Will anyone listen to me?
Day 39 of the Lockdown
There were five of us at the meeting – seven if you count the children: my daughter, aged 4, and my son, 2 – but I’d made them a den in the playroom and set them up with a movie so they’d be out of the way of what needed to happen.
As it was during the first Covid lockdown, we were social distancing. Next to me on the sofa sat my wife; in the far corner was my alcoholic father-in-law who owned the house in which we lived; on another sofa was a support worker named Vicki; and in the armchair the social worker from Children’s Services.
She asked what had been going on and I took a breath, wondering if I’d be able to get the words out.
You don’t wake up one day to find you’re being abused. It’s a slow process, an incremental escalation punctuated by a thousand compromises, excuses and second chances, until you’ve redrawn the line of acceptable behaviour so many times, you no longer remember where it was meant to be. Violence, manipulation, domination and control become so normalised that having a pint of water thrown over you, or being shouted and sworn at, or being belittled in front of your children, or being extorted out of money, or being told your children will be taken away from you, barely even register as something out of the ordinary.
You see, abusers don’t just hurt you – they dominate you. They take away your dignity and your self-respect and make you dependent. They learn what buttons to press to make you do what they want, and if you try to resist, they break you. In order to speak out, you have to overcome guilt, shame, denial. You feel disloyal; you blame yourself; you make excuses; you doubt yourself; you pretend it isn’t that bad; you never stop hoping things will get better; and just when they’ve got you at breaking point, and you’re ready to walk out, they start being nice and make you feel that you’re going out of your mind.
And when you’re a six-foot-five, sixteen-stone man, and your wife is a 5-foot, 5-inch, petite woman, you worry that people won’t believe you, because you can hardly believe it yourself.
Part of the reason you can’t accept that the person you love is abusing you is because ‘abuse’ is such an ugly word. My wife couldn’t be ‘an abuser’ because abusers are ugly people, and I wouldn’t love an abuser; thus, if she wasn’t ‘an abuser’, then the abuse wasn’t really abuse, was it?
That’s just one of the weapons an abuser uses to keep you off-balance, and they have plenty of others in their arsenal – money, emotions, housing, family, children, sex. After they’ve put you through hell and you’re on the verge of realising the kind of relationship you’re in, they remind you of the good times, promise to change, ask for another chance to prove how much you mean to them. When you think they’ve changed for the better, and you let down your guard, that’s when they pull the world out from under your feet.
Worst of all, you never stop believing their promises.
Like an addict, I think you have to hit rock bottom before you can see things clearly. You need to have a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough. It was only when I hit rock bottom that I realised I was being abused – that I’d been abused all along – and that I wasn’t a bad person, I didn’t deserve it, and my children didn’t deserve it either. I’d spent years protecting my wife from the consequences of her behaviour, when I should have been protecting myself. I’d allowed her to destroy me so she didn’t destroy herself, and I couldn’t do it anymore.
So, with my abuser sitting next to me on the sofa and her father, my landlord, in the corner, I started to talk.
I told them everything – that she was abusing me physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and for the past few days even sexually. I told them about the anger, the manipulation, the emotional blackmail and the violence, using my children to control me, threatening them to make me do as I was told, saying she’d take them away from me because the mother always gets custody and her parents could afford better lawyers than me, threatening me with homelessness if I disobeyed her, the behavioural explosions, the hatred, the constantly walking on eggshells and trying to manage it so it didn’t impact my children. I said it was no wonder my mental health was suffering, as she was abusing me and abusing the children and I wanted out.
My wife chose not to say anything, so her father piped up. He said, ‘As you can see, Richard is very good with his words, and very good at telling stories, but we can’t know if any of these things ever actually happened.’
He said that in fact, I was the abusive one and I needed my medication looking at. He then suggested that the most important thing was to keep me in the house looking after my wife and children, as I’d been doing the last five years – an odd thing to propose right after describing me as an abuser.
The social worker sent me out of the room so she could talk to my wife on her own, as though I was the threat. I waited fifteen agonising minutes. Then I was called back in and my wife was sent out – but not my father-in-law, her co-conspirator, who got to hear every word. The social worker said that she’d asked my wife if she wanted to work on the relationship, and she’d said yes, so she put the same question to me – did I want to stay?
With my father-in-law in the corner and all eyes on me, my stomach knotted. I felt nauseous. How easy it would be to simply roll over and take it. How easy to stay, put up with the abuse, not face the disruption of breaking up my family or the difficulties of single parenthood.
‘No,’ I said. ‘We can’t continue under the same roof – I’ll end up dead.’
Things went very quickly from there.
They called my wife back in and told her that I had decided not to continue in the relationship.
My wife jumped up and stormed upstairs in a rage. My father-in-law stormed out of the house without a word. Then my wife came down, got in her car and sped off out of the cul-de-sac, the tyres of her car screeching down the road.
The social worker suggested mediation going forward and then left.
I have never felt so vulnerable in my life.
I turned to my support worker and said, ‘What the hell do I do now? I just told them my wife is abusing me and the children; I ended the relationship in the meeting; she stormed out in a rage; so did her dad; I’m in their house; I can’t believe I’ve just been left here with two young children. What if she comes back and she’s violent? What do I do?’
‘Ring 999,’ said my support worker.
‘What if her dad comes back and kicks me out of the house? We’re in lockdown – there’s nowhere for me to go. And I can’t leave the children here with her.’
My support worker shrugged. ‘It’s a shitty situation,’ she said. ‘If you were a woman, they’d have had you and the children out of here a week ago. Because you’re a man, they have no idea what to do.’
So much for equality in twenty-first century Britain.