CW: Sexual abuse
There are two stories I could tell. This one is my version of events, a true account that was buried for a long time but was always deep within me. The other would be my husband’s story, a narrative of our ‘love’, which for a long time overruled mine. It is an act of profound manipulation to replace someone’s internal voice with your own as a way of owning and controlling them.
At the age of 22 I moved to a new city to do my MA. At the time when I met my husband, I had yet to develop any strong friendships there and I had almost no support network locally. However, I was enjoying my independence and was passionate about my subject. My husband assessed me as being vulnerable, a blank canvas, and used this as leverage to impose himself in my life. We met at a party and had two or three dates within that first week. It took him just 13 days to tell me he loved me.
It happened so fast. He disclosed his relationship history, his personal issues from childhood; he quickly introduced me to many friends from all areas of his life, who all seemed to like him. He was frequently calling and texting me and wanted to see me all the time. My intuition told me there was something tactical about his pursuit of me and the formation of our relationship but I was bombarded by the romantic story of ‘us’ that he was recounting at every opportunity.
He was studying Psychology and quickly positioned himself as my therapist and rescuer. I had some issues from my past relating to sex and fear of men. He would use therapeutic techniques to make me disclose very personal information which I did not want to share. This would have been safe in a professional setting, but I know now, it is dangerously inappropriate to use these methods in a personal relationship where the power is already imbalanced.
The fears and insecurities that he coerced out of me were then used to justify sexual, psychological and emotional abuse. He portrayed himself as someone who could solve problems I didn’t even know I had. I think that by ‘giving myself away’ through the disclosures, I created a space for him to move in with his solutions. My self concept of being a strong person was completely undermined by his perception of me being weak, thus making me dependent on him. After six months he talked me into getting engaged. We moved in together a couple of weeks later and that was when the sexual abuse got much more serious.
‘We can just try it and if you don’t like it we don’t have to do it again.’ ‘In a healthy, loving relationship it is normal and natural to…’ ‘I want to be with you forever so if you don’t do it with me I’ll never get to experience that in my lifetime.’ The more shameful and degrading things he coerced me to do, the more exposed I felt and my underlying thought was ‘that’s it, I can never leave him now.’ I was trapped. The trauma of the sexual exploitation forced me to abandon myself, and it became a habit for me to disappear while things were going on.
Each of my personal boundaries became a target for him. He violated my body, he rewrote my past through his psychological manipulation, he dismantled my sense of self entirely and reformed me as a victim who could not survive without him. Each of those tactics was disguised as being in my best interests and was done very gently and tenderly so that I could not distinguish it as abuse.
He used classic abuser tactics of distancing me from my family and any friends that pre-dated him. He claimed they didn’t know me like he did, he diagnosed them from afar using his psychological jargon and made me question whether they were a healthy influence on me. He used himself as a barrier by claiming to have my back. Eventually it wasn’t worth having to justify contact with old friends and my life became smaller.
My husband monopolised the truth. He was always right, even if he had to use mind-bending manipulation to demonstrate it. The times when I was angry with him and felt brave enough to raise a grievance, he would transform my perception of the problem as being linked to my ‘past’ or make out that he was the victim of the situation, often invoking tears, until I had to apologise. My anger eventually turned inward and contributed to diminished health. He had now also taken from me my confidence in discerning right from wrong.
Once we were married, I felt locked down and his abusive behaviour became more intense and more complex. He suffered from multiple addictions, such as online pornography, and many sham health conditions that were never fully diagnosed but always used to justify his actions. In a sense, he switched the focus off me and my ‘problems’ and became obsessed with his own. I think he felt that he had trained me for the role of his rescuer by all the techniques he had used to help me and now I owed him. Like a perfectly programmed robot, I took this role on blindly but was set up to fail time after time, then suffered the punishment.
He went from victim to dominator by controlling and dictating what I could say to him that would help. I am naturally empathic, having had to adapt as a child to my narcissist father, but none of my own wisdom was deemed appropriate due to his exceptional circumstances. If he felt that I hadn’t adequately succeeded in rescuing him from his demons I would be coerced into apologising to him and then corrected so I could use better methods next time. I was sleep deprived, confused, guilty, afraid… the perfect state for him to control me. It took me years to connect that the addictions surfaced when things started to improve for me, thus restricting my freedom and ability to function.
I could never understand how people stayed in cults, or why victims of abuse stayed with their partners. Yet I was married to this man for ten years and had two children with him. Outside the home, he was a respected healthcare professional, elder in the church, community volunteer and doting father. He was so charming, charismatic, and caring that for a long time, he used his revered public image as further evidence that it was me who had the problem.
The times that I challenged him, for example by saying no to unreasonable demands, I would pay for it. Twice I was woken in the night to have him whisper that he was so angry with me that he had wrecked the living room by throwing furniture around but not to worry he had put it all back so our daughter wouldn’t notice and I could go back to sleep. Gentle and terrifying.
I was woken more than once by him gently saying that because I had failed to comply, he had spent hours contemplating whether to hang himself from the ceiling light or the doorway and had gone as far as to get his dressing gown cord out but not to worry he had changed his mind. He was putting a huge fear in front of me then posing as the comforter, the rescuer, the one looking after me.
There is evidence to show that domestic abuse worsens during pregnancy and immediately after childbirth and this is consistent with my experience. But having children opened my eyes, in the sense that I had to see how things might look to them growing up. By the time my daughters were two and four, it was apparent to me that my husband was demented. He was having paranoid delusions, he went to extreme lengths to cleanse our home of evil energy, he was unpredictable and terrifying.
I heard somewhere that you don’t know you’re being abused until you do. I didn’t want my daughters to witness me shaking with fear in the corner, floundering and guessing what would be the right answer to every false choice I was given. I had always dreamed of having children and the image of the mother I wanted to be was so far from the woman I had become that I got out for their sake.
I went to my sister’s and said I was unhappy in my marriage. I had been restricted by how much I could disclose about what went on at home. She simply said, ‘if you need to leave I will support you’. That was all it took. In the end, he moved out quite quickly, ready to play the victim role and uphold his status in the community.
I never expected to split up my children’s family but I have never once regretted it. We are a very happy family of three now and we celebrate freedom, joy and being ourselves. Above all I want to teach them to listen to the voice inside them and to trust it when it is saying ‘this doesn’t feel ok with me.’
It took me at least a year to acknowledge that my ten year marriage had been abusive from the start. I had never reported him to any authorities. Not even my GP when questioned. I still suffer flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and occasional panic attacks though they are becoming less common. I have blocked his phone and email due to perpetual harassment and he no longer knows where we live.
He maintains his image as a high functioning health care professional devoted to his children and trying to parent as best he can despite my unreliable mental health and my ‘false’ accusations of abuse. However, I have been heartened by how many of our mutual friends have come forward and said they suspected what was going on but they didn’t know how to help. Ultimately, I have to own that I am a survivor of domestic abuse and continue to rebuild my life with my freedom and integrity that I now know is so precious.