When I became the mother of one, then two, girls I would occasionally think about the prevalence of eating disorders and what I could do to make sure my girls never suffered from one. But the more I worked in my job on this section, and in my role as patron of a women’s legal organisation, I realised that there was a greater ill that could befall them: getting into an abusive domestic relationship. Two weeks ago, I got a particularly disturbing letter from a reader who suspects her sister is in such a relationship. The sister had isolated herself from her whole family, and when they had last seen her, she appeared terrified. I couldn’t stop thinking about it; 48 hours later the Sunday papers showed Nigella Lawson in a row with her husband, his hand around her throat.
Domestic violence is a particularly pernicious crime. The very place where you are meant to feel safe – home – is often the place of most danger. The very person who should look after you – your partner – attacks you or diminishes you. I wish I could say I can’t imagine what that is like, but unfortunately, as I’ll explain later, I can.
In March 2013, the Home Office published figures relating to violence against women and girls in the UK. It showed that the previous year, 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse. And these are just the ones that come on to the Home Office radar.
Two women every week are killed by a partner or former partner. One in four women will, at some point in their life, experience domestic violence. I must pause here to say that domestic abuse can happen to anyone, of any background and of either sex. But research shows that the majority of abuse is perpetrated by men, against women.
My immediate environment, the one over which I have most influence, is as a mother to two girls. Was there, I wondered, anything I could do to protect my daughters from such a relationship?
“The biggest risk factor is being female,” says Sandra Horley, Refuge’s Chief Executive and author of Power And Control, Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers. “Yes, build their self-esteem, make them confident, encourage outside interests. But ultimately, the woman with the highest self-esteem and the most loving family can find herself in a violent relationship and over time her self-esteem will be eroded.”
I should have known this. When I was younger I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship, though it took me a while to realise it. It didn’t last long, but by the end of it my self-esteem was wrecked, I doubted my own judgment and I didn’t know which way was up.
It started subtly. Despite being attracted to me because I was funny and vivacious, if I was too funny or vivacious at parties, he would come over and whisper in my ear that we had to leave, because he “wasn’t enjoying himself”. When we got home, he would analyse my behaviour of that evening. How could I have left him standing on his own? How could I have been funnier than him? How could I have talked to all those men? How did I think that made him feel? When I went for a new job and a pay rise that would have seen me earning more than him, he said, “You won’t get it and neither should you.”
He lent me his mobile phone. It was some time later that I realised that, of course, by so doing he could trace my calls. He’d check my home phone bills, which were itemised, and ask me who I’d called. Once, when I was out, the mobile battery ran out. I went into a state of panic because I couldn’t be reached. “Just tell him the battery ran out,” the friend I was with said, perfectly reasonably. “You don’t understand …” I found myself saying.
He wasn’t violent, but his reactions were. Have I mentioned how utterly charming he was to the outside world? He never said a bad word against me to others so if I complained, I was always the bad guy.
In thinking about writing this, I realised that I personally know seven women who have been in abusive relationships. They are mostly, now, confident, high-achieving women. What hope was there? Surely there is something we can do to protect our children, our loved ones?
The really big thing we can do, Horley says, is education. We can educate our children – boys too – to know the signs of domestic abuse and the myths about it. We can teach them that domestic violence can take many forms and is not always physical. This is important because if more women realised that abuse can take many forms, they would understand at an earlier stage in the relationship what was going on. Research among young women shows that while 95% of women recognise physical abuse as domestic violence, just over a quarter knew about the more subtle signs of a controlling relationship.
We can teach our children about the correct way to deal with emotions such as anger and frustration, and that it’s never OK to hit another person. Currently, where do our children learn about this? The top source is from soap operas, where the information may or may not be accurate. Only 13% had learned about it at school. The logical place would be in Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), but even in schools where PSHE is taught, (it is not compulsory although the sex education element is) domestic abuse is rarely covered. End Violence Against Women, a national campaigning coalition, called recently for MPs to support New Clause 20 of the Children and Families bill, to include consent and relationships education in the national curriculum; the House of Commons voted against it on 11 June.
“Domestic abuse,” says Horley. “is a reflection, on an individual scale, of how women are treated on a larger scale in society. It’s subtle, cumulative and often, but not always, first shows itself when a woman makes a commitment to a man.” The abuse, she goes on to explain, is gradual and the man manipulates the woman into thinking it’s her fault, that she is to blame.
“You start to doubt your judgment, you start to change your behaviour to appease. Control can be physical, psychological, emotional, social, sexual, financial. The aim of the behaviour is to take control. It’s confusing because the abuser can be so charming.”
Jealously and possessiveness, she goes on to explain, are the two big signs to watch for; that and the man who seems charming one minute and terrifying the next. “Men being possessive stops women socialising. It isolates them. And being charming one minute, that switching [mood] all the while, means you start to doubt your own judgment. Women can live in hope for the ‘good parts’ – it’s exhausting.”
If the abuse is physical, she advises, “Never ignore that first push, that first shove.”
There are many myths about domestic violence, that it’s due to alcohol or stress, that in some way the abused person caused it or deserved it, that it only happens to certain types of people. But they are just that: myths. No one does anything to deserve to be hit or controlled. Lots of people get drunk and are stressed and don’t hit their partners. The decision to be abusive is the perpetrator’s alone and the perpetrator alone must take responsibility for it.
Much has been made recently of the fact that Nigella Lawson’s mother was “abusive”, as if this somehow predisposed her daughter to accepting violence. I now realise that in thinking that I could have any influence over whether my girls might get into a DV relationship, I have played into perhaps the greatest myth of domestic abuse: that it is somehow our fault. It isn’t. It never was. But we can all learn more about it so that if it does happen, we know what to look for and what to do. Domestic abuse is everybody’s business.
Domestic violence: The warning signs
• Is he – or she – possessive and jealous?
• Does he or she try to isolate you from friends and family?
• Does he or she they criticise you, either privately or in front of others?
• Does he or she try to control you?
• Does he or she pressurise you into having sex?
• Are you afraid of your partner?
• Do you modify your behaviour to appease him or her?
• Do you feel as if you are treading on egg shells?
• Does your partner change moods suddenly? Charming one minute, terrifying the next?
• Does your partner create a bad atmosphere at home so family and friends don’t visit you?
More warning signs at: http://refuge.org.uk/about-us/campaigns/early-warning-signs/
How to tell if someone you love is being abused and what you can do to help
• They may change their behaviour, act one way in front of you, another in front of their partner.
• They may stop seeing you, break contact with you and appear frightened (like someone’s ‘looking over their shoulder’) when they do see you.
• They may be overwhelmed by fear, and think they are to blame.
Give them time to open up. Say something like “I’m worried about you, concerned for your safety.”
• Don’t judge them (this is really important), they will be feeling bad about themselves already.
• Reassure them that the abuse is not their fault and it’s against the law.
• Don’t run their partner down, this may embarrass the person who is being abused. They will be feeling embarrassed and guilty enough.
• Don’t tell them to “just leave”. If it was that easy they would have left already. Tell them you support them and put them in touch with agencies that can help. Research shows that men can be the most violent at the point of separation.
Where to find help
• 24-hour National Domestic Violence freephone helpline: 0808 2000 247
First published in the Guardian Family section on 22 June 2013.