Out of Control: The names have been changed but the stories are real
I am finding it hard to watch the news at the moment. The recent murder of Sabina Nessa and the court case revealing the details of the horrific abuse that Sarah Everard suffered prior to her murder at the hands of a man she should have been able to trust. This, coupled with the erosion of women’s rights in Afghanistan makes for worrying viewing.
And even closer to home some of you may have seen a post shared by Kylie Reid from a good Egg who was struggling under the coercive control of her partner. The response to her plea for advice was both inspiring and terrifying. There were so many women who offered up help, advice, support or a listening ear. And so many of these women felt able to do this because they had lived experience of this type of abuse.
Since 2019 psychological domestic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour has been a criminal offence in Scotland and help is out there for women who need it. There does not need to be physical violence in order to be convicted with victims citing abuses including gas lighting, lies and manipulation, threats and control and instilling confusion and self-doubt.
In the hope that it may inspire other women to come forward and seek help I spoke with three women who have lived with a controlling partner. I asked them about some of the abuse they suffered, the warning signs women should look out for and how they managed to regain control of their lives and move on.
Carla met her partner through her career. They both worked in the media in London and they both enjoyed the work hard, play hard environment.
‘That’s a point that I’d really like to make,’ says Carla. ‘I’m used to holding my own in quite male-dominated work environments. I’m not a push over. There isn’t a type of person who this happens to, but there is a type of person who does this to other people.’
Despite little warning signs, like her partner becoming ‘silently angry’ with her when she’d done ‘something wrong’, not liking her having male friends or pressuring her to change the way she wore her hair, things didn’t get really bad until Carla had her little girl. Prior to that she was financially independent and still had her own flat. But maternity pay meant that she no longer had the disposable income that she once had. With a good social network through the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), Carla would often meet friends and their babies for lunch or coffee.
‘After the birth of my daughter I knew it was important to not feel isolated and get out of the house, but he would do a food shop and buy lunch things for me so that I didn’t need to go out for lunch. It was little things like that that started to feel quite controlling.’ And that’s when a lot of financial control came in.
‘He wouldn’t pay for nappies, baby food or nursery,’ she tells me. ‘He went to the pub every night, which in fairness we had both done prior to having a child, but he would never look after her so I could never go out. For someone who had had a pretty active social life that was hard. I was working full time and doing crazy amounts of hours, but it was always me who had to pick her up from nursery and get up with her through the night. Looking back, I have no idea how I functioned.’
Carla’s partner would get very angry when the baby cried and shout at her to ‘shut that f**king baby up.’ He would wait until she was holding the baby to pin her against the wall and take the baby away, threatening to never give her back. ‘He had found a way to control me, through my baby. Because he knew that I’d never let anything happen to her.’
Carla managed to speak with her friends at the NCT about what was happening in her relationship and her Health Visitor who referred her to a domestic abuse charity. She also sought the help of the police who helped her to record evidence of the abuse, stay safe and build a case in case she needed it.
‘I paid for counselling, which really helped. It took me a long time to realise that I was in an abusive situation. You think “that will never happen to me.” I mean, I was bossing it at work and coming home to this!’
Carla waited until her daughter was school age to leave as this helped her be financially independent. And despite walking away with a very bad financial settlement she couldn’t be happier.
‘I would recommend to anyone not to overthink it. Just get out and be happy. There’s no point for you or your children to resign yourself to misery or being trapped. My life is great now, I’ve been in a relationship for 3 years and I’m very happy, my daughter is settled and happy and we have our own space with nobody telling us what to do. Coming out the other end has been amazing.
Jenny worked in business management and met her husband through work. They were married with two children and were together for 11 years.
In the last year of their relationship, they went to couples counselling together and this enabled Jenny to open up to friends in more detail about her relationship. ‘Those of my friends who had laughed along with the jokes about the ineptitude of men when I had told them about him were no longer laughing when they heard the depth of the abuse,’ she tells me. Her counsellor identified what she had been subjected to as domestic abuse and started to see her separately in order to safeguard her.
Jenny was living with psychological and sexual abuse as well as coercive control. The abuse started in a subtle way. Her husband would block her path as she moved around the house until she kissed him before she was allowed to proceed. This could be, and was at first, dismissed as just a desire for attention, but now Jenny knows that it was about his requirement that she do as he wishes her to do.
‘We would argue, normally because I didn’t want to sleep with him. He would make jokes about me and goad me until it was easier just to give in and sleep with him. If I didn’t give in, he would start winding up my son until he exploded and then my husband would give him a row. At this point he was 3-years-old. This was his way of ensuring that I re-engaged with him and slept with him.
‘It affected me pretty badly,’ Jenny tells me. ‘There were times that I was physically and mentally scraping myself off the floor. Although I didn’t want to kill myself, I knew I just didn’t want to be living this life anymore. My head was a fog, I felt detached from everything. I couldn’t even make simple decisions like what to have for tea, let alone what to do with my and my children’s lives.’
The last year of their relationship proved to be the worst. ‘I had told him by then that although I wanted our marriage to work, I had been raised by a single mother and I knew that I didn’t need him in my life.’ Following that the level of abuse and coercion became much more intense as he tried to regain control. It took a real toll on Jenny’s mental health and self-confidence.
The moment that Jenny knew that she had to get out came as she was regaining some control and independence. She had a new job and was preparing to go on a training course when her husband demanded that she sleep with him. When she told him that she didn’t want to, he said ‘but you’re my wife and I can do exactly what I want with you.’
Jenny was so overwhelmed that she could only think of one way to regain some control of her life and made herself sick. Something she hadn’t done for 20 years.
It took another 6 months until she was ready to leave. She needed to know that she had tried everything she possibly could to make her marriage work. Her husband moved out and she admits that she still hoped that absence might make the heart grow fonder during that time.
But this time apart allowed Jenny to attend counselling alone and work out how her life would look without him in it. But it took two years of therapy and anti-anxiety medication to get her back on track.
Edinburgh Women’s Aid and Jenny’s counsellor helped her through what was otherwise a really lonely experience. ‘In that final year my friends were able to agree that his actions were not OK. I think prior to that they had just perceived him as a bit of a useless husband or useless Dad.
‘Support from Edinburgh Women’s Aid came mainly after the separation when I was able to accept that what I had been through was domestic abuse,’ she tells me. ‘They were very straight down the line and explained the pattern of controlling behaviour. It helped me feel much less alone, much more understood and realise that it wasn’t my fault. They’ve provided advice about court proceedings and co-parenting as safely as you can for you and your children.
Jenny has been working with Edinburgh Women’s Aid for the last year. She works with children and young people who have been impacted by this type of abuse, many of whom don’t realise that they have been affected but very often have a bit of a skewed view of the world.
‘There are lots of levels of coercive control and we all have different thresholds and standards and we all know what works for us. When something doesn’t work for you, you will get that gut feeling and you’ll know something isn’t right.
‘Trust your gut. Find a friend or family member who you can tell and write it all down if it is safe to do so. That way you can’t be tricked into thinking everything is in your head. At the Christmas before we split up, I started to think that it couldn’t be as bad as I thought, so I wrote down everything that had happened which filled 17 pieces of paper. Getting rid of that list is my biggest regret. I just wanted to start afresh. But I wish I’d kept it, because I needed something to hold on to the truth once the denials and lies started coming.
‘Talking about it and sharing experiences is the only way that we will stop this happening.’
Grace was with her husband for 7 years. They have been separated for two and a half years now and she has a 3-year-old son. Grace was very aware of domestic abuse through her job, in fact it was at work when she first realised that she was a victim of it herself.
‘At that stage I wasn’t experiencing physical abuse but as I listened to a description of the coercive and financial control that another woman had experienced, I thought “that’s me, this is my life.” That really hit home, that I didn’t even realise it was happening to me.’
Grace’s partner would always have money for clothes and alcohol but would never pay for food or bills. She was allowed to go out, but if she did, he would send her abusive messages claiming that she was cheating on him. Even when she was round at her Mum’s house for dinner. He refused to go anywhere with her or to family gatherings and if he did, he would turn up drunk or make a scene. ‘I couldn’t really go out without him, but going out with him wasn’t any better. It became easier not to go out at all,’ she tells me. ‘Even going to work, if I didn’t answer his texts right away, he would accuse me of being up to no good.’
The control was financial, social and later physical – pushing her and throwing household objects at her. Towards the end of their relationship, he also hit her. ‘The thing was that I lived with two men. I lived with a sober man who was kind and generous but drunk, on drugs or hungover he was a different person.’
‘It didn’t matter what I did or wore I’d be criticised. I wasn’t a good woman, a good wife or a good person. After having a child, I wasn’t a good mum. He controlled everything I did without me even noticing. By the end of the relationship, I had no male friends and very few female friends left.
‘I felt completely worthless. I was fat, I was ugly, I’m a slag, I smell. I don’t believe any of that now, but I used to almost beg him to say something nice about me, but he never did.’
Grace told some people different bits of her story, but never the full extent of it. It wasn’t enough for them to realise what was happening. She found it very difficult to tell anyone what was happening to her while she was choosing to stay with her partner.
‘I knew I had to get out when I became a mum. I wanted to do it throughout my pregnancy, but I couldn’t,’ she tells me. ‘When my baby was 12 weeks old, he verbally abused me to the extent that I knew that I didn’t want my son to see this. I didn’t want us to live like this. I rang my mum and asked for help. I told her everything and it gave me the strength to make my husband leave. If I hadn’t had my son I might well still be there now, but I didn’t want that for him. When you become a mother, you will do anything to protect your children. You’re no longer the priority anymore.’
For anyone else who is in a controlling relationship, Grace would advise that they tell someone and believe in themselves. ‘No matter how hard it is, whatever you walk away from or walk away with, it’s always going to be better than staying.’
Grace is currently in temporary accommodation with her son hiding from her husband. She left a permanent house but she knew it was the only way to make things better. Women’s Aid have helped and Grace stresses the importance of having a support network. ‘Whether you need support to stay, or support when you’re ready to leave, it’s essential that you have someone to talk to.’