After 18 years, brave Beena finally escaped her emotionally abusive relationship for the sake of her five-year-old daughter. Here's their story...
At just 18-months-old, my daughter saw me tumbling down the stairs after a particularly violent row with her dad. She stood in her cot, screaming; huge wells of tears smudging her reddening face. Before her second birthday, it became normal for her to witness her dad shouting ‘you disgust me’ while holding a hand in front of my face to shut me up. Understandably, it didn’t take long before she developed a deep distrust of men.
I was just 22 when I had started going out with the man I would later marry. At university, we were good friends. He was popular, funny and so laid back that friends described him as ‘horizontal’. Never did I think, some twenty years later, that I would be fighting that once gentle man over child access. Nor did I think he would steal from me: racking up thousands of pounds on my credit cards while frittering away all of our savings. And I certainly never thought he would deprive my daughter and I of food.
When you tell someone you’ve dragged yourself from a domestically abusive relationship, there’s often a sharp intake of breath. The assumption is that it was physical violence, but often – as in my case – the abuse was largely emotional.
Emotional abuse is a slow seeping decay; it works an insidious intangible route in, destroying every atom of self-belief through belittling comments, controlling behaviour and mental torture. It becomes the day-to-day oil and acid of a relationship, and like many victims, I believed I was worth little more.
It wasn’t long into our relationship before my ex started listing the things he disliked about me: my clothes, perfume, the way I walked, my hair, my friends, the books I read. Then, to rub salt in the wound, he would catalogue what his friends’ girlfriends did better. This, combined with (what turned into years of) physical rejection, and I barely felt worthy of standing in his shadow. The only time he paid me any attention was if another man showed me a spark of interest; then, he would sling a territorial arm around me, which he quickly ditched as soon as the challenge had passed.
For a while, things got better. I was in my 20s, and was outgoing, sociable, and strong enough to shake off his unflattering comments. Eventually, on his request, we moved in to a flat in North London together. Looking back, the early signs of his abusive, controlling behaviour were all there - like when he told me I shouldn’t go on holiday with friends or family without him – but at the time I didn’t notice them for what they were or know how things could escalate.
Despite some ferocious rows, in my thirties we went travelling, bought a home, and got married. When I fell pregnant, he took care of me, but within weeks of giving birth, things curdled.
Losing his job as an IT consultant, he declared our dining room would become a trading platform. For the next two years, blue screens flickering in our dining room from 5 am until midnight, becoming a shrine to money loss.
After he’d lost all of our savings making bad trades, he maxed out the credit cards, sold the car, and plundered our food money. We were down to living on just one meal a day – often just cereal or potatoes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the boiler died – chugging out noxious fumes which poisoned me – and we lived without heating or hot water for a whole year. This only isolated us further. If any family members dared to try and visit he would scream at them to stay away.
His temper grew. If I tried to escape to my mother’s place in Yorkshire, he would scream relentlessly down the phone: “bring my daughter back – she’s mine.” When I eventually returned, he’d scream at me – often in front of our daughter - the whites of his eyes bulging as strings of his spittle struck my face.
Years went by like this. By the age of three, our daughter knew how to intercept her dad’s wrath. She’d often fling herself protectively around me, and I’d feel her heart thudding, tears soaking her top, as she shouted: “No daddy, don’t shout at mummy.” I was heartbroken. I constantly tried to find ways out of this mess, but with no money, all roads led back to him. When threats from bailiffs loomed, he sought out loan sharks to try to sell the house for a quarter of its value. We had lost everything.
One night, he disappeared. For days he’d been saying he felt suicidal, and I sat wondering if he’d return – and if he didn’t, what I’d tell our daughter. But he did return, at dusk one morning, flinging open the bedroom door full of rage: I was to stop teaching our daughter Urdu, my mother tongue, as he was convinced we would talk about him “in secret.” After that he began throwing around delusional commands like a sorcerer, yelling: “You will obey me,” or “I command you.” Of course I would laugh at the ludicrousness of these orders, but when he would coldly put his hand in front of my face to shut me up, it didn’t seem so funny.
One day, I finally buckled. I looked him in the eye and spat at his face. His years of abuse had altered my very soul, and I was scared. For weeks afterwards, he would elongate every syllable of ‘vile bitch’, telling me I was an unstable mother.
I knew I had to get away from him; I bundled our daughter into the car and drove to my mother’s house. My phone bleeped throughout the night: barrages of texts from him chastising me for breaking our wedding vows. He expected ‘unconditional love.’ The irony didn’t escape me. As a father, he came to visit his child just once in the months we were away.
Eventually I returned to London. I was determined not to go back to him, so sought refuge at my sister’s – I slept on her sofa, while my daughter slept in her home office. I spent my days looking for a room to rent, though as a single mum, insolvent and on benefits, I was hardly an enticing tenant. In the end I returned to our family home, which was by now squalid; the kitchen swarmed with dizzy flies, drunk on the mouldy takeaways cartons which spewed out of torn bin bags, while thousands of ants clung to the sticky floors and surfaces. Unbeknown to me, my husband had used my credit cards to pay the mortgage: £12,000 owing to this day.
When my daughter was three, my husband got a job in Dublin. My daughter and I stayed in London, and rescued our lives from the rubble, building a network of friends. By the time he moved back, our daughter was four and had started school. I hoped things might be different, but they weren’t. During his time away, he’d defaulted on huge swathes of his tax bills, and once again, we both paid the price.
We lived the rest of our relationship in the wreckage around us. Even with a new handsomely paid job in London’s financial district, he insisted he couldn’t afford to move out. Instead, he charged me £350 a month in rent to live in my own home, arguing that my daughter and I had to contribute more financially. By now he’d ground me down, and I felt so feeble and insecure, I did as he said, using my savings from some freelance work.
He then took away any money he gave me for our daughter, instead allocating a paltry £90 a month to clothe, feed and drive our daughter to school. The drama classes he promised her stopped, and soon he began to ignore her completely, commandeering the lounge and bingeing on TV and takeaways after work instead. At weekends, he would cook himself a roast, leaving her to cry: “Where’s mine?” One weekend, when a payment wasn’t made for some freelance work I’d done, I was left penniless. I had no choice but to beg him for a few pounds to buy our daughter some food. He refused.
That night she cried into a bowl of cereal, asking me repeatedly, “please can I have something else, I’m hungry”. I felt cruel and powerless. I fought back the tears and hugged her hungry body to sleep. I hated him and I hated myself for ensnaring this poor, gentle child into the mess of our crumbling lives.
The day of my 39th birthday, our lives changed forever. My mother, who was using her pension to buy my daughter’s school uniforms, gave me some money. I hid it from my husband and used it for something I knew would make my daughter’s heart sing – music lessons.
Just minutes from her new school, we found a wonderfully accomplished pianist.
He endearingly engaged her, as she giggled with her toy hippo, into the piano keys. Short lessons turned into longer ones, and we spent hours chatting afterwards while she explored the garden, climbing trees. Our friendship grew, and I felt immense warmth towards this person. I found myself unfurling the turbulence of my home life in a way I’d never told even my closest friends.
The lessons became a buoy for our otherwise sunken weeks. When my husband found out, he accused me of ‘intellectually flirting,’ trying everything he could to stop the lessons. His efforts acted as a vice to clamp us closer together.
When it finally became clear I was really leaving, a flash of dilatory atonement gripped my husband. With desperation he poured out his love for me. He pleaded with me to stay, said it would tear our child’s life apart if we left. The irony of those words made me scoff.
The decision to share a new life with someone I loved and my daughter cherished was a simple one. In the two years we have been here, we have discovered what comfort means. I realise that sounds underwhelming, but the still, calm, serenity that happiness brings, is just that. My daughter has found a confidence she never had: bouncing when she walks and singing when she speaks. Together, our new family has explored the world, and my daughter has gone from a child who had nothing to the one with whom we’ve bonded over mountains, sunsets, seas and enjoyed ridiculous amounts of laughter.
I will always remember the words she said when I tucked her into her new bed in our new home for the first time: “Thank you for my new life, mummy.”
Are you in an emotionally abusive relationship?
Relationship expert, Relate’s Ammanda Major, explained: “It can be hard for someone to know that the relationship they are in is abusive because very often abuse happens over a long period of time. For the victim, it becomes the norm.”
“If your partner is shouting at you a lot, constantly checking on you and spying through your phone or social media, accusing you of affairs making you feel worthless and so on, then that’s abuse.
“People often struggle with the term abuse; feeling it’s too strong, but actually if your partner’s behaviour makes you feel small, controlled or intimidated then that is an abusive relationship as no one should be feeling like that in a normal, healthy relationship”.
How do you know you are not overreacting?
“Perpetrators of domestic abuse will often make their victims feel mad, worthless or stupid or any of those things, ensuring the victim feels less able to move away from the abusive relationship.”
If I shout back, doesn’t that make me just as bad?
Most couples have rows. But here, you’re responding in a way to an abnormal situation. And the situation is the fault of the abuser. It then gives the abuser more opportunity to accuse them of being mad, unstable, in a bad state, any of those things.
If I am in an emotionally abusive relationship, what should I do?
Seek help. GPs, friends, health visitors, hospital appointments. Speak to someone if you’re starting to feel low or worn down. If you think you might be bugged or followed, write it down.