I met my husband when I was in my early twenties and living in a regional town where I had recently moved to pursue my career as a teacher. Although I loved my work, the town was halfway across the country from all of my family and friends – I was lonely and isolated.
So it’s pretty unsurprising that I quickly and easily fell into a relationship with Dominic*. He seemed to be a great guy – worldly, intelligent, and easy to talk to. It was a whirlwind romance and within six months we had bought a house, I had sold all of my furniture (his was better anyway, he told me) and we had moved in together.
Looking back on it, Dominic was very critical and unreasonably suspicious of me from the very beginning.
But, at the time, I found it easy to look past that because when he gave me his approval or warmth it made me feel amazing, almost euphoric. There was always a power imbalance between us, with me always feeling like I had to prove myself good enough for him.
He was obsessed with knowing how many men I had slept with before him (the answer was very few) and constantly accused me of cheating.
One time I left the toilet seat up after cleaning it and he became enraged, convinced I was having an affair.
I would cry, beg and plead for him to believe the truth, that I had never been unfaithful. Eventually his suspicions would abate, but he frequently ‘joked’ that if I ever did cheat on him, he would bury me up in the bush.
I recall countless occasions during the relationship, and from the very first weeks of dating, where Dominic was emotionally abusive. He constantly put me down, told me I did things wrong, criticised how I carried out household tasks. Then, when I cried or tried frantically to resolve an issue, his response would always be one of pious judgement and disgust, followed by an extended period of acting like nothing had happened. Time would pass and life would return to ‘normal’ (for a while) with me always resolving to ‘try harder’ and ‘be better’.
We spent a year and a half in that cycle. I was happy some of the time, but I also couldn’t escape the niggle at the back of my mind telling me something was not right in our relationship.
When I delivered lessons to students on the topic of abusive relationships, I found the logical side of my brain in conflict with my emotions because I identified with many of the characteristics of abuse.
After our daughter was born the family violence escalated and I found I was increasingly anxious, confused, unable to eat and on edge. A sense of dread that I didn’t understand would fill me when I heard Dominic open the door after coming home from work. He would check up on me frequently throughout the day, and would never tell me when he’d be home to ‘prevent me from having men at the house’.
He became increasingly controlling and critical. He had rules for everything – how I sat on chairs, how I vacuumed, how I started the car, how I played with our daughter, where I was allowed to place cups of coffee.
He never helped with parenting and expected that I should do all housework and caring for the baby 24/7 – that was only ‘fair’ in his eyes. I gave up asking for help because it only led to fights. I felt helpless, hopelessly and miserable.
After two serious incidents involving Dominic yelling at me, trying to stop me from seeing my family and playing power games, I self-harmed. Dominic didn’t want to take me to the hospital, I had to beg him to drive me. I was initially misdiagnosed with Post Natal Depression and referred to several mental health professionals. It was a counsellor I was put in contact with who later identified that what I was experiencing was family violence. This was a complete revelation to me – I was experiencing domestic abuse?
It took two phone counsellors, one face-to-face counsellor and a social worker at the local family violence support service to convince me that my experience was unequivocally domestic violence.
Even though I was often scared and intimidated, I didn’t feel it was ‘bad enough’ because he never hit me. A GP, a counsellor and a mental health professional explained that my feelings of depression and anxiety were due to violence and not Post Natal Depression.
When I left…
With my eyes now open to the abuse, I was shocked at how ridiculously cruel some of the things Dominic said and did to me were. I made the decision to leave and called the safe steps phone line. I was able to speak to a specialist support worker who helped me formulate a plan to leave safely.
The day I tried to leave Dominic told me I could go but I couldn’t take our daughter with me. I felt trapped, panicked and threatened. I spent the night sleeping on the floor in my daughter’s room, trying to get the courage up to leave the house. I was too afraid he’d catch me while I was opening the garage door and strapping my daughter into her car seat.
In the morning, I made a fake plan to meet friends for ‘mother’s group’ so that I could leave with my daughter. Before I left Dominic started yelling at me, telling me I was useless, lazy and disgraceful, blaming me for everything from the lawn not being mowed to not having more money. I sat in stunned silence on the floor while he towered over me, berating me, emotionally beating me down.
When he left the room, I just walked out. I left with nothing but a nappy bag and my daughter.
I was in a state of panic and fear, too scared to even be alone in the car with my daughter, so I rang safe steps and the support worker told me I did the right thing and to now go somewhere safe. I drove to the only safe place I knew, work, and sat in the staff room. The safe steps worker rang me back and helped me formulate a plan to get out of town to see my family interstate for a few days. She helped me get in touch with the local police to let them know I wasn’t missing, in case Dominic lodged a missing person’s report. My parents booked me flights for that afternoon.
I clearly remember the reassurance and advice the safe steps support worker provided, she guided me through a very tough hour. safe steps helped me survive that day.
Even though I have left the relationship I am still forced to live in the same town as my ex because of my legal obligations to allow my child to have access to her father. Though I have an IVO, Dominic continues to bully, manipulate and intimidate me.
Despite this, I am focussing on the positives and taking each day as it comes. I am in a family violence survivor group at my local women’s centre – it’s been really good in helping me to better understand what I went through.
Some of the biggest supports I have found have been other women, especially those who have experienced family violence – we frequently talk and draw strength from one another.
I am thankful for the safety of my daughter and I every second of every day. I am nourishing my body with healthy food and exercising for enjoyment. I am healing.
To the broader community…
I implore community members to believe women when they share their experiences of abuse and not to ask, ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ – it is rarely the case that a woman can ‘just leave’. What we should be asking is ‘why doesn’t he just stop?’
We must support one another and believe women when they share their stories – if we don’t, they may not believe themselves.
* Pseudonyms have been used in this story to protect the identities of the survivor and her family.