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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019

Leaving an abusive relationship: He knocked me into a wall when I dared to speak back

A year after leaving her violent partner, one woman is still learning how to cope.


Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence which some readers may find upsetting.

THE WORST THING my ex-partner has done to me is to make me feel afraid of myself. I feel like I can’t trust myself, my former self or my future self. He wanted me to feel like this is normal, that I am naive and that what happened to me can happen again.

He was not awful to me when I first met him. I didn’t go on a date and get slapped in the face and decide to stay. That’s not how it happens, that’s not how it is. I met him and he was wonderful. He hung on my every word, complimented me and was attracted to me and we had fun.

We laughed all the time, at the start. It starts slowly and silently. With looks and small comments. Innocuous comments, or so you believe in the beginning. Small criticisms of pointless, unimportant things.

But it isn’t harmless, it isn’t innocuous and eventually it will tear you apart. For me, I got out before the physical violence became visible. He had twice physically hurt me and somehow it was the best thing he had ever done for me. Because I saw the chance to leave.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what he was doing. I did, to some extent. It’s just that I thought I could help him. I thought that once he’d calmed down, he would listen to reason. But you can’t talk to an unreasonable person. There’s nothing with which to reason.

When it was good, it was too much of a risk to try and bring anything up. I learned that the hard way. When it was bad, I tried my best to make him see sense but that only spurred him on further. When it was really bad, I couldn’t escape the loop of insults and criticism – and when it was really, really, really bad, I saw the opportunity to run.

Why I waited so long is a question with which I still struggle. In all honesty, I didn’t see a way to leave before he gave me the concrete answer, an answer I didn’t know I’d been waiting for. The view from the floor.

I wasn’t surprised that last day. I remember simply thinking: “This is it. Here it comes.” I didn’t scream, I was fairly resolute in my acceptance of the situation. It felt like I’d been waiting for it for years.

The biggest surprise was the fact that there was a strange sense of relief, of completion: I had been given a way out that was absolute and left no explanation. Or so I thought at the time. The worst days – much, much later – were the times I thought about going back, fleeting thoughts though they may have been.

I am a 31-year-old woman and last year I left an abusive relationship. We were together for three-and-a-half years. That’s a long time to wait to leave.

I didn’t take photos of bruises. I didn’t think I’d have to. I didn’t want to destroy his life. To be honest, I thought he’d done that himself. I never realised that I would have to explain, to discuss, to argue my case. But I did, and some days I still have to.

Feeling ashamed

I was orally raped when I was 17. I don’t think I’ve ever written that sentence before. It was by a boy I knew, a boy I had been kissing that night. I didn’t see it coming and honestly am not sure if I’ve ever resolved my feelings about it.

I had never told a boyfriend about that night; I was so afraid that they would see me differently, treat me differently. But I told this boyfriend. I thought it would help me, and help him to understand better.

You’re supposed to be able to tell your boyfriend, partner, husband all your secrets. The things you’re most afraid of, the things you can’t tell anyone else. I trusted him. I was so wrong. He used all of my secrets against me, all of my insecurities and fears. He used them to hurt me, to undermine me and to make me doubt and dislike myself.

There was one particular evening and he was yet again fighting with me. I was selfish, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t care about what he wanted. He told me that it wasn’t fair that he should have to miss out on something he wanted just because of what some asshole did to me when I was seventeen.

What he wanted was oral sex, but not as I would have given. He was rough, really rough. On this one particular occasion, I complied. I didn’t want to but I did. It was better than having to face the inevitable shouting, swearing and silent treatment that always followed when I disappointed him in some way.

He was being pretty rough, but I continued, uncomfortably. Eventually I ended up retching and throwing up bile. You would imagine that at this point I would have stopped, but I was so intimidated by this man, that the safer, easier alternative was to clean it up with my mouth and pretend it never happened.

To this day he doesn’t know that I did that. That I felt so ashamed of myself, so nervous of him and his reactions to me doing something ‘wrong’ that I licked up my own bile. Afterwards he expressed his appreciation and I pretended I was fine.

I felt like I was dying inside, but I smiled. I hated what I had become. In what state of mind could I have been in that the alternative was to do something like that? I was broken. But I didn’t know how to fix it.

Sex had become a minefield. I could rarely do anything right. There was no room for me in our bedroom. He blamed me for everything. I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t turn him on. He was aggressive, had been becoming more aggressive in bed for a while.

He would pull my hair so tight, I would have to pull against him in order to be able to breathe properly. He didn’t seem to notice that I was even a real person in these moments. I had become an object, a means to an end.

It does something to you, when you or your partner has begun to use your body in this way. You feel an emptiness inside, a damaging force of objectivity. One evening, after a particularly cruel argument, I locked myself in the bathroom and had a panic attack lying in the bath.

He told me that I was a selfish bitch, that he wouldn’t flirt with other girls, but they make more effort than I did. Maybe if I dressed sexier, wore more make-up he wouldn’t. It was my fault.

He eventually told me that actually he preferred having sex with his ex-girlfriend than me. That was when I went to lie in the bath. Sobbing and trying to breathe. When I came out, I asked him why he was saying these things, he told me simply: ‘Because I want to hurt you.’

He gained power from hurting me. Every reaction I had was a source of power for him. I had become numb to the usual swearing, shouting, the “shut the fuck ups” and the “shut your fucking mouths”.

He had to go further and further each time. I was a slut and a whore, I was a selfish bitch, a stupid c*nt a fucking moron, a silly c*nt. I was gross, disgusting and he thought he might catch something from me.

He thought I had been with too many men, and that I was disgusting, but he said that he thought he would have at least got what he wanted from me. I was insecure and paranoid, irrational and jealous. He once said the words, ‘You used to be so confident, what happened?’ I just stood there in disbelief and silence.

I apologised for everything, for my very being. I don’t know how this happened, it wasn’t how any conversation started out. I once apologised for not telling him properly that he was hurting me by his behaviour. How? How did I become this person? Where had I disappeared to?

This wasn’t the person I was supposed to be. It wasn’t the person he had started going out with. It seemed like he had taken all of the things that he had loved about me in the first place and torn them to shreds. He now hated all of that and I could do nothing right. The goalposts kept moving, I would master one thing and he would come up with a new problem.

My behaviour was so modified by the end, I didn’t know what I was doing. I questioned my every step. My whole day was mapped out by whatever type of mood he was in that day. I used to cry most days on my way home from work. Thinking about all the things I needed to say to him. Things that we needed to sort out. Plans I had for the future, the voice that I had lost.

Pulling it together

But every day I would get to the front door and pull myself together and pretend that I was fine. I knew that if I walked in the door with anything other than a smile and joy to be back in his presence that I would be looking at another evening of fighting or of silence.

I wasn’t allowed to be in a bad mood, I wasn’t allowed to have a bad day. If I took too long to take my earphones out or didn’t greet him properly I was facing accusations of not caring enough. I should be happy once I was back with him. Nothing else should matter. It’s a pretty exhausting way to live.

He on the other hand could be in whatever mood he liked. You won’t find a more negative person. The world was against him. But he created a space where it was us against them, and by god I should appreciate everything he did for me.

I was sick all the time, I rarely get sick. It was as if my body was trying to tell the story my soul couldn’t. I got abscesses and cysts, I got heat stroke and colds, sore throats and had chest pains that never seemed to leave. I was exhausted and wasn’t sleeping. I was in a constant state of latent anxiety, waiting for the next time he was in a bad mood.

I was walking on eggshells and didn’t know what the next day would bring. I would tell him if I was feeling anxious. I’ve battled anxiety and depression since my teens and have learned that I should say out loud when I was experiencing symptoms.

If we were OK at that time, he would tell me not to worry that he had everything under control. I was worried about money, our future, our inability to save, to clear his many debts and didn’t know what sort of a future we would have with his financial history. I was constantly worried that I would have to do all the heavy lifting when it came to financing our life.

He worked part time, and didn’t seem to care about things like that. We had each other, didn’t we? Why couldn’t I be happy knowing that? We had a roof over our heads? Of course we did, I was paying all the rent and most of the bills. I was making him stressed talking about money, making him feel bad about debts that were nothing to do with me and that he didn’t want to talk about.

If we were fighting when I told him of my anxiety or stress, he would tell me that they were my issues and it wasn’t his problem that I couldn’t “handle him” when he was angry. It was my responsibility to ‘deal with him’ when he was abusing me.

I dreaded getting sick. Firstly, I often got sick after he did, not unusual since we were living together and were partners. Somehow though I always had the impression that he thought I was doing it on purpose. An irrational mind will do that. He was initially always caring when I was ill.

But as the illness progressed he would get increasingly frustrated, impatient and angry. He yelled at me that he said I looked fine, like I was looking for a compliment, for attention. I was actually asking him if my face was more swollen than the previous night. I had two massive abscesses and at that point was so swollen that I could see my own mouth without the aid of a mirror. He was angry that I wasn’t listening to him.

Moments of hope

Logic told me that I couldn’t, but somehow I still wanted to help him. I begged him to get help, told him I would be with him through it. He would promise he would, and then the next time say he didn’t need it, that he didn’t believe in therapy and that it was my problem anyway. If only I wasn’t so annoying, if only I could just do what he wanted.

He once asked me if I needed him to make a list for me, his sentence trailed off. He drew an explanation on the wall of his room as to how exactly I was annoying him. It was one of the few times he caught himself and heard what he was doing. That happened a couple of times. Where he would realise what was happening. Those moments gave me hope.

But he quashed those feelings deep. He couldn’t accept what he had become. He had stopped apologising in the last nine months of our relationship. I had moved in with him, I had met all of the issues that he had with me, and now he had me where he wanted me.

He forgot all his promises and was resolute: I was the problem and how dare I make him feel bad about anything. The constantly moving goalposts made it impossible for me to keep up with his complaints. Nothing was ever going to be enough, no matter what I did, he would find another problem.

I once wrote down a list of some of the terrible things he had said to me.

You’re lucky I’m not a violent man.
I know why you’re so annoying, you question everything.
I have my anger under control, your face is still intact, isn’t it?
You’re a shit girlfriend.
You don’t turn me on. You’re not sexy enough.

When he read the list his response was only: “Do you know how hard that was for me to read?” It was out of context and I never listen, that was one of my problems.
He couldn’t seem to grasp the reality of how hard it was for me to have to hear those things from the man that I did honestly love.

But my feelings were secondary, always. He came first. If he was having a good day, I was having a good day. I was caught in a cycle of abuse that I couldn’t find my way out of. Our lives had become so intertwined that I would lose everything should I go.

Standing up for myself

I left him once. It lasted a few months, but I went back. I reasoned myself into it, thought he would change, he didn’t, he never will. On the day that we decided to give things another go, he told me that I had had my  ”out” and that if I left him again, that he wouldn’t be so good to me, that he would make sure I lost everyone.

Why I didn’t run screaming then, I have no idea. I just always thought that there would be time later to bring things up, to figure things out. He had problems, and I would help him with those, and then we could talk about all of it. I couldn’t leave him when he needed my help.

That day never came, and things just got worse and worse. By the end I felt like I needed a “good” reason to leave. I had rationalised all the other reasons. The psychological and verbal abuse didn’t seem like enough. I thought about recording our fights, to make him listen to how he treated me. I never seemed to do it though.

I would start out standing up for myself, but end up cowering, backing down, crying and asking that he just be nice to me. What a question to have to ask of your boyfriend: “I just want you to be nice to me.” The words rattle around my head constantly.

When I finally got the courage to tell him that when he was angry, he scared me, he told me that he was leaving me, because he couldn’t be with someone that thought that of him. Again, it was my perception of things, and I was wrong, and it was never his fault.

I had started saving money in a separate account that he didn’t know about. I told myself that it was an emergency fund, a “just in case we needed something” fund. The fact was that I had little control over our finances. I was paying for everything, which left me with nothing extra for myself. I only went out when he was out, and would give him any money at the start of the evening.

This was all under some sort of guise of me being incompetent. What did it matter, it was “our money”. Funny how it was always “our money” when he was spending it. I rarely bought anything or did anything by myself, and on the rare occasions that I did, he made it almost impossible for me to enjoy it. Anything I did by myself was undermined to the point of obsolescence.

Emotional agony

The last month with him was horrific. I couldn’t move, but that set him off into a rage, into the usual silent treatment or onslaught of insults. Two weeks before the day I left, we were actually having a pleasant evening together. An argument erupted because of a cup. A cup.

I was being crushed in a doorway by my boyfriend. I can’t find the right word for this action. He didn’t want to listen to me, and he wanted to close the door, so he closed it on top of me. He loved doors. He liked to slam them. He liked to close them in my face.

The plaster on the wall in our sitting room was cracked because he had slammed it so hard, so many times. The bedroom door kept sticking for the same reason, and there was a cupboard door that was falling off its hinge.

This time, though, I was the one that got damaged in the door. My boyfriend was a big guy, and he, full force, with all his strength, crushed me between the door and the door jamb.

I was in shock, my voice sounded tiny and scared as I told him to stop, that he was hurting me. That he was scaring me. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. The answer: “Because I want to close the door.” I was nothing.

I was crying hysterically on the couch, in shock, in emotional agony. He couldn’t stop anymore. He completely retreated into denial. He hadn’t done anything wrong – he wouldn’t apologise.

This was the point that I became really scared of him. I had always convinced myself that it would never get to this point. As explanation for his behaviour, he listed all of my faults, all of my secrets and insecurities. And then he told me that he loved me in spite of all of it.

In spite of who I was, he loved me anyway, and I should be grateful for that. After everything he had done for me, how could I still not understand that? That night I ended up comforting him. I can’t remember now how I did that.

I got stubborn at the end. I knew I couldn’t live like that. I needed to stand up to him, to speak back to him, to try to make him understand he couldn’t treat me that way. That’s when I ended up being dragged from my doorway, knocked into a wall and onto the ground.

Squaring up to me hadn’t worked, the spitting rage through gritted teeth didn’t see me cower the way it usually would. I didn’t back away, I stood in front of him and told him straight. He couldn’t speak to me like that.

Walking away

People have asked me why I didn’t just move out of his way, let him walk away after he had called me names, after he had humiliated me and threatened me. But I couldn’t. I had to tell him to stop, to think, to see that he couldn’t insult and swear at me. I needed to stand up for myself – I couldn’t take it anymore.

As I lay on the floor of our hallway, he laughed a snide little laugh, looked at me and said, “you silly c*nt”. I half picked myself up and sat against the door, in shock, in a weird calm, inside myself.

I tried to put a t-shirt on, which he had earlier in the argument shouted at me to take off because it was his. He grabbed it and threw it behind him across the hall to where I couldn’t reach. I couldn’t have been more vulnerable. And he was laughing at me.

I sat in our apartment for a whole day before telling anyone or doing anything. Part of me thought that if I could fix it, if I could talk to him, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone. I was in shock. Paralysed with the realisation that this had actually happened to me. I didn’t want to believe it, and my mind tried to rationalise it as best it could.

But there was no getting away from it now. I knew it was all over, that the decision had been made for me. There was no fixing it. And I had to start thinking about fixing myself. I never imagined that this could have happened to me, I don’t think anyone can.

After I left, the range of moods and emotions were astounding and overwhelming and sometimes I still find myself seeking approval for my decisions. My clothes, makeup, hobbies, interests. I repeat myself constantly, especially if I am nervous or tired. I apologise first, before anyone even questions me. Just in case. Adapting to the real world was incredibly hard.

New realisations about my relationship kept hitting me in waves over a period of months. It’s been over a year now, and I’m still learning how to cope with people. I’m still discovering the ways in which my brain had reprogrammed itself to just survive through the daily life of the relationship. Sometimes I feel like if I feel better, it means that what happened to me won’t matter. Like I’m the only proof of what he did.

I want him to know that he will never break me, not now, no more. I want him to know that I’m not going anywhere, that he will have to face what he’s done when he sees me.
I want to reclaim a life that was always mine to begin with but that I now have no idea how to reach.

It’s been a very long journey to today. There’s still a lot of work I have to do to heal, but one thing I need to remember is this: I was wrong on one point. The decision wasn’t made for me. I made that decision. Somewhere, I found the strength to make that decision.

I walked away. I didn’t go back when the pleas and bargains and empty promises started flowing. And I am the one that gets ownership of my own story. Not him. And that’s a really good place for me to start.

The writer is a campaigner with the White Ribbon Campaign Ireland, a movement to end men’s violence against women.

Drawing on her own experiences as a survivor of domestic abuse, she has worked since 2014 to highlight the consequences of emotional and psychological abuse and break down cultural stereotypes of those who are affected by abuse.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, the Women’s Aid freephone helpline can be reached on 1800 341 900 and is open from 10am to 10pm every day except Christmas Day. Male victims of domestic abuse can also contact Amen‘s helpline on 046 9023718. 

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