The nightmare of domestic abuse

Conflict point: A woman protecting herself from a blow from her partner by holding her arms in front of her face
Conflict point: A woman protecting herself from a blow from her partner by holding her arms in front of her face
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Victims of domestic violence dread January in particular, as incidents of abuse traditionally increase. The Star’s reporter Rachael Clegg spoke to one former victim about the ordeal she suffered at the hands of her ex-partner – and how she found the strength to move on

DOMESTIC violence is something 30-year-old Olivia Dunton knows only too well.

Olivia, from Heeley in Sheffield, spent two years in an abusive relationship with her partner, John, and remembers New Year, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, and Christmas as events not to be enjoyed but to be feared.

“Things like Christmas and birthdays would always trigger him off,” she says now, looking back. “It may have been due to the change in routine, I don’t know, but if it was a big event it would always cause an incident.”

It’s a pattern domestic abuse experts are well aware of. The month of January especially – when the bills start rolling in, and when couples can already be reeling from a stressful festive period – can be a hotspot for abuse to flare.

Olivia – not her real name – sought help from Sheffield Women’s Aid, who arranged for her to have cognitive behavioural therapy to alter her pattern of thinking. The experience, she says, was life-changing.

“The therapy allowed me to have the confidence and the courage to build the boundaries between myself and the horrible tendrils that were wrapped around me,” she says.

She is now free of her abusive relationship, which she ended four years ago. “It’s been a long road to recovery,” she says. “But I have got to the point now where I can talk about it matter-of-factly.”

Olivia is articulate, confident and bright.

“I am educated, eloquent and successful in my professional life and I think that was part of the problem – people like me don’t believe we’ll ever be in an abusive relationship.

“When I was a child there was hardly ever so much as a cross word at home and I’ve never been bullied in my life.”

But with her former partner, the father of her son, the shouting never stopped.

“It was alien to me,” she says. “Arguments wouldn’t just last an hour and then be over and done with, they would go on all night. When he’d finished shouting he’d say, ‘It’s because I love you so much’.”

Weekends away were also difficult. “I remember one weekend when we went to London. It was supposed to be a nice occasion but it was the worst weekend ever. It was just awful.

“He started getting cross on the train and accusing me of having affairs. It ended up being a weekend of him getting angry with me.”

It wasn’t long before Olivia recognised a pattern to John’s behaviour.

“I discovered that it was cyclical. The cycle was monthly and followed a pattern of underlying behaviour that would escalate to what I would call a ‘freak out’, and then there would be four days of perfect behaviour.

“It was like being with two people, John A and John B. John A was the lovely John and John B was the horrible one.

“I got John A about 20 per cent of the time. He’d do things like make me a cup of tea and I would think, ‘wow that’s amazing’, but now I realise that’s just normal.”

The abusive behaviour started out as arguments and accusations but progressed to grabbing, pinning her down, and throwing things across the room.

“He was always clever in that he never really did anything that left a real bruise, although his grabs would leave marks that even people at work commented on,” she says. “He would throw things at me and it would hurt but it didn’t show.

“It was like walking on eggshells. I was constantly in that kind of environment and was living in fear all the time.”

When Olivia got pregnant, and later gave birth to their son, John’s abusive behaviour worsened.

“He started controlling me more when I saw the baby,” she says. “If the baby was crying in another room he would restrain me and prevent me from going to see him.”

This was the final straw.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t deal with this any more’. I was putting my son at risk and it was going to have a negative impact on him.” Olivia is the reality behind the stereotype, and proves abuse doesn’t have to be only physical but can be emotional, psychological, financial or sexual, as well.

Abuse can include the threat as well as the actual act.

New Year, and other special occasions on the calendar, can be especially likely times for abuse to increase, as manager of the council’s Domestic Abuse Team Alison Higgins explains.

“Our figures show there are more incidents in the last quarter of the year, and Valentine’s Day as well,” she says.

Alison believes the pressure to have a fabulous time at Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s Day or on holiday – coupled with the stresses of making sure events live up to expectations – are some of the reasons incidents of domestic violence may increase. “Everybody is expected to have a wonderful time, and if you’re not it brings your relationship into focus,” she says. “It is a trigger for it.”

Alison estimates there will be around 10,000 incidents of domestic abuse in Sheffield next year.

But there is help, as Olivia found out.

“It was so good to be able to talk to other women about what I’d be through and know they got what I meant,” she says now.

And, looking back on her time in an abusive relationship, Olivia says. “I wish I’d listened to that little voice in my head that was telling me this wasn’t right.

“I’d say to any woman in a similar situation to listen to that voice that’s telling you it’s not right, and act on it.”

Help and support

The Domestic Abuse Helpline, which is funded by Sheffield Council and Sheffield Domestic Abuse Coordination Team, is the gateway to all domestic abuse services in the city.

The helpline can be accessed on 0808 8082241 – a freephone number to landlines and all the main mobile operators.

It is operated by trained specialist staff, employed by a voluntary sector organisation, Vida Sheffield.

It is open from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and 10am to 7pm on Wednesdays.

The helpline can also be contacted by email on help@sheffdap.org.uk

For more information about all the domestic abuse services in the city, and useful links to other websites, visit www.sheffdap.org.uk