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Relationships

How I broke free from my emotionally abusive relationship

Isolated from her friends and family, one woman tells how she found freedom after her supposedly 'loving' husband did everything he could to emotionally break her.

It's a funny thing, emotional abuse.
Obviously it's not actually funny at all, but it's different from other types of abuse in that you can't see it. There are no bruises; the only wounds you carry are on the inside, but they can take even longer to heal, if ever.
The thing about emotional abuse, is it's not just other people who don't realise it's happening to you.
Often you don't even realise it yourself. You just gradually start shrinking, little by little, and over time you come to believe that you are the problem, that you are just hopelessly flawed.
I was just 19 when I met the man who would become my husband. A confident young man, he told me he would treat me like a princess.
A few months later, I left behind everything and everyone I knew to be with him.
As we began our new life together, however, I sometimes felt I was treated more like a dog than a princess.
His behaviour alternated between talking down to me and treating me as though I was stupid, to virtually patting me on the head if I was good. I didn't like it, but this was my first real relationship and he seemed so knowledgeable and worldly wise compared to me.
Two years later we were married.
The first couple of years weren't too bad. I learned quickly that I was never allowed to sit still; if I did my husband would call me lazy from his permanent spot on the couch.
I felt it was unfair, but his mother was a formidable lady who never stopped for a moment and I was expected to be the same. I was terrified of her and desperate to please his family, so would run myself ragged.
Once our two children came along he delighted in calling me fat and would pass judgement on every morsel I ate.
It was once the kids got older, however, that the problems really started.
For the first time I was making friends of my own, not just wives of my husband's friends and colleagues. He never liked any of them and would be so unpleasant towards them that eventually he drove them all away, isolating me once again.
Any hobbies I took an interest in were quickly quashed.

Damage and control

Anything he didn't have complete control over, he simply couldn't handle. Such as when I finally used the talents I had to build myself a professional career.
While he would join in enthusiastically when others praised me, as soon as we were alone he would go out of his way to put me down.
However, this was one area where his taunts fell on deaf ears. I knew I was incredibly good at my job. So he went back to calling me fat again and would tell me on a daily basis about all the women who came on to him at work, as if he was doing me some sort of favour by still coming home to me.
Eventually I got sick of the constant jibes about my weight and joined the local gym. I also began running and to my surprise and delight lost over 30kg.
I now weighed less than I had as a teenager and the fat shaming finally stopped.
Unfortunately, it was replaced by jealous obsession. Everywhere I went, he followed me and as soon as I was out of sight he would rummage through my bags, searching for evidence I had been up to no good.
In 2010, we relocated to a new area. My career working from home was going from strength to strength and so was my husband's, yet he never seemed to do any work.
If I was lucky I would get a couple of hours to myself to work in peace before he would return home and be hovering over my shoulder, demanding my attention.
He never seemed to have any work to do, despite having an extremely high paid job, so he set about making himself indispensable around the house.
I was no longer allowed to hang out washing by myself and before long he had taken every single one of the household chores away from me.
His reasoning was, if he left it to me, nothing would ever get done. I felt I had no role any more and was of no use to anyone. This was something he revelled in.
"Everyone thinks you're so perfect, imagine if they knew you didn't even do any house-work or cook dinner!" he mocked.

Cruel intentions

As our children entered their teens, he felt threatened even by them and was consumed with jealousy at the time they spent with me. He installed locks on the bedroom and bathroom doors, and I wasn't allowed to have a bath alone or wash myself without him doing it for me.
Every morning without fail I was brought breakfast in bed. Far from being a treat, I hated this ritual with a passion. He didn't do it out of kindness, but so that I couldn't get out of bed and see my children before they went to school.
I wasn't allowed out until I had eaten every bit and he would lock the door behind him and yell at our children that they were not to disturb me.

No kind of life

Night time was no better. The children and I were forbidden from laughing or making any noise from the moment he arrived home.
Most bizarre of all, he began timing how long I spent tucking them in and would fly upstairs in a rage, yelling I had been quite long enough.
As for my bedtime, that was 10.30pm and not a minute later. Once I did get into bed, I was treated to the same lecture every night about what a terrible wife I was.
I was sexually harrassed either via text or in person all the time and the children were becoming aware of what he was doing to me.
They would hear him shouting at me at night, ranting on and on, and there were increasingly too many weekends when they would find me crying after another long night when their father had once again forced himself upon me, calling me every name under the sun as he did so.
I was so exhausted I couldn't even drag myself out of bed most days any more.
For a while I'd been working with a personal assistant, who lived in the same town.
My employer had guessed long ago something was wrong and told my PA to try and get to the bottom of it.
One morning I broke down, telling her everything. Her shocked response amazed me. For years I had told myself that this was married life and was something everyone just had to put up with.
Now here was someone telling me that I had been right all along, that my marriage was not at all normal.
We sat on the lounge floor together and she placed a piece of paper in front of me.
"I want you to write a timeline," she said. "Jot down all the major events in your life in order of the year they happened."
This I duly did.
"Now, I want you to write on that timeline the last time you remember being happy."
I didn't hesitate, it had been when I had last visited my family in England. My colleague stared at me open-mouthed. Somehow, I had endured this living hell for 16 years.
The next day I made an appointment to see a counsellor. She told me to get all the children's paperwork and passports together as well as my own, and make an appointment with WINZ.
She also gave me a copy of a book called Invisible Wounds: A Self-Help Guide for Women in Destructive Relationships by Kay Douglas.
"Have a read and see if you recognise yourself in any of the chapters," she said.
As soon as I opened the pages this wave of relief, mixed with horror, washed over me. It wasn't my fault! Nothing about his treatment of me was okay. For all our sakes, I had to end it.

Escape to freedom

What I was most terrified of was the very real chance he'd hurt or even kill me, so the kids and I made a plan and hid the keys to his gun safe.
It took three months to pluck up the courage to leave, but one Sunday morning I could take no more.
He didn't harm me physically, but he made sure everyone for miles around heard how hard done by he was and how crazy I was not to appreciate everything he did for me.
He told me I'd have nothing and live in a hovel.
He was wrong. I bought a lovely house for the children and I to live in. At last we were free. Now our home is filled with singing and laughter, not shouting and anger.
If you feel something is not quite right in your relationship, please don't tell yourself that it's all in your head, or that there must be something wrong with you. If one of my friends had been receiving the same treatment, I wouldn't have hesitated in telling her it wasn't okay, yet I couldn't see it in myself.

Psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings shares her advice for getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship

The tricky thing about emotional abusers is they're often charismatic, charming, successful and well-liked. They can help in the community and generally hold it together in public.
The difficulty is you may have convinced yourself that it is not possible your partner is emotionally abusive because everyone likes them and therefore it is your fault, your failings and your sub-standard behaviour that causes the abuse. This is not true!
With emotional abuse there's a constant stream of self-doubt. Is it really that bad? Have I made it up? Maybe it is my fault like he says?
Your mind plays tricks on you and your sense of what's real can shift. Your concept of what is acceptable and what you'll tolerate is also eroded.
Emotional abuse builds slowly so over time you accept lots of little things you never imagined you would. By the time you're in a fully-fledged emotionally abusive relationship you're desensitised to much of it and have become good at enduring and surviving.
Things that once would have horrified you, happen most days without you batting an eye.
This is why it is so hard to spot the signs of emotional abuse – after a while you can no longer tell what is abuse and what is "normal".
If anything in the article has rung any bells for you, there is a high chance you are in an unhealthy relationship. Ask yourself how often you feel like your partner is trying to control or manipulate you.
Consider if your autonomy is slipping.
Do you have the same access to your finances, your friends, your family or your hobbies? Does your partner's behaviour differ in public and in private?
Do they always have a list of excuses and justifications for why they behave the way they do?
If you are becoming isolated and if your partner saves all their bad stuff for you and also specifically blames you for much of it, you are not in a good relationship.
It will require courage, but if you have any concerns about your situation, I would suggest step one is to confide in someone who cares for you.
Step two is to listen with an open mind to what they say. You will be tempted to make excuses and explain away your partner's behaviour.
Your job is to be vulnerable enough to speak up and brave enough to trust what someone else has to say about your situation because remember after you have been in an abusive relationship for a while, your own perception of what is acceptable isn't usually accurate.
If you don't pick the right person to listen to you, try again until you feel heard.
Once again, you will think your situation is unique and that others won't believe you. Please reach out for help. There are so many options for help and your situation is more common than any of us would like to admit.
Emotional abuse is as real and as damaging as any form of abuse. You can call the police or any of the listed resources, even if the abuse isn't physical.
Financial aid is also available if you need legal assistance to put a care and protection order in place. This process can be completed within days and on a 'without notice' basis, which means your partner doesn't need to be told until it is in place.
Women's Refuge has a Whānau Protect option, which can help upgrade the security of your home. There are many options for support and you deserve more than an abusive relationship.

How to get help

Talk to someone
Free and confidential help is available if you or someone you know is being abused. Call the free 24-hour Women's Refuge crisis line on 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843.
Find somewhere safe
The Women's Refuge offers urgent safe accommodation across New Zealand and can house women and children in danger. womensrefuge.org.nz
Seek permanent protection
A protection order protects you against someone you have a close relationship with, such as a partner or ex. It means an abuser can be arrested if they hurt, threaten or even approach you. justice.govt.nz
Show your support
People who are experiencing violence or emotional abuse often feel isolated and ashamed, and your support could be vital. Let them know you are there for them.

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