Real Life

REAL LIFE: 'My husband abused me for 20 years'

People thought Mary and her husband had the perfect life. But she was living with a horrible secret.

My husband was the sort of guy people wanted to know. He had bags of charisma and knew exactly how to use it. He was a prominent businessman in our small rural town and he got treated like a celebrity. Everyone knew him and everyone respected him.

As his wife, I often felt like I was in the spotlight too. Friends told me I was lucky to have him. He had made a habit of buying them flowers or fruit baskets, but the way they carried on you would think he’d given them diamonds.

From the outside my life looked perfect. I had a beautiful home, a successful husband and three loving children. But we were living a lie.

We weren’t happily married – far from it. It started with an occasional comment about me. He would put me down, but it was subtle. If I got upset he would laugh it off, say he didn’t mean it like that. There were times that I thought I was going mad.

As the years wore on, comments turned into more obvious abuse. My self-esteem had been eroded. He belittled me, often in front of my children or friends. Then he would laugh it off, I was the butt of his joke and everyone went along with it.

By the time it became physical I was a shell of my former self. He hit me often, sometimes knocking me over. There were broken bones and lots of bruises. But he had done such a great job of convincing me I was worthless that I just accepted the abuse. I often told myself it was all my fault.

Sometimes when I was out in the town I heard people talk about me, I’d catch the odd word of whispered conversations as I walked by. People thought I had a mental illness. My husband had put the idea in people’s heads and they were so taken in by his charisma that it was easier to believe I was mad than the victim of domestic violence.

But somewhere deep in my soul a little voice told me it wasn’t right.

I enrolled on a course. My older kids were grown up and my youngest, my daughter, was in her final year of high school. I needed to do something to give myself a new lease of life. Although my husband wasn’t supportive, he accepted my decision with his usual disdain.

I had to travel to the next town to take the course. It was just one evening a week, but the freedom it afforded me was intoxicating. Driving away from the town that had conspired against me made me feel like a new woman.

Of course, you can’t just shrug off twenty years of hostility and abuse. I felt better than I had in years, but to the new friends I made on my course I was shy and withdrawn. They worked hard to get through to me, extending a lifeline, offering help.

One evening after we had packed away our books, one of my new friends, a woman named Phoebe, talked me into going for a drink. Then, over a gin and tonic, she gently asked me a question that no one had thought to ask before – is your husband abusing you?

I denied it at first. I suppose I was embarrassed. I was an educated woman with a good background. This wasn’t supposed to happen to women like me. But phoebe was smart. She had seen it all before and although she was gentle with me, she wasn’t going to let me off the hook.

The floodgates opened and the story came gushing out. The taunting and name-calling. The gas lighting. The broken bones. My story lay around me like fragments from a shattered plate. Over the years I had held the pieces together, but the damage had been done.

It was hard to walk away from my marriage. I had no love left for the man that had nearly destroyed me, but I’m ashamed to say that I was attached to our wealth. I had got used to living in a beautiful house and the lifestyle that came with my husband’s position.

But with Phoebe's support, I got out. She helped me to get a small flat in the town where we took the course. The hardest part was leaving my daughter behind. She was so close to her final exams and even though it broke my heart, I knew she needed the stability of her home. She was in no danger, her father saved all the abuse for me.

It took a while for me to get back on my feet. But the little voice in my soul was getting louder. My confidence was starting to return.

I’ve been on my own for almost ten years now. I kept up my study and got a job – a career in fact. I’d like to meet someone now. It took a long time to even think about romance. But while I still live with the scars of domestic violence, I am no longer living in its shadow.

*Where to get help:
If you are experiencing or witnessing domestic violence, please contact one of the following services for information, advice and support. If you are in immediate danger, call the police on 111.
Are you OK - 0800 456450
Shine - 0508 744633
Women's Refuge - 0800 733843

As told to Cat Rodie