An open letter: the subtle scars of coercive control, as revealed by a St Albans victim of domestic abuse
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It was the night before our wedding, and as my maid of honour showed me into her bathroom with rose petals floating on the candelit water, I had a wrenching feeling in the pit of my stomach that I tried to push away.
My dress was hanging up and we had already had the rehearsal with bridesmaids big and small, some who had travelled a long way.
I thought of our trip to Venice and how happy we looked in the photos taken by a gondolier. Sometimes I used to stare at pictures to try and tease out some happiness from behind our eyes.
Shortly after the vows, in the choir stalls of St Albans Cathedral, you turned to me and said “Fresh start now - no more rows” and I smiled and nodded, appreciating your sentiment but knowing that your behaviour wouldn’t miraculously change.
I knew you had had a difficult upbringing and it had made you very driven and ruthless. As a teacher, you seemed to feel it was your role to educate everyone in life lessons - including me - and you disguised it as “caring”.
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It happened quite subtley and I genuinely thought you knew best. I was only 24 and my dad had died the year before. Before I knew it I was living with coercion every day of my life and had unwittingly become very miserable. Part of me though that was what marriage was like and I was grateful for the fact you had a high income and paid the mortgage.
Things like asking your permission to do everything, rushing home in case you thought I had been out too long and not seeing or speaking to anybody else became the norm.
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So many seemingly small events resulted in insecurity and self-esteem issues and even today memories will come rushing back or something will affect how I am now with my new husband.
When I go into town on Saturdays something still makes me feel like I have to rush home. I think that something is you. That little voice making me feel bad for being out on my own enjoying myself.
You told me my sister and mum were a bad influence and restricted me to talking to them once a month. In contrast, my new husband loves them both, often suggests we meet up and encourages me to call them regularly.
Whenever I talked to anybody in any depth I was accused of having “an emotional affair”.
While you ran a charity for kids in another country and were often a speaker at church - perceived as a pillar of the community - I felt like maybe I was going insane in seeing a completely different side to you. People would come up to me in the street and at your workplace events to tell me what an inspirational man you were, which made me feel even worse about the way things were at home.
Being made to sleep downstairs - even though we had a three-bed house - didn’t seem that odd to me at the time. You did such a good job of convincing me of the reasons: that if I woke you up getting ready, it would make you angry all day and it was not fair of me to behave like this.
You begrudgingly bought me a glass of wine on my birthday get-together at Wagamama but said quietly in a sinister tone: “You can pay me back later!”
You ordered yourself a massive curry with lots of sides and then insisted that I made pasta from the kitchen cupboard.
It was the night before I got paid and I didn’t have much money in my account, so you thought it would be good for me to go without a takeaway so I would make my salary last longer the following month.
You were my husband. You earned around £70,000 a year and I earned £15K. I am still slightly rubbish with money but my current husband says our money is shared... his money is mine is what he means. And if I run out or am a bit frivolous, it’s not a big drama.
The first day you properly hit me - which was also my birthday - you clenched your fist and I cowered under the stairs as your face grimmaced. Hitting me did not become a regular occurrance but when it happened I remember feeling relieved. It was confirmation that you were an abuser. That I was being controlled.
It looked more like the adverts on TV for refuge charities, and easier to make sense of than some of the mind games.
It is 14 years since I had the courage to leave. Since I moved onto a broken Ikea futon on my sister’s bedroom floor. I remember feeling so free. I moved in with a man who loved me back to life. Who showed me patience and respect while I doubted him and misread signals, as a hangover from you.
But the scars are definitely still there. Just sometimes. I forgive you. I wonder if you outgrew that behaviour or if you are still the same today. My self-esteem can get quite low. I can question if I am worth certain acts of kindness from friends or my partner. I see people in the street who look like you and panic. A bit of me still wants to talk to you. To see if you realise what you did. To help you to move forward.