Writer and broadcaster

I think I’m in an abusive marriage but don’t know what to do. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My husband and I have been married for nearly a decade. We’ve had some difficult things to deal with over the years. We also had children in rapid succession, which has been wonderful but very hard work. I felt I was increasingly struggling, particularly as his tendency is to be very negative and critical of me. I felt I was looking after the children, working, supporting him and still, for him, I wasn’t working hard enough or paying enough attention to the house or children.

He would find fault with everything I did and talk about me “abandoning” the children for work. If I tried to protest about this or other things that upset me, he would point out that I was wrong or didn’t understand or just stop talking to me until I apologised. I did still feel I loved him and was trying to hold it all together until a year ago when I sort of broke down and said I couldn’t do it any more. His reaction was to say I was depressed. We went to Relate, but he stopped going when the counsellor said he was controlling and felt the relationship had characteristics of domestic abuse.

I suggested we separate for a while just so I could get some peace and headspace back but that triggered a tirade of criticism of me, how I’ve hurt him and the children, till I’m absolutely in bits. Mediation triggered the same response. We’re now with another therapist that he’s found but I’m struggling with the sessions, feeling panicky and worn down as it seems like however much I say this is hurting me, the emphasis is on finding a way for us to be together again.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know how to get to a place where doing something seems possible. Sometimes it seems easiest to give in and try to make everyone happy. Please help me as I’m getting increasingly ill with the stress and worry. Please believe me, this is real and I’m not just depressed.

I believe you. Your longer letter was desperate. What I have reproduced above is what you said I could without you being identified, so there is much I cannot refer to. You sound like a woman whose life is closing in on her. You have every right to want to walk away from a relationship that is making you unhappy, if that’s what you decide.

But I appreciate this isn’t easy for you to do. I think you know that this relationship is abusive (abuse is not necessarily physical). Google the power and control wheel for a useful graphic on understanding domestic violence and it’s harming you very much: your longer letter showed great awareness.

But while you seem to recognise what is happening, you seem paralysed by an inability to believe it, which is leading to indecision. The impression I get is of someone spinning round and round in their thoughts, so much so that they weren’t able to stand still and see what was happening any more.

There are positives in your life that I want you to keep in sight: you have family and friends in whom you have confided who will support you. You have a job. These are all things that will help you through.

But I want you to take one step at a time. The first thing to do is call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and keep trying if you don’t get through straightaway. I know you’ve been to some Women’s Aid drop-in sessions, but it didn’t seem as if you had really talked to someone and that is key. I wondered if part of you is scared of actually talking to someone who “knows”, as this will force you to face up to what is happening and that, in turn, will make you feel you have to do something? This is completely understandable but you have to ask yourself what will happen if you do nothing? Imagine five, 10 years from now.

You do need to talk to a domestic violence adviser who understands what you are going through, who won’t minimise how you feel or say it’s your fault. You need to find out what your rights are, especially relating to your home and children (I know this worries you) and what your options are – and then you can make a decision based on facts, not just fear.

Please remember: your safety, and your children’s safety, is top priority so please make these phone calls where you will not be overheard and preferably from someone else’s phone so your call history cannot be accessed. Refuge (refuge.org.uk) recommends that you keep important documents such as your passport and your children’s, in a safe place. For more tips on keeping safe, visit tinyurl.com/he3gzqd.

If you decide to leave, you must not tell your partner your plans, however tempted you are. (If at any stage you feel threatened or unsafe, call 999.)

There is a lot of information you can access (from a safe browser) on the internet: the forums on Women’s Aid provide a place to talk to other women who have been or are going through a similar experience. Rights of Women has great information on what happens to children when parents separate (tinyurl.com/goh8xzo) and also a section about domestic violence injunctions (tinyurl.com/hg9m7s8).

Also, you do not have to continue going to these therapy sessions with your husband if you do not want to and they are making you feel so wretched. And don’t discount therapy just for yourself – ask your GP or try bacp.co.uk.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 10 September 2016.