Ten years ago, I was a victim of domestic violence. Much of it happened in private – in public, my husband was charismatic, successful and popular. I summoned the courage to leave one day with my young children, driving with one hand because he’d injured the other. After I left, I was fragile and nervous. I had never mentioned the abuse to anybody because I was ashamed. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened because I was afraid, and spoke about it only in the briefest of details.
Unfortunately, my family didn’t believe me. Most of them maintained a strong relationship with my ex-husband, who showered them with gifts and charm. I became the family black sheep, the pathological liar, and retreated into my shell. My ex-husband decided he wanted full residence for the children: the ultimate control. And then the bombshell: my brother and his wife wrote a letter supporting his application, stating that they believed I was a bad parent because I had made up the allegations. I was devastated, and cut off all contact with them. The rest of the family kept me at a distance. At family events, it was me who was excluded, not my brother and his wife.
Now I have received a letter from my brother, saying we ought to be civil for the sake of my elderly mother. But he makes it clear he still does not believe my allegations and that we will have to agree to differ. I am unwilling to pretend that the domestic violence did not occur, just for the sake of a family truce. I have moved on and I’m happy now, but I think that pretending that it didn’t happen will only take away some of the strength I have managed to build up. I am afraid that I will crumble under the pressure, despite years of counselling and therapy.
How can I grasp some kind of family life out of this situation?
It seems to me you have grasped some kind of family life in this situation. Has anything else changed other than your brother writing? Do you see your mother regularly anyway? If things are as they were, and it’s just that your brother has written out of the blue, I would question why you have to change anything at all.
Unfortunately, it is one of the complexities of domestic violence that some people don’t understand it or acknowledge it. And that perpetrators can be incredibly charming to the outside world, while “abusing and belittling you behind closed doors”, as Refuge, the domestic abuse charity, says. This can make it even more isolating and confusing for those suffering.
I contacted a psychotherapist who works in this field, Carmen Joanne Ablack (ukcp.org.uk), and someone from Refuge (refuge.org.uk). Ablack felt that “the lack of validity given by your family could not be anything but devastating”, and that it was “utterly understandable” that you were worried about crumbling again.
If you were to go down the road of renewed contact with family members, she said that “you may need to think about the type of support possible for you now, and to set up or reinforce this support so that each time you have to engage with family you have a chance to speak with your support (be it therapist, circle of friends or other than this). As a therapist working with clients with this kind of history, I have found offering five or 10-minute debriefings can be very supportive of the person establishing connections, and helps them to stay focused on what they need to happen.” I would really recommend this. You say you’ve had therapy but sometimes, also, one needs to revisit it at various times.
Ablack also wondered if access to your mother was through your brother. “This is important because it affects how you deal with the situation. Is there an implication of control by your brother and other members of the family that you feel unable to challenge?” If you only have access to your mother through your brother you may need to negotiate to visit her on your own.
You are absolutely right not to deny that you were the victim of domestic violence. “Do you,” asks Ablack, “feel able to tell your brother that his ‘opinion’ on the abuse is irrelevant? His inability to believe you is ultimately a struggle for him and his conscience. It is not something that can be differed on in ‘opinion’.”
Refuge explained that your situation is, sadly, far from unique. “One in four women [1in4women.com] will experience domestic violence at some point. Every day, Refuge supports women who have found the courage to speak out about the abuse they experienced, only to be ignored, disbelieved or blamed.”
I was left wondering what happened to your children?
This article was first published in the Guardian Family section on 23 May 2104.