5 truths from survivors of domestic violence

Woman with fair skin stands in dark looking away from camera

May is recognised as Domestic Violence Prevention Month – a community-based initiative which aims to raise awareness of the social and personal impacts of domestic and family violence, plus highlight the support services available in the community.

Domestic Violence Prevention Month promotes a message of zero-tolerance for domestic abuse and violence in Australia, plus encourages people who abuse their partners to take responsibility for their behaviour and seek support to change for the better.

To shine a light on the issue, we reviewed the ABC’s confronting interview series You Can’t Ask That to share a survivor’s perspective on domestic violence and abuse. In this article, we share eight truths from the perspective of survivors, so you can better understand the effects domestic violence has on survivors, their children, and the community as a whole.

#1. You never think it will happen to you – until it does 

The first question interviewees faced was “did you think this would ever happen to you?”

The overwhelming response was “no”.

“When I was growing up, I’d never seen it. I couldn’t conceive of somebody hitting someone else,” Vickie Roach, now in her sixties, told the ABC.  

“You grow up as a kid and you think it’s going to be a fairytale – you’ll meet somebody and fall in love and everything will be wonderful.”

At the start, their relationships did sound like fairy tales. Most of the interviewees talked about how their partner was affectionate, caring, passionate and doting, showering them with gifts and compliments at the beginning.

Russell Vickery, a husband and father from Melbourne who left his wife to embrace his sexuality, even felt safe with his new partner – an illusion abusers are “very good at” creating.

The interviewees reported falling in love very intensely and passionately within a short amount of time. When someone showers you with love, gifts and compliments, it’s easy to believe you can take on the world together – but for most of the interviewees, the mask had not yet fallen off their abuser.

#2. There are warning signs – but it’s often too late before you see them

Emotional abuse is distressingly common in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost one in four women (23% or 2.2 million) experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15-years-old in 2016.

One in six men (16% or 1.4 million) experienced the same kind of emotional or psychological abuse.

A data table from the ABS

Table: source

A common question for survivors of domestic abuse relates to “warning signs” – are there any warning signs? If so, what are the warning signs of an emotional abuser?

According to domestic violence prevention charity, White Ribbon, warning signs can include controlling behaviour, verbal abuse, constant bad moods and even telling your partner what to wear, among a slew of other signs and symptoms.

However, you often don’t realise someone is manipulating or abusing you until it’s too late. For example, Roia Atmar, a Pakistani mother from Perth, knew her husband was irritable and controlling, especially about her clothing and her appearance – but things soon took a turn for the worse, making her realise something was seriously wrong with their relationship.

“He never physically abused me, so it made me think he was an okay person,” Roia said.

She married her husband through an arranged marriage when she was 14-years-old – a norm in her culture. Three days after their wedding, her husband took her to Australia – away from her family, her customs and her religion.

“When he used to be angry, he used to do whatever he wanted… but it was when he started threatening to kill me and kill my children or take my children away from me that I thought, ‘oh, there’s something wrong’.”

“Initially when it started, I would fight back,” Roia said. “When he kept saying how ugly I was, I asked him – what is wrong with me that you keep saying that?”

“I shocked him big time because it was the first time that I’d spoken back to him. Apparently, I’d turned into a western woman because I was speaking back to him.”

“The more I spoke back to him, the worse it got.”

#3. A victim doesn’t “provoke” domestic abuse

One of the questions the interviewees faced was what they did to “provoke” their partners to abuse them.

The answer?

An overwhelming “nothing”.

“Breathing really pissed him off,” Dr Anna O’Neill from Perth said. Her partner was volatile – he once ignored Dr O’Neill for three weeks because their washing machine left a mark on his shirt.

Russell agreed about his partner. There was nothing specific which “provoked” his partner – it was often random and unpredictable.

“I was just there to pander to the needs he had,” Russell said.

“I was the person he’d take his frustration out on. It took him four months to break my nose. I thought, maybe I’ve said something wrong or I’ve looked at him the wrong way.”

According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, domestic violence can cause low self-esteem and a feeling of overall apprehensiveness and fear – something all of the interviewees agreed on.

Sapphire Sol, a young woman who grew up in a deeply religious community in Melbourne, was violently assaulted by her father as a teenager. She described said the dynamic would change when her father walked into the room and living with him was like “walking on eggshells”.

“It was like I couldn’t breathe. I was just worried all the time.”

#4. A victim can’t “just leave” when it gets bad 

One of the most common questions men and women with abusive partners get is “why don’t/didn’t you just leave?”

The truth?

It’s not that simple.

Quite often, survivors still love their partners despite the abuse. For example, Geraldine is a single mother from Melbourne who worked in the mining industry. Her husband was both physically and emotionally abusive, but Geraldine wanted desperately for things to go back to how they were at the start – shared affection, passionate love and care.

“I was still in love with him because I was still trying to get back to that good spot again,” Geraldine said.

Leaving can also be difficult for men and women who are financially dependent on their partners.

“I wasn’t working – I was working for him but not being paid. I had a daughter so I really didn’t believe I’d be able to stand on my own two feet and raise my daughter on my own,” Geraldine said.

Libby, on the other hand, was living overseas when she was being abused by her husband. She was with him for more than a decade but never had the money to escape back to Australia.

“I hated him, I just didn’t have the financial means to leave,” Libby said.

“From a young age, I have experienced domestic violence and that violence was towards my mother in the home on a daily basis. It did affect my life – I just wanted love and security and trust but unfortunately, what I wished for and hoped for in life did not come.”

“Maybe it’s hereditary, maybe it’s the way my life was meant to be.”

#5. Sometimes the emotional scars are worse than the physical ones 

Interviewees agreed the emotional damage was often worse than the physical damage.

“The emotional damage is constant and increases exponentially. Each new wave of violence or even the words that come with it attack another level of yourself,” Vicki said.

“There may not be more open wounds anymore but they can still be picked open. I can’t be affectionate towards people. I don’t like touching people anymore or getting close to people. Physical touch… even people coming up and putting an arm around you, I kind of recoil away from it.”

For Geraldine, her greatest challenge was the effects domestic abuse had on her two-year-old daughter. Her toddler witnessed Geraldine being thrown across a room by her father and became completely non-verbal for almost a year afterwards.

“I feel guilty about the effects that had on my daughter because she did suffer, also… It took her a year to come out of that and learn to speak. Often I say to people – I feel like she found her voice when I found mine.”

In 2011, 1 in 4 children in Australia were exposed to domestic violence. This can have serious short and long term effects including learning difficulties, ongoing sleeping problems, phobias and insomnia, low self-esteem and more.

If you’re experiencing domestic abuse, remember there are support services available for you 

This episode of the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That just goes to show how difficult it can be to leave an abusive partner.

If you’re experiencing domestic abuse or you know someone who is, it’s important to remember there are support services available in your local community who can help make a change.

At Samaritans, we offer domestic violence services like women’s refuges and a community hub in Taree for men, women and children experiencing homelessness due to domestic abuse. We also offer various children and family support services..

Please get in touch with the experienced and supportive team from Samaritans. If you need to speak to someone immediately, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 RESPECT or Lifeline 13 11 14.