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'Neighbours told me she was being beaten but he had her programmed to deny it'

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

Sarah is taking strength from her role as mum to Katie (pics posed by models).
Sarah is taking strength from her role as mum to Katie (pics posed by models).
Image: Shutterstock/Predrag Popovski

This is the fourth 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.

FROM THE very start of his daughter Sarah’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Paul was anxious.

“The moment they met I was worrying,” he says.

My gut instinct was ‘What is she doing with him?’ It was a gut reaction but it was also that he was too stand-offish, he couldn’t be in my presence, as if he couldn’t be around another man with her.

Not long after she started going out with Eoin, Sarah moved into a house with some friends. Paul had a feeling something was not right one night and paid a visit to the house. Sarah was acting strangely, hiding something from him, and he felt she was covering for Eoin.

“He was deprogramming her and re-programming her in his language,” he says.

When I look back now at the words she was using that night, I can see that very early on he was trying to get into her head.

‘She convinced me it wasn’t happening’

Paul heard through neighbours that Sarah was being beaten by Eoin, but when he confronted her about it, she convinced him it was not true.

“She denied it down to the ground,” he recalls. “She actually convinced me, he had her so well programmed that she convinced me it wasn’t happening.”

It was only after Sarah eventually escaped that Paul learned the full extent of the violence she had been subjected to. He believes she kept it from him because she was afraid he would have taken matters into his own hands and then he “would have ended up the criminal”.

‘You need to go to court’

After the birth of her child Katie, Sarah managed to get away from Eoin, but he was still “controlling her over the phone,” says Paul.

I had to give her a scenario that he may come back into her life and try to take her child because he has rights. That’s when I said, ‘you need to get your rights in place, you need to go to court’.

Sarah got a safety order against Eoin. Paul says the experience of going court made her see that she could “stand on her own two feet”.

He says he is extremely proud of her:

“To watch her grow and to develop is amazing. To read her story is difficult, but I’m so proud of her and she is an amazing mother. She wouldn’t be able to have the relationship she has with her daughter if she was still in that situation.”

‘My little blessing’

Katie is now four years old and Sarah says she always calls her “my little blessing, she saved my life.”

I think once she came along, I felt like – I can’t have her witnessing this. It’s disturbing for me, never mind a baby.

Sarah was 17 years old when she met Eoin and the relationship lasted six years before her escape, three years ago. He was violent and emotionally abusive.

“The first time he hit me he sucker-punched me right into the kidney and he didn’t hit me for another two years after that,” she says.

‘Typical Prince Charming’

Sarah says she did not recognise the warning signs at the beginning, but looking back she can see there were red flags in Eoin’s behaviour.

“He was your typical Prince Charming. He was very attentive, taking care of me,” she recalls. “The behaviour is masked as though he’s looking after you, but really it’s controlling.”

Sarah became socially isolated, losing contact with all of her friends, and she found herself dressing the way Eoin wanted her to. She says:

You take it as – this is how he’d like to see me and if I wear these clothes it will please him. But actually it’s controlling. He wants to see you in what he wants to see you in. It’s not your choice.

Eoin would regularly disappear for prolonged periods of time and Sarah would have no idea where he was, including for the first four months of Katie’s life. During one disappearance towards the end of the relationship he threatened to kill her and to kidnap Katie.

“I was under the constant threat of being killed,” she says.

He was constantly threatening to bury me alive… He was also threatening to kidnap Katie away from me, so he was saying he’d leave me for dead and then take my daughter. That was the breaking point.

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It was during one of his disappearances that Sarah finally had a chance to escape. He left one day to collect his social welfare payment and she knew he was not coming back.

“Our relationship then was just over the phone for a few months,” she says. “He was keeping all that money for himself, he wasn’t giving me anything for milk or nappies. I think I caught him out on a lie at one stage and then I said, ‘this relationship is over’.”

‘It’s a new chapter’

Once the courts granted Sarah a safety order, Eoin was gone and she has not seen him since. She is focused on her studies and being a mum now, but she knows she is a different person because of what she went through.

“The experience has changed me. Definitely,” says Sarah. She is more wary of people, especially men.

“If a guy is interested in me, I tend to stand back and say: what’s his motive? What’s he trying to get at? Instead of thinking he’s interested in me as a person,” she says.

But at the same time she knows she is lucky to have gotten out of the relationship, for her sake and the sake of her daughter.

I think at least I survived and that might be a horrible thing to say because other people haven’t. It was six years of my life and they were wasted on him but I’m out of it now and it’s a new chapter I suppose.

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 whatwouldyoudo.ie.

TheJournal.ie contacted Sarah and Paul 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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