It is a very strange, almost incomprehensible, feature of gender-based violence that we focus on the victim more than the perpetrator. It is unusual to ask a victim of a random assault why they let it happen, and people rarely think murder victims got what was coming to them. However, when it comes to domestic abuse, this is somewhat turned on its head.
It makes it quite difficult to admit you have had an abusive partner. The first question people always want an answer to is why you stayed in the relationship after the abuse began. Or perhaps more accurately, why you were stupid enough to stay.
In every comment about how you’re the most unlikely victim of such abuse, there’s something that implies it may have been partly your fault. People never say you deserve the many punches you took, but they do wonder aloud what it was you might have been doing to provoke such violence, which really isn’t that different.
It’s a question I’ve already asked myself hundreds of times, and I still have no conclusive answers. The truth I force myself to believe now is that even if I was an infuriating monster, no one deserves to be abused, and his behaviour cannot be excused. It has taken a very long time to even accept that much.
At the time I believed I was, in fact, an infuriating monster, and that every kick to the stomach was just his way of dealing with boiling over. I thought that if I could just figure out what I was doing wrong, or change just enough to be who he wanted me to be, that we could return to being happy.
At the start of our relationship, we were extremely happy. He was smart and funny, and incredibly thoughtful. He all but worshipped me. He was gentle and kind, and we became inseparable extremely quickly. After a while, I did feel like a slightly nastier side of his personality crept in, but he made me feel like I was just picking holes in a good thing.
When he wanted access to my emails and other online accounts, he made it seem like an exercise in trust, rather than distrust. When he put me down, he made it seem like a cute in-joke. When he got angry if I hadn’t answered calls or texts quickly enough, he said he was just worried about me.
He’d belittle my opinions and make me feel stupid, but then tell me how pretty I was to make it okay. He didn’t like when I made plans with friends, but said it was because he missed me when I wasn’t there.
While these actions and many like them were efforts to undermine me or control aspects of my life, he always made it feel like I was the one who was being unreasonable. It was overbearing, but in a naïve way. I found it quite sweet. After all, it seemed silly to complain about being loved too much.
The first time he hit me, I was leaving his house to attend a close friend’s birthday party. The same friend had recently expressed some concern over how distant I had become from our group, and how possessive John* seemed to be. When he found out, he said she was jealous and suggested I stop seeing her for a while. I hadn’t realised this wasn’t a mere suggestion, but an order, and when I dared to defy him, he lashed out.
It was just a slap, and it stung, but I’ve never seen anyone more apologetic about anything. I forgave him almost instantly; he seemed genuinely upset and shocked at his own actions, and he swore it would never happen again. However, he also convinced me that it was partly my friend’s fault: she wanted to drive a wedge between us, and look how she was succeeding. I didn’t make it to her party.
It continued like that for a long time, less and less sporadically as time went on. It always happened in the same way. He would tell me what I could and couldn’t do, and on occasions when I’d dare assert myself, I would feel the consequences. When he had calmed down, he would apologise profusely and be the most perfect boyfriend you could ask for, for a little while.
Every time, he’d say it was the last time, that he would never hurt me again, and every time, I wanted it to be the truth. However, it usually came with a caveat: that he wouldn’t have to hurt me if I would simply be a better girlfriend. He wouldn’t be so angry if I didn’t make him so.
As time went on though, he was clearly very aware of exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t just stress causing a bad temper. It was something he had thought about enough that he once told me that he rarely attacked my face, as I bruised easily and it would only cause people to ask questions. Instead, he would aim for places which were ordinarily covered up, or that would be easy to hide if I needed to.
He would slam me against walls and pin me there so he could scream at me. He punched me, he kicked me, and he shook me so violently I’d feel nauseous or have horrible headaches for hours afterwards. He bit me, he pulled knives on me, he choked me, he spat at me and he would regularly throw things at me if I wasn’t within arm’s reach when he got angry.
I became somewhat numb to the violence. It never stopped physically hurting, but somewhere along the way it stopped feeling like a betrayal. He beat the defiance out of me, and I began to try and engineer situations when we were together to minimise possible annoyances.
I never succeeded because I was never really the problem. One day he wouldn’t be able to stand the mere sound of my breathing, and the next he would go after me for being too quiet and withdrawn. I could do no right, but I also couldn’t stop trying to find ways to.
I didn’t see it as abuse for a very long time. Despite everything, I believed he really did love me. I felt like I was being strong for the both of us, and that he was just having a tough time. He always seemed on edge, and I felt like I was the only person in the world who could help him.
Once I could find the magic solution to whatever his problems were, or stop whatever I was doing that was making me so unbearable, we would go back to normal. I was on his team, because it seemed like nobody else was.
My friends tried to intervene. They didn’t know what was wrong, but they had noticed a change in me. I was embarrassed, and apprehensive about angering him by talking about any of our problems, so I denied all knowledge, and acted more confident than I was.
I promised I would be less distant, and excused my lengthy absences from their lives as just being too wrapped up in the relationship. I batted away their concerns so casually that they might have been asking if I was watching too much Geordie Shore, not was my relationship extremely problematic.
This silence is deadly. I thought I was protecting us, but I was actually damaging my own credibility. As I started to realise it wasn’t just an extended rough patch but an actual problem, I tried to ask for help, but I had become so far detached from my old group of friends, that I wasn’t really sure where to turn.
Those I eventually reached out to didn’t really believe me. They thought I was lying, or at best, exaggerating. John was the perfect gentleman to the outside world. He was charming and funny and no matter where you ended up, he would make a new friend. I had been insisting for months and months that I was the happiest I’d ever been, and it didn’t fit with what I was saying now. They seemed to think I was trying to create drama rather than ask for help.
John found out, and everything got much worse. He began threatening to kill me in increasingly graphic and horrible ways. When I was too exhausted by the whole ordeal to even care what he did to me, he started threatening my family. He needed to feel in control of me, and the only way he seemed to think he could achieve that was by terrifying me.
There were warning signs from day one, but I didn’t recognise any of them. His jealousy and possessiveness should have rung alarm bells, and I ignored my gut instinct that told me we were getting too serious, far too quickly.
While he wasn’t aggressive with me for a while, he was very impatient, and he did have a temper and would fly into a rage at what seemed like trivialities. More than anything, the stark contrast in how he acted when we were alone, and when we were around others, should have caused concern.
No one thinks they are likely to be abused by their partner, however. In fact, you imagine if you found yourself in any such situation, you would remove yourself so fast, actual clouds of dust would be left in your wake. But it’s never that simple. Those who abuse rarely initially appear abusive, and by the time you see the pattern, it is both very difficult to leave, and also very dangerous.
There is also a sense that it’s not a problem a young person can face. I didn’t think of it as domestic abuse, because domestic abuse sounds like something that only affects much older, married people. In fact, it a problem people of all ages face. In Ireland, a current or former partner has abused 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 7 have experienced severe abusive behaviour. If we break that down, women under 25 were involved in almost 60% of those severe cases.
Although many young women believe domestic abuse to be an older person’s problem, I don’t stand alone. Women’s Aid have found 95% of young women and 84% of young men know someone who has experienced abuse, violence or harassment.
My story isn’t that abnormal; John possessed many of the typical traits associated with abusive tendencies, and the relationship played out much in the same way as many others have before. The circumstances didn’t cause the abuse, and neither did I; it all came down to him.
It’s very difficult to see that from the inside, however. Between believing domestic abuse wasn’t an issue that could affect me, and being told I was the root cause of all problems, I couldn’t see how unhealthy the relationship was. And even if I could have, I felt too alone for it to really matter.
Abusive relationships only remain abusive as long as the victim remains too afraid to speak out. I tell my story because I’m no longer scared silent, and with the hope that the 1 in 5 women in UCD who are experiencing abuse can perhaps see what I couldn’t.
My relationship with John started out as normally as any other relationship I’ve had. I didn’t choose to fall in love with an abusive person, and I could never have known it would turn that direction. I write this five years on, post-therapy, and living a life free from abuse, but I’m still asked why I stayed.
Victims of domestic abuse exist in a terrifying sort of isolation, and it’s never as simple as standing up and walking out the door. While we need to break the silence for ourselves, we also need everyone else to understand how abusive relationships work, and why we stay, because it’s certainly not that we enjoy the abuse. Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship, and being young doesn’t make that abuse any more trivial.
Domestic abuse is a much more serious issue for young people than we generally assume. Shining a light on abusive relationships is only one way to begin to break the silence for others. Victims aren’t to blame for their own abuse, and it’s important we not only recognise that, but also show them a safe way out.
Women’s Aid run a free and confidential helpline on 1800 341 900 and they have a list of local support services that can be found on their website: http://www.womensaid.ie/services/local.html
* The names that appear in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the writer