“Keeping the peace”: naming domestic abuse for what it is

This post is inspired by the current public discussion around domestic abuse, and by @Eliza_Do_Lots’ post Domestic Abuse is Not Always Violent



Things started to go wrong as soon as my ex-husband – let’s call him Nic – arrived in the UK. We’d met online, and my Englishness was clearly a draw. Nic was, he said, an anglophile to the core. He preferred British fiction, music, comedy. He loathed American religiosity and small-mindedness and was, he felt, the kind of US liberal who is naturally more at home in Europe. I visited him twice in the States, and he did indeed seem like a fish out of water. There was no question, anyway, of my moving to America because of the children so the common sense answer to our long distance relationship was for him to move in with me.

I was shocked when he spent most of the first few weeks complaining about how awful everything was. All the novels and TV he’d absorbed had somehow failed to prepare him for the realities of the British climate. He complained constantly of being cold. He said he was claustrophobic, that he hadn’t realised how small, how pokey, most English houses were in comparison with the sprawling ranch house he grew up in. He’d never lived with children and the reality of being around kids of three and six – the noise they made, the smells, the mess – was a shock to his system.

I tried to be kind. I knew it couldn’t be easy for him. He was jet lagged, and had picked up an unfamiliar virus the moment he set foot on European soil. And above all, this was only the second time he’d ever left the USA (the first being a scant week of preparation a few months ago). I tried to put myself in his place, tried to draw on all those times I’d been abroad and felt confused and out of place, unable to interpret the culture even though language wasn’t an issue. Nic rounded on me, accusing me of being condescending. He said I was showing off  (“Ooh, look how well-travelled I am!”) that I was mocking him. That hurt, because I had been trying to show empathy, but I let it go.

Quite quickly this became the pattern. Nic would do something reprehensible; I looked for reasons to make excuses for him; and then, whatever it was that he had said or done, I just… let it go. So when I tried to tell him about my day and he yelled, “Jesus! You’re like a machine gun going off in my ear!”, I let it go. Questioning him about anything resulted in a shout of, “Will you please get off my back?” but that was something I learned to accept, too. When we went out I lived in fear of his mood switching, darkening, because that might mean a sudden refusal to go along with our plans or an immediate demand to go home. But I let that go too, because it kept the peace.

It didn’t take long for me to understand that it wasn’t just America or Americans Nic disliked. In fact he detested pretty almost all people other than me. He hated my parents. He despised my friends. He quickly got into quite serious and worrying conflict with our neighbours. He loathed any attempt at cheeriness by postmen, bus drivers, shop assistants, waiters. They were all assholes. They were in his face. They were laughing at him. People I loved were judged unpleasant in any number of ways. They were “creepy”. They looked “grimy”. They were “snooty” or they  “never stopped fucking talking.” Oh, he was polite enough to their faces; but I knew that afterwards I’d be subjected to a lengthy monologue about how awful he had found the experience. And so gradually, imperceptibly, it became the accepted thing that I didn’t “do” other people, either. I stopped inviting relatives, discouraged friends from dropping by unannounced. It was just easier that way.

You might think the obvious solution would have been for me to see friends and family alone. But Nic didn’t like me leaving him behind either. Didn’t I realise how lonely he was while I was at the office? How desperate he was for me to get home and be with him? How upsetting it was when I spent time with my parents or my children, let alone friends or colleagues? And so it became an established fact that I spent all my free time with Nic. Because he needed me.

At the beginning of our marriage, Nic was not permitted to work. I knew that we couldn’t all live on my NHS admin salary, so while we were waiting for Home Office approval I took on some additional work as a private tutor. On the nights the children were with my ex-husband, I was helping other people’s kids through their English GCSEs. My little ones were young, high need, still waking in the night, and I was exhausted. And so I was delighted when a letter with a Home Office crest arrived confirming that Nic was now allowed to seek employment. Only when I looked from the letter to his face, I felt a chill. I could read in his expression that getting a job was the very last thing on his mind.I thought he’d see sense. I thought he’d realise that I couldn’t do everything. I thought he would at least start doing the housework, so I had less to do when I got in. Yet he didn’t see housework as his responsibility either, especially as so much of it was related to the children, and – as he would constantly remind me – they weren’t his kids.

Slowly, inevitably, we began to slip into debt. Nic ate like he was still in a country of big portions and low prices. He used vast quantities of hot water and because he was at home all day and the climate “got into his bones” our heating bills were astronomical. I say, “our”, but of course everything was in my name. I was the one to whom the creditors were starting to send out all those red letters. And so we began to have The Money Conversation on a regular basis. I would cry, beg, be literally on my knees, point out that this couldn’t go on. Nic would promise to look for work and turn on the computer, but his searches were constrained by all the things he wouldn’t do, the hours he wouldn’t work (anything that started before midday), and whether he thought the job would involve being around too many people. Six weeks’ part-time Christmas work was welcome, but getting Nic to part with any of his earnings quickly showed me that although my money was our money, his money was his.

There was no more work in the New Year. The debts spiralled. I found myself in a place where any money that went into my bank account only just tipped me back into my authorised overdraft, and as soon as the next direct debit went out, I was back in the red again. Each time I went crossed my overdraft limit the bank had slapped yet another charge on my account. It was an inescapable trap. I owed money on store cards, credit cards, a bank loan. I started to sell my personal possessions online, telling myself I didn’t really need this first edition, that musical instrument, those boots I had loved. My life became dominated by whether I could snatch £10 from the ATM between PayPal funds going into my account and the next direct debit going out. If not, I would have to face the humiliation of asking my mum to buy food for my children. It could, I knew, get worse than that. So far, the one bill I’d been scrupulous about keeping up with was the mortgage, but I couldn’t manage that for much longer. And if I lost the house, I knew I could lose joint custody of the kids.

Work friends – the only people Nic couldn’t stop me seeing – were concerned. They felt that I was out on an emotional limb, intertwined with Nic to a point that I couldn’t see that his behaviour was ridiculous, that he was controlling me, isolating me, that he didn’t seem to care that I was working myself into the ground. Intellectually, I knew they were right. Away from home, in the relative sanity of the office, I accepted I couldn’t go on, that something would have to change. Only as soon as the front door closed behind me, I was back in a world where the was no-one but Nic and me. And no-one else could understand us, what we had.

I had almost decided I needed to make a break. Almost. With the ongoing support of colleagues I was close to hanging onto that 9-5 perspective, beginning to bring it back with me and look at my home life through their eyes. I had already “rebelled” by inviting two dear friends to visit. We couldn’t stay at my place, not with Nic upstairs sulking, so we took a walk in the sunshine. As we strolled by the river I started to talk, to try and justify myself, explain why they hadn’t heard from me and how weird everything had become. I described the yelling and the sulking, the refusal to get out of bed and into a job. How I had stopped trying to see family and friends. The current parlous state of my finances and the possessions I had sold. My friends’ eyes grew larger and larger. “I hope you know,” said Heather (and she looked, at that point, truly horrified), “that you’ve been living in an abusive relationship?”

Did I know? Kind of. Sort of.  I knew that even though Nic said he loved me he didn’t speak to me as if he respected me. I knew he was content to sit back and let me work myself into the ground, cry myself sick over our debts, while he did nothing. But abused? I thought was a very strong word.

Nine months later I was in a training room learning how to deliver IDAP (Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme). IDAP is the Home Office’s offending behaviour programme for perpetrators of domestic violence and it uses a “wheel” diagram to illustrate how different forms of abuse reinforce each other. Most men end up on IDAP for very obvious offences of violence, stalking or harassment, but once they are on the programme they have to learn about how using male privilege, economic abuse, isolation, emotional abuse, minimizing/denying/blaming, and threats/coercion all support the violence. They are the groundwork. Looking at the wheel I felt panicky, embarrassed. What would my probation colleagues think if they knew how many segments of the wheel I had so recently been living in?

It’s nine years now since I got out from under. I will forever be grateful to the friends who helped me realise that while violence is always abuse, abuse doesn’t always have to be violent. Sometimes the violence comes later. Sometimes it never comes at all, but the result is always a woman living within someone else’s narrow parameters, trying never to put a foot wrong. Trying to keep the peace.



About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation http://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/ Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/BipolarBlogger
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11 Responses to “Keeping the peace”: naming domestic abuse for what it is

  1. James McGinnis says:

    I am glad that your story ended on a happy note and I would like to say this can happen to both woman and men, I was in a similar relationship about 15 years ago. I met this girl whom I had known a few years previously when we used to work together at that time I was in a relationship and so was she. I met her about 4 years later in a club in Brighton, we got chatting and agreed to meet up again the following week. At 1st we got on very well we had something in common, the old jobs we were in, but very quickly things started to change, she became very moody. I had some good friends and a great relationship with my parents which she resented and would make up reason why we shouldn’t go and see them, she would slag them off saying they where not nice people and making out they where the ones with the problem. My Mother warned me that she was not right for me but I ignored her and got defensive saying I know what I’m doing. She was also very possessive and when we where out if someone (female) looked at me she would go nuts and say things like who is she you must know her most of the time I would just say don’t be silly you know it’s you I love no one else can come close and try and reassure her.

    Things got worse when she fell pregnant but I made allowances for the fact that her hormones where all over the place ( they probably where ofcource) she got herself so stressed that she ended up in hospital with high blood pressure and at 5 months and 3 weeks we lost the baby he was stillborn, This made things 10 times worse I kept my feelings aside so I could be there for her and done everything I could to comfort her understandably this was very hard on her but after a year we decided to try again and thing went a lot smoother this time her behavior didn’t change though and I feared what affect this would have on our child. The Dr felt it would be safer if she had the baby early due to her stress levels so Kieran was born on the 3rd Sep 1997 at 34 weeks he was tiny only about 3.5lbs and had to go to intensive care due to breathing problems and other health issues, it was a very hard 6 weeks but he was OK in the end and we took him home. I tried everything to keep things peaceful but she was out of control so for the sake of Kieran I left but stayed very close as I wanted to be there for my son.

    The next 5 years where hard as his mum would make life as difficult as possible and would cause arguments every chance she got, and I could see she was not being a good mum Kieran was not being looked after well I got social services in I had no choice they assessed them and told her to change or she would loose her son but he couldn’t change in the end I took her to court but before it got that far she called me and said Kieran wants to come live with you and this was the 1st good thing she had done for out son he was 5 years old and when he arrived we had to shave his head because the head lice had taken over his head was matted with lice, he was very mixed up and was behind with the basics that a child should know. With a lot of patience and time he got better he is almost 16 now and is a very clever young man who is doing very well in school he is kind and very well mannered I am very proud of him. I let his mum have him at the weekends as she got herself into therapy and has sorted her life out now and has a lovely daughter who is a credit to her so all ends well.

    • Hi James,

      I just wanted to say thanks for you post…It provided some much-needed perspective, as I still feel there is not enough awareness of Female-Male domestic violence. People need to be educated about the extent of the problem and the stigma about speaking out removed.

      I am all too aware that there are men coping with D.V. My heart goes out to both those who are suffering in silence and the ones who have broken the cycle. I’m so glad to hear that your story – and that of your son – had a happy ending. I was also encouraged to hear that your ex-partner got the help she needed and has gone on to live well. Your positive words about her recovery are a credit you.

  2. butterflywgs says:

    Sorry you went through that. What a…words fail me…you’re well shot of the arsehole and I’m sure he’s very unhappy. xx

  3. kate says:

    Very good post:).I can relate completely to your experience,and that of James’s above.I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for ten years and it was so bad i developed anorexia and depression.I always thought of suicide and i self harmed but felt so trapped.I believed that this was the best i deserved so thst’s why i stayed.I also had a child and i was scared if i told anyone they would take her off me.
    I think attutudes really need to change about these sort of controlling ,manipulative relationships.A lot of people still don’t view it as abuse.They said to me”well, he doesn’t hit you so what’s the problem?”Ironically my anorexia became my protector and my friend during this time because i could control my eating but,unfortunatly,nothing else in my life.
    I have been seperated from him for two years now,i am a healthy weight and i am currently in CBT which is great but it has left me extremely wary of having another relationship.I am too scared the same thing will happen so i avoid getting close to men.Maybe one day i’ll be confident again.I am glad you are happy .ow too.:)

  4. whythispath says:

    It’s no wonder you have challenges when writing these things darling. How brave and strong you are to do so.

    As I began to respond to your amazing post my very own “Nic” called. My challenge is that he is the father of my children and he places all that shame and confusion into them as well.

    There are no visible signs of this type of abuse, no bruises, no hard evidence available for the small constricted way he makes us feel. When it’s just him and I there is something that feels as if we can conquer the world. But there is no “just us” in this world, and it takes all I’ve got sometimes to remember how unhealthy life is with him.

  5. Anne Wade says:

    This is a classic, like your blog on suicide.
    Anne W

  6. Phil says:

    This is an excellent post, and it very much needs saying. I’ve seen a number of friends enter (and finally leave) relationships recently which have bordered on the abusive, and they’ve been left emotionally crumbled and disoriented; to an extent I think confused because they don’t necessarily see it as abuse. Like addiction, and probably depression too, our ideas about what issues like this look like can sometimes be so different from the reality that they end up being a hindrance. And as James says, it’s not always men attacking women; it can be any way around, and any sexuality.

    To go through that is awful, the fact you’ve made it so far shows immense inner strength.

  7. Hi there,

    Thanks for your post…It was frank, honest and most of all, your strength and pride at surviving this controlling man’s abuse shone all the way through.

    I’d like to repost this…I’m writing a blog of my own documenting my recovery from Domestic Abuse, and feel it fits well with what I have written about surviving.

    I think you are an inspiration…And hope that you continue to post these empowering words.

  8. Pingback: “Keeping the peace”: naming domestic abuse for what it is | Revenge is never a straight line...

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