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'The first thing I noticed was that he would be hitting her legs'

Two perspectives on an abusive relationship: from a witness, and from a survivor.
Nov 28th 2016, 8:00 PM 118,264 18

This is the first 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.

ANN HAD reservations about her sister’s ex-boyfriend from early on in their relationship.

“From the start I never really liked him,” she says. “He’d come to the house and he’d be quite abrupt, very degrading as well.”

Ann had noticed other warning signs in how he would treat Michelle on nights out.

“He couldn’t really handle his drink,” she says, “He didn’t have to take a lot and his behaviour would completely change.”

On one particular night Ann wasn’t the only person alarmed by his behaviour.

‘One of them said it to me’

“The first thing I noticed was that he would be sort of hitting her legs,” she says, “There were other people with us on the night and one of them said it to me. They saw it as well as I did, the way he was towards her. That was about six months into their relationship.”

As it went on Ann struggled with wanting to intervene, then wondering whether she should at all. She says:

I wanted to tell her, but it’s hard and I didn’t want to just start a fight. But as time went on I knew I had to say something.

Their mother noticed too and spoke to Michelle, telling her daughter that her boyfriend was not the right man for her.

“I said it to her as well,” says Ann, “but I think it’s hard when you’re caught up in that situation, it’s hard to get out of it.

“Then when he hit her I think she just knew she had to leave.”

‘It was like somebody kicking me in the stomach’

“People are shocked when I say what happened to me, because I think there is still this stigma around girls that it happens to,” says Michelle, who was violently attacked by her now ex-boyfriend.

“After the assault I googled ‘domestic abuse’ and I was so shocked,” she says, “It was like somebody kicking me in the stomach when I was reading it, because everything that I read as the warning signs, I think I could tick, bar maybe one.”

For two years Michelle’s ex-boyfriend inflicted emotional abuse on her, wearing her down with a constant barrage of nasty comments in public and in private, destroying her self-esteem and turning her into a shadow of her former herself.

Everything had to be his way. If a friend of mine was in the house I would just sit there saying nothing. He would be saying everything and even when we went out I would be this quiet little person just standing beside him. I don’t know where the hell I went. I completely lost myself.

Michelle, who is now 34 years old, says the final straw was when her ex-boyfriend beat her one night after coming home drunk from the pub. She feels as though she had a lucky escape.

“I probably thought I was going crazy towards the end,” she says.

But the first time I talked about it with somebody, even with Women’s Aid, I realised: Okay this is not me, it’s totally him.

Michelle comes from a rural town where everybody knows everyone else’s business, yet few people will speak about domestic abuse.

“People probably did react to it like I was some sort of freak, but they would all have connections to him. I probably did let it get to me, but I was like – you know it’s probably going to come out that he’s done it to somebody else and I was just trying to warn ye,” she says.

She reported the assault to gardaí, who tried to prepare her for the victim blaming that followed – warning Michelle that her abuser would attempt to portray her as a liar or say she was “such a cow for reporting him for it,” she says.

That’s the attitude of some people, but in my eyes he could actually do it again and he could do it a lot worse. But people don’t see that.

Michelle says after the assault she spoke to her attacker’s sister who did not seem surprised by what her brother had done. But then his family began telling lies about her and tried to discredit her story.

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‘They’ll just lie for him again’

“That is so wrong,” she says, “You know, he’s able to do it again and if he does do it again, they’ll just lie for him again. To me that’s actually quite sick that they would do that.”

Michelle has a new job, she is getting on with life now and says she is not dwelling on the past because she is, “too busy making up for lost time.”

When you escape a situation like that you appreciate your loved ones, your true friends. You appreciate life.

Women’s Aid says one in five women suffer domestic abuse. Michelle hopes her story will help people realise that there is no such thing as a typical victim.

If I can get trapped in an abusive relationship, anyone can.

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 Michelle and Ann 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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Jennifer Ryan


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