'Why doesn't she just pack her bags and leave?’
Anyone who has never experienced a controlling, abusive relationship has the luxury of believing that someone can simply get up and leave.
People aren't aware that abuse rarely ends when the abused walk away, the actual level of threat rises significantly after leaving. Leaving an abusive relationship takes careful planning, logistics, and support. Without that support and protection, the abused often return, or worse.
Abuse comes in all shapes and forms and the abused are exceptional at keeping up appearances. This is a survival skill.
'They looked like such a happy couple. He was always so charming.'
Peter and Jane met in their 20s. Peter was charming, smart, handsome, and love-bombed Jane who had just walked away from an unhealthy relationship. Peter made her feel pretty damn awesome. They were married six months later, and pregnant within a year. It was a true romance story. As Jane got heavier and more tired towards the end of the pregnancy, Peter’s love-bombing abruptly ended and was replaced with a mean, selfish, absent husband. He cared so little for her and his unborn child that he stopped turning up for health checks and anything that wasn't about him. This marked the beginning of neglect and subtle verbal abuse. Once the baby was born, Peter would often stay out late and would return home drunk and noisy, waking the baby. Jane would beg him to 'keep it down', she was exhausted and why would anyone want to wake a baby in the middle of the night? Telling him to be quiet would antagonise Peter, and he would respond by making more noise and more effort to distress Jane. She would soon learn that any criticism would start a tirade of verbal abuse accusing her of being the problem.
Jane felt like she was losing her mind and reached out to a domestic abuse hotline for affirmation that she was indeed being abused. The person at the end of the line advised her to pack an escape bag and assured her she was in a precarious situation and if she could, leave. (See below for details)
Jane moved out for a trial separation and started therapy immediately. She believed that she could be the cause of his behaviour and wanted to do her best for her family. Peter refused to participate. After a significant healing process, Jane returned to Peter. She felt stronger and healthier within herself and wanted to make the marriage work against her therapist's advice. Jane went 'all in' and Peter became kind and loving again. Thinking that things had returned to a good place, she fell pregnant for the second time. His change in behaviour assured her that she had been a large part of the problem and her family was now safe.
When Peter's behaviour finally turned the full 360, it was almost undetectable. Starting with little digs undermining her, belittling language which then escalated to shouting and raising his hand, never hitting her but threatening all the same. At first, he would wait until the children were asleep, and in time he didn't care where they were. He was angry all the time and would threaten physical violence constantly.
Someone once said to her,
‘At least he hasn't hit you.'
Her firstborn had become clingy and anxious, never leaving her side, and with a new-born Jane never got a moment to herself. When that moment finally arrived, she sat in her car sobbing so hard she couldn't breathe. She sobbed for hours and hours, paralysed with anxiety, feeling utterly unstable and alone. Jane thought it was hormonal and reached out to her doctor and offloaded everything. Her doctor was compassionate, listened, and assured her she didn't need medication, she needed her husband to get help. Any form of public shaming made Peter significantly more abusive, Jane knew this was too dangerous an ask.
Jane never told her family or friends what she was going through at first. From the outside everything looked great. All the school parents and friends were happy couples and there was nobody she could confide in or seek advice. She was the first to go through a divorce in the school and amongst her friends, which made it so much harder to know where to turn for help. Peter also appeared charming and she was sure nobody would believe her, he left no physical marks as proof.
Divorce can be a lonely, scary experience, but leaving someone as controlling as Peter is terrifying. She put herself back into therapy and bided her time whilst she rebuilt her emotional and mental strength. She was going to need all of it.
By now, her family knew of her troubles and offered to help. Jane refused help until she was ready. She had an inkling of what she would be up against, and the dangers involved.
The breaking point was when Peter came home one day enraged about nothing and started to shout at Jane whilst the children were sitting at the table eating dinner. He raised his hand at her and then turned and shouted at the children. They were all so terrified, she rushed them upstairs and locked the bathroom door, waiting for him to leave. The gravel driveway signalled his departure and the moment she knew it was time.
Jane courageously filed for divorce and asked Peter to leave. It transpired he had been having an affair and still he refused to move out. Instead, he would come and go as he pleased, terrorising everyone when he did. He was scaring the children so badly that Jane threatened him with calling the Police. He didn't believe she would, and she did. The police were helpful, kind, and offered good advice. She was to change the locks and to withdraw his contact with the kids. The lawyer working on her case didn't think the law would be on Jane's side. It didn't matter in the end as Peter decided to stay away from them. Luckily and sadly, he was never that dad who came to football matches or parent's evenings and he never spent time with them on weekends. Although there was less contact, there was still emotional abuse.
The kids reached out to him to try and build a relationship, but it was psychologically damaging and caused them harm and now they have no communication. He gave up on being their dad.
The abuse didn't end with the divorce, it never does. He started to play games with the finances by refusing to pay for anything, trying to reduce child support, anything that would cause Jane more anxiety. Jane laughs at how the emails always turned up at the most annoying time, he orchestrated it. The stress she endured affected her physical health significantly and when she asked for help, he refused to take care of the kids whilst she re-cooperated.
Jane has rebuilt her life slowly and has a strong bond with her children. It's not easy being a single-parent family, but she makes it work. Her family lives far away but help out whenever they can. Jane lives with the damage Peter’s behaviour caused everyone. They are all healing at their own pace, but at least they are safe in their home and away from him.
Peter moved on swiftly, married, and still lives a comfortable life. His social circle sees him as the victim in this story.
What is an escape/go bag?
An escape bag is a bag that contains all of your essential items which you can easily take with you if you and your children (if you have any) need to leave your home quickly. You will need to find a safe place to hide it, preferably with someone you can trust. I have named the file something less obvious should you download it, but I suggest you change the name and delete from your download history.
Depending on the country and State that you live in, there are many help lines that you can call that won't show up on your telephone bill. These organisations take abuse seriously and are there to support you. You might be feeling isolated and alone, I assure you that you are not.