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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 22 March, 2018

'I remember thinking, I'm gonna die. And nobody helped.’

Two perspectives on an abusive relationship: from a survivor, and from a partner.

Image: Rori.D

This is the second article in our Bearing Witness series exploring how abusive relationships can appear – from the outside, and from the inside. Some readers may find this article upsetting.

“THE FIRST time I cooked her a meal, I had the table all laid out and Eileen smashed a glass. She got a bad fright and was very apologetic about it,” says John.

“I said, ‘what are you apologising for? It’s only a glass.’ So I just smashed a glass myself,” he laughs.

She told me then that her ex-partner would have punished her for doing that. I thought ‘What?! What kind of person does that?’ That was the first kind of inkling I had that there was something in her past.

John asked Eileen about her ex-partner, father of her four children, and she told him he was out of her life. She confided that he “was a horrible person and he was violent towards her,” John says. But it “only came out gradually after that, that she was traumatised.”

Eileen was physically and emotionally abused by her ex-partner for 20 years.

‘It’s never that simple’

It affected the start of their relationship, in that Eileen was reluctant to get involved with anyone out of fear and a lack of trust. John says she stood him up on one of their first dates.

“We were supposed to meet in this pub and she didn’t turn up,” he recalls, laughing.

I phoned her and she said that her son wasn’t well. I knew she was hesitant about meeting up and I didn’t want to push her or anything, so I just told her we could meet another time if she liked.

John says initially he found it difficult to understand why Eileen had not walked away from with her violent ex-partner, but he eventually realised that it’s never that simple.

“The only time I would speak about it when we first got together was to say, ‘why did you stay with him?’” he says, “I couldn’t get my head around why she could stay with somebody like that and have kids and everything.

But I learned eventually that it was something else, it’s not something that I could come to terms with really. It’s something you probably have to go through, but it took me a while to realise that.

On one occasion Eileen and John returned to his home after a night out together to discover that her abuser had been at the house and caused a scene. Eileen was upset, but John reassured her:

“I said to Eileen, you know people who are bullies like that have some kind of inadequacy. He’s obviously jealous of you or something… I just kept saying to her he’s not with you anymore so you don’t have to worry about him.”

‘He would sing to me’

“I think I’m third generation domestic violence,” says Eileen.

One of 14 children, she grew up in a household where her father dominated, withholding money from her mother, with aggression and violence the norm.

I was born into it,” she says. “I was desensitised to it and it made me a target for [domestic abuse]. Made me vulnerable.

Eileen met her ex-partner Simon when she was just 15 years old. She says he wooed her publicly and put on a show in front of people.

“He would sing to me”, she recalls, “I was a real, blend-into-the crowd kind of person, but then he’d sing to me in front of everyone putting me at the centre of everything.”

All the girls would be like, ‘oh Eileen!’ and all this. The stuff I’ve read up on since, sure that was all those red flags and more.

By the age of 17 Eileen was expecting their first child, but eight months into her pregnancy she found out that Simon had cheated on her with her friend and she broke up with him.

But it didn’t last.

Eileen’s sister helped set her up with a house when her son was born and soon after Simon came knocking at her door. She took him back, “like an idiot,” she says.

Eileen hadn’t finished school, but after the birth of her son she went back to get her Leaving Cert and did training courses. “I was really determined,” she says, but Simon did his best to scupper her efforts. She says:

He’d get up at 5 o’clock in the day. I remember going into the bedroom and screaming at him to get up… and he’d just lie in bed or he’d swing the covers back and he’d just smack me. That was the beginnings of it.

For twenty years, Simon subjected Eileen to a sustained campaign of violence and emotional abuse. She was granted barring and safety orders against him, but he ignored them, entering the house as he pleased.

On one such occasion Eileen fled her own home as he slashed her new living room furniture with a knife and put a sweeping brush through her new television.

Simon used Eileen’s children against her, criticising her and even encouraging their daughter to be violent towards her. She assaulted Eileen six years ago and they have not spoken since. Eileen is distraught about that:

I realised then that he was gone, but he had done enough damage that the kids saw that I was a target for them. I thought I was hiding it from the kids, but actually he was breeding it in them.

Not long after Eileen made a final break from Simon ten years ago, he beat her so badly that she was hospitalised.

It happened on the street in front of other people, after he had followed her from a night at the cinema with a male companion.

“I just remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna die’. And nobody helped. There were people who saw,” she says.

Eileen says nobody should put themselves in danger by intervening in a violent assault like hers, but they can do something that nobody did for her:

In that situation, if somebody has a phone on them, just call the police.

If you think you may have witnessed or experienced domestic violence or abusive behaviour, you can access advice and support services for both women and men at contacted Eileen and John through Women’s Aid. The Women’s Aid 24-hour National Freephone Helpline is 1800 341 900.

It is important that bystanders and witnesses to domestic violence do not intervene in any potentially violent situation unless it is safe and legal for them to do so. Witnesses should be aware of the potential harmful effect that intervention may subsequently have on the victim. The victim is best placed to assess the danger to themselves.

Names and some specific details have been changed in the interests of protecting identity and to preserve the confidential nature of this story.

Amen provides a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse. It is open Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm and can be reached on 046 9023718.

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