This story is not mine to tell. However, I have been trusted to tell it, and the responsibility to get it right feels huge. But if this story can help one woman recognise an unhealthy ‘grey’ relationship – then my work here is done.
I am sitting on the couch enjoying a laugh with my girlfriend who has dropped by for a cuppa. It’s one of those gorgeous sunny autumn days, the doors to the deck are open, the TV is on quietly and I am feeling light and relaxed.
I go to the kitchen to organise a refill of tea and return to the lounge to discover my friend (let’s call her Jo) staring at the television, tears streaming down her face.
I do a double take.
I look from the TV, to Jo, and back again.
I sit quietly and wait for the reporter to finish. She is interviewing our wonderful Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, about the launch of her new app – iMatter. The app has been designed to help young women identify unhealthy relationships and deal with abusive and controlling behaviour.
The story is rousing. Rosie Batty is as inspirational as ever. But it’s not particularly tear jerking.
Jo gathers herself.
She looks at me and with a wobbly voice says, “I think I was in an abusive relationship.”
My brain immediately pictures her gorgeous, gentle husband and I can feel the panic rising in my chest.
She can read my mind, “Not now Leese.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask her.
“Yes” she says emphatically. “But I don’t know where to start, because I have never talked about it. Never admitted it. Never acknowledged it.”
“Why not?” I ask gently.
“Because I’m not sure I have the right to,” she says. “Domestic abuse – it is such an ominous, insidious title. It conjures up images of battered wives with black eyes, their husbands bombed out of their brains on crack dragging their partners around by the hair.”
Well yes – that was exactly where my imagination had gone. And I am not going to lie, I was struggling to reconcile this mental picture with my strong, intelligent, educated, friend sitting across from me.
“That is the black and white version of domestic abuse, its clear-cut,” she says.
I still look confused.
“As a society this is the type of abuse that outrages us, it’s in your face, it’s indisputable. It’s like the Stephanie Scotts, Jill Meaghers and Rosie Battys. These acts of violence towards women are shocking and unimaginable.”
Too right it is. No confusion there.
Jo continues, “I am not Stephanie or Jill or Rosie. The type of abuse I suffered was grey. It wasn’t cut and dried like physical acts of violence. So I have never known what to call it, or what category it falls into, or even if it was abuse at all.”
There are categories?
“Rosie Batty’s messages keep coming at me, from the newspaper, from the television, from my laptop. She’s everywhere. She says things like ‘violent relationships aren’t limited to black eyes’, ‘abuse can be psychological, emotional and verbal’, ‘abusers confine you, bring you down, and insult you’. And I keep thinking…that was me.”
I am a little stunned.
“But I feel like if I say my relationship was abusive then it is minimising or disrespecting the women who have the bruises and horror to match. So I’ve never said anything – to anyone. I’ve hinted, but I’ve never had the guts to call my relationship what it was.”
“Jo,” I say quietly. “That’s what the interview with Rosie Batty was about… it’s why she created the iMatter app.”
“I know,” says Jo.
“Do you want to look at the iMatter app together?” I ask.
I open up my phone and download the app. While I am waiting I gather some essential resources, a pack of Tim Tams from the emergency stash, a box of tissues and a bottle of wine.
We have moved on from tea.
I settle myself on the couch again. The app has downloaded. There are some handy quizzes to help start conversations around domestic abuse.
“You ready?” I ask.
“As I’ll ever be,” she replies.
“Were you able to disagree with your partner and have your own opinions?” I ask.
“Yes, but there were consequences.”
“I remember one particular topic we couldn’t see eye to eye on. Our children were little, I was working part-time and he was working long hours. I was exhausted and felt like I couldn’t keep up with the house duties, so I asked if we could get a cleaning lady to come once a fortnight for a few hours.”
“He was appalled, his mother hadn’t needed a cleaning lady – so neither should I.”
“Eventually I made the decision I really needed help, so I went ahead and arranged for a cleaning lady to come. He never stopped me, but it became one of his favourite ways to belittle me. He enjoyed reminding me – often – that I was so lazy and useless I needed a ‘maid’.”
“We have been separated for a long time now and recently got into an argument over an issue regarding one of the children. When the argument wasn’t going his way he trotted out the old chestnut, ‘…and this coming from a woman who needs a maid.’ And sure enough – all the old feelings of self loathing came rushing back.”
“Did you get accused of cheating?”
“I remember an occasion when I had been on a rare girls weekend away. When I returned I excitedly recounted my weekend and mentioned we met lots of interesting people, including a couple of larrikin blokes.”
“He asked me point-blank if I had slept up with any of these men. Even though I was horrified by the question, I answered honestly. I had chatted with a few of the blokes and enjoyed their company – but that was it. He launched into one of his rages, calling me a dirty slut and a whore. Apparently I didn’t have to sleep with someone to be a cheater.”
“For a long time after this event he would tell people I cheated on him. The most baffling part is, I genuinely think he convinced himself I cheated. Because if I was a cheater – then I guess I deserved his treatment.”
“Did you get shown equal respect and appreciation from your partner?”
“He was the breadwinner. My role was to support him and raise the children. He didn’t actually say this in words, but it was communicated in actions.”
“I remember one occasion when he had been working particularly long hours. If he didn’t eat properly his moods were worse, so I baked a batch of chocolate muffins. It was a nice day so I loaded the kids into the pram and walked to his work. When we arrived our toddler was over-excited to see his dad and went bowling into his workplace, squealing and waving his arms around like a lunatic. As I handed over the muffins he hissed to me ‘get the f@#k out and don’t ever bring the kids here’.”
“Did you always feel safe?”
“When an argument escalated he was a very intimidating man. He is a big guy and would use his physical size to his advantage. I don’t mean by belting me – he never actually hit me. However there were plenty of occasions I feared he would.”
“During many of our fights I would feel the need to get away. I once tried to barricade myself in the bedroom. I sat down on the floor with my back against the door and jammed my feet up against the opposite wall. It was an awkward position given I was heavily pregnant. In the process of forcing open the door he pinned me up against the wall with such force I was sure my ribs would break. I was screaming that he was going to hurt the baby, but in these moments he was hearing nothing.”
“On another occasion we were in the bedroom and he had a pillow in his hands. During our conversation he became very frustrated and whacked me with the pillow. The blow winded me considerably.”
“I remember another occasion trying to get away from him. I ran outside and curled up in a ball on the back lawn. At the time I was crying and begging to be left alone. He followed me into the back yard, stood over me and repeatedly told me to get up you stupid bitch.”
“Did you need to ask for your partner’s permission to do things?”
“Yes, but in a subtle way. He didn’t say I couldn’t do things, but he would make it difficult. In his eyes, his work came first, and I was expected to share this view. Therefore, when I wanted to be involved in things it was only possible if it fitted with his schedule.”
“At one stage of the relationship we decided to attended counselling. One of the things he agreed to in the sessions was to be at home for an hour each evening to help me bath the kids and allow me to go for a walk. For a week or two after every counselling session he would stick to the agreement, but it was only ever a matter of time before I was back on my own. It’s hard to explain – but sometimes I felt trapped in my own home.”
“Did you make excuses for your partner’s bad behaviour?”
“Always. I blamed myself. Because that’s what low self-esteem does to you.”
“Were you happy with the relationship and hopeful for the future?”
“At times, yes. When things were good, they were really good. But when things were bad, they were really bad. I think I knew deep down I couldn’t stay in this kind of relationship forever. As much as I wanted it to work for the children’s sake, by the end I was a broken person.”
Jo has finished answering all the questions in her calm, no-nonsense manner.
She is composed and dignified.
I, on the other hand, have emptied the contents of the tissue box.
After a while I ask, “Why do you call this grey? This seems very black and white to me.”
She answers, “I just gave you my version of events. There are always two sides to every story. I was not a fine, upstanding version of myself during this time, in fact, I barely recognised myself.”
“Go on,” I urge.
“The abuse can go both ways – which is why it is so toxic. There were times I would pick a fight with him, knowing how it would end. I would use bad language and yell and bring up topics that I knew would upset him. Some days I would be craving any kind of interaction with him, even if it was horrible – it was better than nothing.”
“So why do you think women stay silent about this type of abuse?” I ask her.
“Because we carry some of the responsibility. We think that if we are a better partner, lover or mother – then it will stop. But also because much of this type of abuse occurs in everyday homes – respected men and women with respected jobs. It happens to people like you and me, and probably more of our friends than we care to think about.”
She looks at me with a thoughtful expression, “Ultimately – I think we stay silent to preserve our dignity and protect our children.”
“I still can’t believe this happened to YOU,” I say, shaking my head.
“You are probably not going to understand this Leese, but it might have been easier to admit to my situation if he had hit me. Then I would have been able to give it a name. His behaviour would have been inexcusable and it would have been clear in my mind that I was living with abuse, rather than all the shades of grey.”
“But you eventually got out?” I ask, searching for the positives.
“Yes,” she says, “but in the end I got out because I hated myself, not because I hated him.”
Since that day on the couch Jo and I have discussed the idea of sharing her story many times. In the beginning we were apprehensive, it was never going to be an easy thing to do. But in the end the motivation came when we thought about our daughters, sisters and mothers.
Because this is what we both now understand….the violence we see towards women on TV and read about in the papers is the tip of the iceberg. It is absolutely undisputed that this type of abuse is hideous and outrageous. But almost more frightening, is the thought of what lies beneath.
Exactly how big is this iceberg?
We fear there is a staggering number of women out there in ‘grey’, unhealthy relationships. Like Jo, they may not feel like they have the right to think of their relationship as abusive, or perhaps they don’t recognise the signs.
A shocking 22% of girls under 20 have experienced dating violence. More worryingly, many of these young women misinterpret the abusive behaviour (such as excessive jealousy and controlling tendencies) as signs of affection. If educated, worldly women like Jo struggle to label a relationship as “abusive” simply because they are not beaten black and blue, how can we expect our young women to?
It is our job to educate the next generation. They need to know the early signs of abuse and that these often escalate to more life-threatening forms of violence. Rosie Batty’s message is clear:
‘Violence is a continuum – it starts subtly and then escalates. It will always get worse without intervention.’
I want my daughters to know, I want your daughters to know, that Jo’s story is one of abuse. Bruises and broken bones are not the only indicators. If you feel like you are in a relationship that is unhealthy, unsafe or disrespectful – get out.
Because grey is not ok.
As a society we cannot change the way we view domestic abuse unless we talk about it. So let’s talk…please comment on, discuss or share this post here or over at the Facebook page.
Blend it your way,
If you or someone you care about is experiencing family violence please call the Safe Steps 24/7 response line on 1800 015 188.