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.