Archive for October 2010
Published in CLEO, October 2010. Copyright Rachel Hills 2010.
Most couples argue from time to time, and Jasmine, 25, and her ex-boyfriend Craig were no exception. They’d argue over whose turn it was to do the dishes, when they’d last had sex, whether her guy friends secretly had feelings for her, and why he spent so much time chatting to girls online.
So far, so domestic, but these weren’t your average lovers tiffs. First, there was the frequency with which they would happen. Second, Craig’s fighting style had an undeniable nasty streak. It wasn’t just a matter of a few terse words: it was a regular onslaught of screaming, name-calling, accusations of manipulation and the occasional hurling of household objects.
Craig, Jasmine is quick to assure me, also had a whole lot of good qualities. He was funny, charming, whip-smart and regularly told her she was the love of his life. He could make her feel as good as he would make her feel bad. But that’s so often the way it is with verbally abusive relationships.
When it comes to physical abuse, most of us know where to draw the line. A partner who hits you, for example, pretty obviously identifies themselves as a partner you don’t want to be with. But when the pain inflicted is psychological, it can be harder to know what’s normal and what’s not.
Part of the problem, explains life coach Lisa Phillips (www.amazingcoaching.com.au) who spent seven years in a verbally abusive relationship and now works with women in similar situations, is that you start to feel like, on some level, you deserve it. Verbal abuse also seeks to deliberately undermine your natural responses, she says, making you question your own judgment.
Phillips says her boyfriend would often laugh off her concerns, telling her “you’re being too sensitive”, “I didn’t mean anything by it” or “no, I never said that”.
“They’re very good at playing the calm one,” says Phillips. “You start to actually think you’re going mad.” This is especially so, she says, when you start to yell back, as so many people in abusive relationships do. “You end up without a leg to stand on,” says Jasmine.
But perhaps the biggest difficulty in identifying verbal abuse is reconciling the person you love with the person who is hurting you. “Often people who have never been in an abuse relationship expect the person to be evil all the time,” explains psychologist Dr Dina McMillan, author of But He Says He Loves Me: How to Avoid Being Trapped in a Manipulative Relationship. “More often it’s an 80-20 or even a 90-10 ratio of good to bad, but that 10 or 20 percent can absolutely destroy you.”
For one, says McMillan, it completely crushes your self confidence, making you feel like “there’s something intrinsically wrong with you.” For another, it can seriously damage your ability to trust the opposite sex.
Larissa, 30, tells how an abusive, controlling relationship slowly stripped away “all the tiny little details” that made her whop she was. “I grew up in Bondi and my home is a beach, and he wouldn’t want me to go there because I’d dated a guy who worked there,” she says. “I loved to go see music, but I couldn’t go to gigs because he said I was inviting male attention. I couldn’t even communicate on Facebook or Twitter.”
Like Jasmine, Larissa says it took her a while to appreciate the full gravity of her situation because she knew her boyfriend could also be “this wonderful, beautiful person”.
“In the beginning, I didn’t tell my friends or family because I wanted them to think he was the Mr Perfect that he seemed to be, and that I really thought he would become. I didn’t want the image of who he was to be distorted or for people to have a lower opinion of him.”
Jasmine agrees. “You do hope that one day the fights will go away,” she says. “But you get to a point where you realise that nothing is changing. In the end, the decision was, I can’t tolerate a lifetime of this. You have to trust what your gut instincts are telling you.”
For some couples, says Dr McMillan, it does change. “I believe you can have a healthy relationship even if it’s been unhealthy in the past,” she says. But it only works if the person who is abusive really wants to change – and not just to keep the relationship. “[The abusive person] needs to really take responsibility, they have to understand why they become so nasty and destructive, and they have to deny themselves permission to behave in that way anymore.”
But for most, the only way out of the cycle is to break it. Jasmine recently made the decision to cut Craig off completely. “I would like to be able to be friends with him,” she says, “Because I do care about him, and I hope he’s going well. But I can’t invest in him anymore until I have myself back.”
“I’m astounded that that happened to me, when I look back and I realised what proportion of my life that took up. That was three years that I could have had not feeling like that. And I won’t get that back.”