Nostalgia for the distant past annoys me. Whenever I catch myself reading something about a pre-electricity age when the only sounds were birdsong and conversation, when everyone knew everyone and we all had a marvellous symbiotic relationship with the world around us, I remind myself that I am female. As someone who had two emergency caesareans I am evolutionary garbage – only about 70 years ago I would have died in childbirth and my baby would have died too (I wouldn’t even have had a shot at the second one). I am 39, and whenever I speak to anyone of my grandmother’s generation they tell me that one of the children they had died.
As a woman, I want to be living now and in the west. Until recently, and in a lot of the world still, women often died giving birth, often had babies who died in childhood, were casually abused and had extremely little control over their own lives. We are lucky to be able to choose when and whether to have children and lucky that the experience is unlikely to kill us. Some of us make mistakes with the when and whether but that, fortunately, is our own business.
So, it genuinely surprises me that so many women, educated, wealthy women get trapped in abusive relationships. Just the phrase ‘abusive relationship’ makes people think it can’t apply to them, since they are not being hit or attacked. This is perhaps why they get trapped. Emotional abuse, though real and seriously damaging, is more nebulous, harder to pin down than a punch in the head. I saw a friend in London a couple of weeks ago who started telling me that her husband kept making excuses for not giving her the money to start a catering company, rich though he is. In fact, I haven’t seen her for years because he insisted on living in the country so that children had a healthier life. Healthy, maybe, but she’s completely on her own the whole time because he commutes. It occurs to me that that’s the idea. Isolate her and withhold the cash and he has all the power. This, I assume, makes him feel less insecure and powerless himself? Who knows.
The more she told me the scarier it sounded. Since she started saying she wanted to start a catering business, he’s been telling her how crap her cooking is and how hopeless she is at organisation. This is behaviour that was acceptable enough to be made amusing on television even in my lifetime – a family, the mother is a house wife, the whole family tells her that her cooking is crap. Cooking, caring for the family is her job. They tell her she’s crap at it. It is supposed to be funny. This is particularly insidious because attack disguised as humour means that when (not if) the target is upset she is also ridiculed for that – ‘We were only joking. What’s wrong with you?’
‘Maybe he’s right,’ was the scariest thing my friend said. Her eldest son, now a teenager, had started joining in demeaning her. Whatever her husband’s unconscious plan is, it works. ‘Leave him,’ I said. ‘I can’t. My mum’s too old to help with the children. What would I live off? And he’d never put up with it. He’d try and get custody of the kids and I’d be scared to leave them with him on their own. He’d make it hell,’ she explained. So, she stays, and every day she feels a bit worse about herself, a bit less capable of making any kind of life for herself, a bit less competent and a bit less lovable. She has been paralysed by someone who is so concerned with avoiding humiliation and defeat himself that he can’t even see her as human, let alone as a partner. She is an adversary, and as long as she stays in place, he’s won.
When I got home from this depressing lunch in China Town I went on the internet. This is from www.lilaclane.com. It’s a terrifying questionnaire that pinpoints stuff that a lot of people, I think, desperately try to shove under the carpet in order to preserve their family life fantasy.
“An abusive partner will railroad discussions, so that you don’t have time to think about what’s right and what’s wrong in their behavior.
Take a moment to consider these questions. Your partner might have behaved as though these things were okay, even though it’s obvious that they aren’t okay…:
Do you feel that you can’t discuss with your partner what is bothering you?
Does your partner frequently criticize you, humiliate you, or undermine your self-esteem?
Does your partner ridicule you for expressing yourself?
Does your partner isolate you from friends, family or groups?
Does your partner limit your access to work, money or material resources?
Has your partner ever stolen from you? Or run up debts for you to handle?
Does your relationship swing back and forth between a lot of emotional distance and being very close?
Have you ever felt obligated to have sex, just to avoid an argument about it?
Do you sometimes feel trapped in the relationship?
Has your partner ever thrown away your belongings, destroyed objects or threatened pets?
Are you afraid of your partner?”
Yes to one of these and you should probably get out fast. The last one’s the trickiest, I think. I asked my friend, very nervous about the answer, if her husband had ever hit her. She looked away and I took that, at first, as a yes. ‘No. I mean, of course not. And I feel really silly even saying it, but I sometimes think he’s going to. He’s big, you know, and he sort of stands really close. I mean, it sounds stupid.’
It’s not just actual violence that she and others need to escape (never mind the kids), it’s the atmosphere of violence, the threat of violence, the feeling of latent aggression. Lilac Lane says emotional abuse follows a similar cycle to physical abuse. There is a build up of minor irritations and incidents that always ends in a fuse blowing. Afterwards he’s sorry, but at the same time as being sorry he partly blames you for the event and says it wasn’t as bad as you thought, as bad as it seems. Then there is a period of complete denial by both parties – the abuse/event just never ever happened. Until next time.
I find it heartbreaking that, given all the freedom that women have fought so hard for, they are still being controlled by insecure men who brainwash them into such low self-esteem that they are paralysed by the emotional bullying. I am sure that for our grandmothers, who mostly felt they had to stay married until death, things were a lot worse. They probably couldn’t even talk to anyone about it or, horrid to think it, accepted it as completely normal.
For myself I just want to jump up and down and shout; ‘This is NOT okay!’
Actually, I did, right there on Gower Street.
Symptoms of emotional abuse
If you argue with him, he says you’re stubborn.
If you’re quiet, he argues with you anyway.
If you call him, he says you’re needy and clingy.
If he calls you, he thinks you should be grateful.
If you don’t act like you love him, he’ll try to win you over.
If you tell him you love him, he takes advantage of you.
If you dress sexy, he says you’re a slut.
If you don’t dress nice, he says you look bad.
When you don’t sleep with him, he says you don’t love him.
If you do sleep with him, he only does it the way he likes it.
If you tell him your problems, he says you’re bothering him,
If you don’t, he says you don’t trust him.
If you try to bring up a problem, he says you’re bitching.
If he brings up a problem, he yells.
If you break a promise, you “can’t be trusted”.
If he breaks it, it’s because “he had to”.
If you cheat, he wants to punish you by locking you up or beating you.
If he cheats, he expects to be given another chance.