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I knew I had a difficult marriage, but it wasn’t until 2006, when a neighbour witnessed me being attacked and suggested to me that I was the victim of domestic abuse, that the penny started to drop. That neighbour was the catalyst for some long, overdue self-reflection:
- Was this normal?
- Was I OK with being treated like this?
- If this really is abuse, now what?
I’m blissfully married today and have experienced the worst and best that married life can offer. So, for anyone who is confused about how abusive relationships differ from healthy ones, I’ve shared five real-life comparisons to help you in your self-reflection:
- If I broke my wife’s favourite wine glass today, I’d feel bad and she’d be disappointed when I told her, but I’d never fear telling her: she’d know it was an accident.
- When my wife is running behind time, trying to get the kids out the door and I’m helping her, I never fear it’s going to kick off, or that in her stress, she’ll turn on me.
- If I forgot to communicate something important to my wife and it caused her a problem, my heart wouldn’t start racing, nor would my mouth go dry. I’d want to listen to her expressing her feelings, she might be visibly cross and I may feel bad, but I’d know we’d sort it out without descending into a major row.
- If I came home drunk after a ‘few’ beers with my footy mates which turned into an ‘all-nighter’ and I clattered into the house, waking up the kids (and my wife) before being sick in the toilet, then being a grump the next day because I’m hungover, my wife would be rightly annoyed. But her annoyance wouldn’t last for long nor would she turn that isolated and unusual incident into an epic attack on me for every wrong thing I’ve ever done since 2012! I’d owe her an apology, she’d get one and because it would be a rare occurrence, we’d all move on very quickly.
- If I felt my wife hadn’t been affectionate with me for a while, I could tell her so, without fearing the repercussions of being honest with her. I wouldn’t need to stress about trying to find the right moment to have this conversation, I’d just talk to her.
In healthy relationships disagreements will occur, anger is acceptable, occasionally you feel hurt, but underlying everything is trust, respect and a willingness to compromise on both sides. Couples can talk openly with each other about sensitive issues such as finances, love and disagreements on parenting, without fear of repercussions because you both feel safe with each other.
If, however, you’re treading on eggshells, you fear raising key issues due to how they will react, you avoid saying how you really feel and what your needs really are, and you know you’ll be blamed or attacked when things go wrong, then you may well be stuck in an abusive relationship.
For anyone who recognises these signs, I have four suggestions to make in order to help you navigate some of the most hostile terrain you’ll ever experience:
Talk to someone
If you’re trapped in abuse, it does not mean your weak or stupid, anyone can get trapped in abuse, and you will have already shown tremendous strength in surviving day to day. Pride, fear, shame all empower your abuser to retain control but when you talk to someone (your friend, a family member, your colleague) the tight grip that the abuse has on you, is already being loosened.
Form a plan in your mind
What often keeps us stuck is that we don’t have a plan of action so when it all kicks off, we freeze.
What boundary lines will your abuser have to cross for you to take decisive action? What action will you then take? Be clear in your mind and follow your plan should your boundary lines be breached.
Ignore your abuser’s lie
‘I’m so sorry. It will never happen again, that wasn’t the real me’. Firstly, when we say, ‘I’m so sorry’, then we make sure it doesn’t happen again but abusers generally don’t change and aren’t sorry. Secondly, if ‘it wasn’t the real me’, then who was it? The postman? The fridge? The vicar? This is a feeble attempt to avoid responsibility for the abuse.
Counselling is unlikely to solve the problem
More often than not, reverting to counselling is a tick-box exercise to give you false hope and buy your abuser some time. Even if your abuser is serious, counselling is a long term process and it will be years until any sustainable change takes place.
Counselling is not a magic pill or a magic word. If you do decide to give your abuser another chance on the basis of participation in counselling, develop firm boundaries and take action if they’re breached.
Whoever you are, know this, you are precious, you are strong, you deserve better and better is possible, but the road to ‘better’ requires sacrifice, pain, energy and patience.
Andrew Pain is a high-performance coach, TEDx speaker, productivity expert, domestic abuse campaigner and survivor of a long-term abusive marriage.
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