Family Matters: The agony of domestic abuse

Under attack: Domestic abuse is a distressing and humiliating experience: pictures posed by models.
Under attack: Domestic abuse is a distressing and humiliating experience: pictures posed by models.
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‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’, so the old addage goes. But an emotionally abusive relationship can be just as damaging as the blows and the bruises, writes Rachael Clegg.

FOR more than ten years Elizabeth Ford lived in fear.

Her fear wasn’t of burglars, murderers or being alone, it was fear of being at home with her husband - the father of her two children.

For Elizabeth, home wasn’t a haven, it was place in which she was permanently walking on very sharp egg shells. Elizabeth was locked in an abusive relationship yet for years she thought it was ‘normal’. The erosion of her self-confidence and self-esteem didn’t start with a blow to the face or a bruise on the arm, it was much more subtle than that.

“It was gradual abuse, an emotionally-abusive spiral,” she says. “It was so subtle and to such an extent that I began to think that my behaviour was normal but when I reflect back I can see how it wasn’t right.”

When Elizabeth married her partner 20 years ago she was an independent, self-sufficient woman.

“I owned my own flat, worked, lived on my own - I was a strong independent woman but now I can see how he gradually came to completely overtake my life.”

One of the ways he would do this, according to Elizabeth, was by controlling what she wore. “He made me wear frumpy clothes, really baggy trousers and things that were too big for me.

“My friend came up to stay from London and we hadn’t seen each other physically for a while and she pointed to a dress that was hanging up on the wardrobe and said: ‘What is that?’ It was like a granny dress, it was awful. Yet the women he socialised with all wore fashionable and clubby clothes. He’d always tell me how I never looked sexy - I was only in my late 20s.”

Nor did Elizabeth’s husband like her speaking to anyone, including her mother. But that too, was a subtle act of control, she says: “It wasn’t like suddenly he woke up one day and said: ‘I don’t want you to speak to your mum any more’, it was more a drip-drip effect of building control.”

But he didn’t just isolate her from her family, he also undermined her self -esteem.

“He would say things like ‘You are a complete waste of space’ and ‘nobody in the world could possible love you and care for you like I do’ and that I was ‘boring.”

This abuse had a profound effect on Elizabeth’s self-esteem. “Eventually it got to the stage where I didn’t want to leave the house,” she said. “He managed to manipulate me to the point where I wasn’t aware he was doing it.”

Eventually this abuse took its toll on Elizabeth’s health. Not only had her husband started physically abusing her, she suffered with excrutiating back pain from - she believes - the stress the stress caused by the anxiety of her fractious home life. “The back trouble and aches were a result of the emotional turmoil,” she says.

On top of this, her husband banned her from working. She says she became ‘a prisoner in their own home’.

“I was at home all day every day. He wanted me to be at home to look after the kids, which I think is a good thing, but I had to tend to his every need - the house had to be perfect when he came back from work and he hated it when the toddlers’ toys were out. We’d play all day - painting, sticking and baking and then spend a good hour and a half cleaning up before he got home because a he’d go mad.”

“He didn’t want me to go out but all he’d do was come in, grab some beers out of the fridge and sit and watch telly all night and then go to the pub late on, sometimes he’d come back really late, sometimes he’d stay out all night.”

Elizabeth tried to talk to him about his behaviour but that’s when he lashed out.”

Elizabeth struggles to talk about this as she battles with tears rolling down he face.

“The woman he fell in love with was strong and independent yet he was so Victorian about things and stripped me of my identity.”

Eventually, she divorced him. “It was a quick divorce because of the abuse, it only took six months to go through.”

But the hell didn’t end there.

“It was awful, he carried on abusing me emotionally. I had injunction after injunction out against him because he would come to the house.

“He threatened to kill me and he’d even text me to let me know he could see what I was doing. Even now I pace around the house in the night checking everything’s okay,” she added.

This abuse went on for ten years after the pair divorced. Throughout all this, Elizabeth felt helpless. She reported various incidents to the police but little came of it, but then, a catastrophic series of events caused her to reach out for the help that turned her life around.

“I finally opened up to a close friend, who suggested I call the Sheffield Domestic Abuse Partnership. I called and just sobbed down the phone. This lovely helpful voice spoke back to me and from that point on my life started to get better.”

Elizabeth joined the Sheffield Domestic Abuse Partnership’s Outreach Services programme, which helped rebuild her confidence.

“Just being with other women who had experienced the same thing was empowering, and these were beautiful, strong women.

Now I feel like a different person. That phone call was the moment when my life changed for the better,” she said.

Elizabeth is very keen to raise awareness about domestic abuse. “It’s still a stigma but my advice to people is don’t keep it behind closed doors. There is help out there and it does work. I cannot explain what a saviour the Sheffield Domestic Abuse Partnership has been.”

But as for emotional abuse, the subtle, gradual manipulation of one’s character and erosion of one’s self-esteem she says: “It’s a lifetime prison sentence and unlike physical abuse, it doesn’t stop when you walk out of the door.”

* If you know anyone who you think is subject to abuse you can contact the Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 808 2241 or read their leaflet on the issue at www.sheffdap.org.uk/images/stories/pdf/dom_abuse_book.pdf, and a team of trained staff with direct you to the specific help you need.

TELL TALE SIGNS:

The beginnings of an abusive relationship can be subtle, as Alison explains: “I think your partner needing to be in control is an early sign to look out for. But Elizabeth is right that this can start very subtly so it can be hard to spot.

“But if someone you are in a relationship with starts to question what you wear, where you are going, who you choose to be friends with, how often you see your family, the choices you make about work or education then I would question what their motives are - whether they really do care about you or in fact want to have control over you.”

HELP IS AT HAND:

ALISON Higgins has worked with women suffering from domestic abuse since 1994 and now manages Sheffield’s Domestic Abuse Partnership, where a team of volunteers operate a helpline and help and support sessions for women experiencing domestic abuse.

Unfortunately, demand for this service is high.

“We estimate 12,000 people are subject to domestic abuse each year in the city,” Alison says.

This is an alarming statistic, particularly considering Elizabeth’s experiences.

“Domestic abuse can impact on every part of someone’s life. The controlling behaviour described by Elizabeth has a huge impact on self esteem, on someone’s working life, on whether they can take up further education and training, it can limit the number of friends they have, how often they see their family and the impact on children living in such a situation cannot be underestimated.

“It can affect how well children do at school, it can affect their behaviour and also their ‘emotional education’ - how they learn to have relationships themselves - with their parents and siblings but also as they grow up and have partners.”

“Domestic abuse can also lead to serious injury or even death for some people.”

Alison says that domestic abuse is becoming less stigmatised.

“There has been a real attempt over the last few years by a range of agencies working under the banner of Sheffiield Domestic Abuse Partnership to raise the issue and promote the helpline, and encourage people to come forward.”