TW: emotional abuse
I remember the numerous conversations I had with my mother and godmother as a hormonal adolescent girl just beginning to discover the opposite sex. ‘Don’t let him lay a finger on you.’ ‘No man has the right to strike you.’ What I wish they had also warned me of is the emotional abuse, the I-own-you mentality that entraps so many women and for me led to a 9-month roller-coaster relationship driven off the rails by jealousy, manipulation and heartbreak.
As women, we are all too familiar with the very real unreality of negotiating a world where violence against our sex is normalised. According to Refuge, a charity organisation that provides aid to women and children escaping domestic violence, almost one in three women will experience some form of domestic abuse in her lifetime. Even so, society, the media, the criminal justice system and private conversations with our female family members are still so predisposed to frame domestic abuse in so far as it relates to physical bodily harm. It is the non-violent offences, the often minute, invisible, seemingly insignificant words and actions that women experience before they start wearing long sleeves, that go unspoken.
Evan Stark (2007) refers to this as “coercive control”, where male romantic partners employ abuse tactics including but not limited to intimidation, degradation, deprivation, surveillance, exploitation, manipulation and micro-aggression to regulate women’s behaviour and undermine women’s self-perception, liberty and autonomy. Importantly, men build this ‘cage’ of control using ‘social norms of masculinity and femininity … to impose their will’. In other words, domestic violence does not exist within a vacuum. Gender-based abuse is made possible within a context where gender-based dominance is, whether intentionally or unintentionally, propagated, condoned and even celebrated. After all, if he doesn’t want her to wear that red dress because he says it makes the guys look at her too much, what difference does it make? And isn’t it cute if he demands that she texts him before every lunch break to inform him about which colleague(s) she is having lunch with today? After all, she is his baby. He’s so romantic!
That was exactly what I thought when the first red flag popped up in my former relationship. In the middle of making love to me, he leaned down and breathed in my ear, ‘You do this with no one else, ever. This is my body.’ In hindsight, I know I should have sat up in bed, looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Excuse me, you will find that this is my body and I do with it as I choose.’ But no, filled with Hollywood fantasies, I only fell harder (sexually suggestive pun intended). He was staking his claim on me. How sexy and romantic was that?
‘Why did she stay so long?’ ‘Why did she lie to cover up his actions?’ We hear these questions repeatedly, often parroted by women themselves, every time a tragic abuse story gets shared on social media. Blaming the woman through these rhetorical questions is so much easier than trying to grasp the nuanced minutiae of even one of the countless answers.
From working with women who had experienced domestic abuse, Emma Williamson (2010) points to the psychological toll of living a life where abuse is a daily reality. As their self-respect, self-worth and self-esteem are gradually but inevitably eroded, women learn to take on the hate and hate themselves. Also, while outsiders may see a life of abuse as chaotic, terrible and something to escape from, to the women living it this chaotic world is their reality, and the often-impossible prospect of change is more anxiety-inducing than living within it.
When things began to devolve in my relationship, I did not see it until almost the end. As we moved to long-distance, and he could no longer take me to his bed to reaffirm my love, he spiralled into possessiveness and paranoia. If he happened to text or call while I was having lunch with friends, I had to explain myself. Who was I with? Were there any males present? How long had I been planning this? When I developed a passion for student theatre, he nearly lost it. I would be working closely with a group of people, at least one of whom would have a penis. No, he wasn’t stopping me from doing something I loved at all. He would just point out that I was talking about my cast members way more than I used to three weeks ago when I first met them.
And always, in between, there were glimpses – and more than just glimpses – of the man that I’d fallen in love with. Kind, caring, thoughtful, sending me affirmations of love and doing little things to make me happy. I was confused, elated, afraid, intoxicated. I questioned myself about everything, like why would I mute my phone and ignore the 3 AM call when last night we had hot phone sex and the night before I’d cried myself to sleep over a jealousy-driven torrent of accusations of getting with someone else?
It was only at 4:30 AM some morning of April 2018, when I said quietly on the phone, “You don’t own me, you’ve never owned me, ever,” that I finally felt free.