Domestic Abuse is not always physical... it can be a lot more subtle than that.
8 September 2021
Kate was in her early 20s when she met and married her husband, Jason* in her native New Zealand over a decade ago. They were deeply in love, had much in common, with similar outlooks on life.
When the opportunity arose for her to move with him to his native Ireland and start a new life together, she jumped at the chance.
However, very early in their relationship, there were signs that all wasn’t as it should be. While Kate thought of herself as very happy and in love, she says looking back, there were indications of coercive control and emotional abuse.
Not wanting to believe that she had made a mistake in marrying Jason, Kate says that she made excuses, told herself that maybe he just had a fiery personality, maybe it was a cultural difference. Having both experienced abuse in their respective families of origin, she felt that part of their marriage was about learning to be healthier together.
“But the power dynamic was never equal – it was always him being angry at me, shouting at me, calling me names, me crying and then he wouldn’t speak to me for a few days.”
When Kate became pregnant and had their child, things began to get worse. “I think the idea of being a father really scared him and he became more controlling. He never hit me, but there were a few incidents where he pushed me away from what I was doing at the time, saying he could do it better. I think we both knew that if he ever hit me I’d leave.”
Kate says that one of the aspects of her experience that she feels is important to highlight is the fact that domestic abuse is not always physical. That you don’t have to be ‘punched in the face’ to suffer domestic abuse – it can be a lot more subtle than that.
“I know my ex still doesn’t think of himself as an abuser because our situation did not conform to the image that you get from the media. At the same time, identifying as a feminist, I found it difficult to admit that I’d gotten into an abusive relationship; I thought I should know better. I really thought I understood what abuse looked like and that I’d never get into that situation.”
When Kate’s baby was just a few months old, Jason reluctantly joined Kate at a marriage counselling session, where the counsellor suggested that severe emotional abuse was at the core of the relationship issues.
“She turned to my husband and said ‘you need to be in a programme for abusive men’. That was really shocking for both of us and painful for me, especially. I had this whole narrative in my mind that I had escaped an abusive parent and we were building something together. I had been a counsellor when I was younger and my husband had also studied in this area so we were both literate in these ideas about abuse.”
Jason agreed to attend a perpetrator programme called MOVE Ireland. Kate, in line with many partners of the men on this programme, was offered support from COPE Galway.“My key-worker was incredibly kind, supportive, and down to earth and she never pressured me to leave my relationship. She helped me feel like I could trust myself to say, ‘No, this behaviour is not OK’.
As time went on, Jason stopped attending the programme, and the abuse became more intense and more threatening. He had moved out of their home at this stage, but he would arrive at the house, shouting through the door. Shortly after her daughter turned one, he threatened to take her child away, so that she would never see her again.
“That was when the penny dropped for me and I realised that this wasn’t a relationship I could salvage. It really was the scariest thing he ever said to me, that he would separate me from our baby.”
Feeling frightened, alone and with no family to turn to, Kate called to COPE Galway’s Domestic Abuse Refuge at their former location in Waterside House, where they listened to her story and offered her support as she didn’t feel safe going home.
“After that, we didn’t go home. We stayed in a hotel and then we stayed in a friend’s guest room until I could find a house to rent. It turned out I was right not to feel safe going home that night because my ex broke into the house. When I came back a few days later to get my things, when he was at work, I found that the back door had been broken in so God knows what would have happened if we had been home.”
Through COPE Galway, Kate joined a support group, where she has met many new friends and supports.
“The women I’ve met there are some of the most admirable people I’ve ever met in my life and they made me feel proud of my identity as a single mother. I know for sure my kid is happier and healthier being in a home that doesn’t have any abuse in it.”
At one of the most vulnerable times of her life, Kate feels the first and most crucial way in which COPE Galway helped was to encourage her to trust herself. “They didn’t tell me to leave my relationship, which I think is really important because when someone is being controlled by a partner, they don’t need to be more controlled by other sources. I didn’t need someone else telling me that they knew what was best for me, that would have felt like more control. What someone who is being abused needs is to have the courage to trust themselves and so that was very important.”
Life has been really good for Kate in the four years since she left the house she shared with her ex-husband. “It’s hard sometimes of course; I work really hard, I have multiple jobs. When you’re a single parent of a baby, of a young child, there’s a lot of broken sleep. But I genuinely feel better off than a lot of my friends who are partnered parents, even in relationships that aren’t even abusive. I feel so much better off – I have a lot of freedom, I don’t have to compromise about where I want to live or how I spend my time or how I want to raise my child. And I feel a lot of really fierce pride about my identity as a single mother.”
So having been through the experience and come out the other side a confident, and happy person, what advice would Kate give to those going through something similar?
“Talk to a service like COPE Galway or talk to a marriage counsellor, even if your partner won’t come with you to the sessions. Just to be able to talk to a voice of reason that’s not close to the situation can really help.
Try to not minimise it to yourself; if you have a weird feeling that maybe something isn’t OK, don’t worry about reaching out to a third party. It’s important to say it doesn’t have to be black and white – you don’t have to wait until your relationship is physically abusive, or is absolutely terrible, to reach out for support. You can talk to someone when your relationship is in a grey area and they will help you and believe you.”
*Name and some details have been changed to protect identities