleep with their daughter, who was nine months old by then. His children were staying over and he was downstairs with them and her son.
“To this day I feel guilty about it because I went up when I knew he was in the mood for a row but I never thought he would touch anybody but me.”
She heard later that her son had playfully thrown a cushion at Peter and he said “Don’t do that again” – and of course he did. “He got up and ran across the room and started punching my son quite badly – and he never told me. They all went to bed without saying anything.”
About two days later, she spotted her son’s bruises and asked what happened and eventually it came out.
“There was no comeback from that. Peter was out of the house immediately and I spent the night talking to my son, asking him why didn’t he tell me.
“He said ‘I knew if you knew, you would throw him out and I didn’t want [his sister] to lose her dad because of me.’”
Peter has never been in the house since. Court proceedings for maintenance, separation and divorce dragged on for four years. After a long period of no contact with his daughter, he now has three hours’ access a week. “He changes her the minute she walks into his house and puts her in different clothes and re-dresses her to come back to my house.” It makes her daughter feel her clothes are never good enough for him, says Kate.
Is she in another relationship now? “Oh God no,” she laughs at the very idea. She is just happy that she has “two beautiful, healthy” children.
“I am not confident in myself that I would make the right judgments,” she adds, “and I would never put myself in that position again.”
Names have been changed.
The Women’s Aid national freephone helpline is 1800 341 900 and it operates 24/7. In the first three months of this year, it received 1,400 calls overnight, compared with 314 contacts to the out-of-hours voice message service over the same period in 2015.