Elaine's Story
I was in a place of shame

I felt I was dumb and a failure, but years later when I made a flip comment to my aunt about having done so badly at school, she said, “you absolutely could have got School Certificate and University Entrance; you just didn’t have the opportunity”. Even though at the time I didn’t believe her, I really heard what she was saying, and her comment played a significant role in my deciding to go back to school as an adult and get qualifications. Those messages from others really make a difference.

By the time I was 17, I was pregnant, and by the time I was 18, I was married to the father of my baby. When I first met my husband I was attracted to something I could not define. Later I realised it was his emotional unavailability and his uncommunicativeness and that he unconsciously reminded me of my father.

I so wanted to be a good mother, and give my children a real childhood and opportunities in life. I really thought about how to parent. My children would have regular meals, go to bed early – and be happy. I really tried to orchestrate a different childhood for them from the disruptive unhappy one I’d had. I was so dedicated to the ‘happy family’ scenario that I focused entirely on my husband and children. I did have a part-time job but I was always home after school.

I felt I was rewriting the negative story of my childhood. But the problem was that I’d linked up with the wrong person. One day when my daughter was a baby I was heating up some milk on the stove and I turned to my husband and said “keep an eye on that”. He reacted to the way I said it and slapped my face – just with his hand, but with real upper body force.

In that moment, I started my process of denial. I knew then that he was capable of cutting up rough, but that’s as far as my thinking would allow me to go. That’s when I should have said “violence is not okay” and left. Not making a stand at that point set the scene for the lack of respect my husband showed me, and our marriage, in the following years.

One common denominator people from violent backgrounds have is what’s called “control behaviour”. I learned as a child to control my behaviour and not be who I really was. As an adult I went on controlling myself and trying to control the environment to achieve certain outcomes. For example, when my daughter was a toddler my husband smacked her so hard on her bottom that he left bruises, even though I’d asked him to stop. I took responsibility for discipline after that and worked to present my husband with perfect children so that he wouldn’t get annoyed at them.

My husband was a chameleon, someone who showed different faces to different people. As with my father, people either liked him or they didn’t. He was chauvinistic and heavily into power and control. I wanted to be his equal but I was in a very subordinate place with him, though I did gain some equality by being good at managing the house and supporting him in his career so that we could get ahead.

Two years after our daughter was born, we had a son. I was in a real mess at the time because I’d caught my husband with another woman – in a very public forum. I had been determined that affairs would not happen in my marriage because they had been so destructive in my parents’ marriage. Once again I felt I was in a place of shame, just as I’d been in my childhood. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it because I didn’t have any life of my own outside of my marriage, our children and our own families.

After I found out about that affair, I went even deeper into denial about the unhealthy dynamic of our relationship. I tried even harder than I had been to get my husband’s attention, and I actively shut out anything that mirrored my parents’ unhealthy relationship – but I had no idea what a healthy relationship was.

I would now label my ex-husband a very sophisticated abuser. His tactics to control me were often very subtle. For example, he went away a lot for work, and he’d say “I’ll ring you tonight”. He’d never give me a time, so to make sure I was there when he rang I never went out. He also sabotaged opportunities that would have given me a fuller life outside the home, like promotions at work.

I gradually became more withdrawn and socially shy and powerless, unfulfilled and lonely in my marriage. I didn’t see that what my husband was doing amounted to psychological violence. I didn’t have the framework of thinking, or the language. I didn’t know the concept of ‘power and control’. I only saw violence in terms of physical stuff I’d seen as a child.

One thing that made me feel insecure with my husband was that there was no intimacy in our relationship. We filled our lives with projects – doing up houses, the kids’ sports and music. My husband would talk at length about his work aspirations, but beyond that we never talked about anything important – our children, our beliefs, religion or politics. It sounds bizarre that we were married for seventeen years and that we never had a meaningful conversation about anything other than his work. But it wasn’t strange to me, because we had never discussed important things in my own family. My husband came from a family where they’d talk about everything except the issue, or homogenise it into something else.