I''m Only Joking - Why Emotional Abuse is Hard to Spot By Claire Graham

It’s bedtime. I was very tired and I just wanted to go to sleep. I had a hard day at work and I was totally fatigued. My bedroom is up a separate flight of stairs from the rest of my flat and I like the fact its secluded and cosy, tucked up in the attic. I should be feeling safe, warm and secure with my husband sleeping to my immediate right. I should be feeling cherished, loved and content but I’m not. There is a poisonous atmosphere in the bedroom which has travelled up the stairs, having started at about 8pm. It always starts at 8 or 9pm and this happens roughly every 3-4 weeks. During my marriage I begin to anticipate and prepare for what I call the Monthly Rant. It happens with depressingly regularity and always follows the same pattern. My husband will come home from work in a good mood. However, by about 8pm he will stop eye contact, refuse to talk to me, his body language becomes defensive and the air feels like its being sucked out of the room. Any residual good cheer moulds in the suddenly claustrophobic atmosphere and I swear I can almost taste his poisonous mood. I know what’s going to happen by now but I still attempt to cauterise his crap before we go to bed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“There is something wrong. Please talk to me.”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

I usually sigh and give up and he has the attention he wants. I know I’m in for it when I go to bed. Much later after we finally separate my Mum points out that he likely waited until we went to bed because the bedroom is up a floor and therefore out of earshot from the neighbours in our block. Still, I get ready for bed and silently pray it won’t be too bad this time. I try to distract myself with a book or am I using it as a shield? I don’t know any more. Anyway, the alleged love of my life (he really isn’t) joins me and strips off to his boxers as usual. This time he sits on the edge of the bed and puts his head in his hands. It’s showtime. Here we go. Let’s get this over with, shall we?

What follows in the next hour is a diatribe of all my alleged Failings As A Wife. “Why don’t you….” “We never do…..” “Other wives do…..” “My friend’s wives do….” “Why can’t you….” I’ve learnt not to interrupt. I’ve learnt to not remonstrate. I’ve learn to pretend to listen. I’ve learned to just tell him what he wants to hear. I’ll try harder. I’ll be less tired all the time. I’ll miraculously stop being socially anxious. My inconvenient long standing mental health issues will vanish into thin air. Maybe I’ll be more feminine (when he met me I was wearing men’s jeans, a man’s biker jacket, Doc Martens and a baggy shirt over a band t-shirt. It was 1998. I was 23. I still wear the same sort of gear as a forty something and I still have the jacket. Did he think I would suddenly change as soon as he got a wedding ring on me?) I might just be a better person really, despite the fact I do 99% of the cooking, all the housework and he spends my wages on himself as soon as it hits our bank account. It gets wasted on designer clothes, books, a lease on an expensive car that I find to my horror during our separation that I was paying for all along and it wasn’t in fact coming out from his own bank account from a side hustle. He had so many books, some being expensive Folio editions, that a charity volunteer had to make 4 trips in his little car with the back seat down to collect them. He left most of his possessions in our house. So many unworn clothes that also went straight to charity. I used to clothe myself in charity shop gear for work and I knew I looked shabby at times. I had to account for pretty much everything I bought and if I do treat myself to anything, its met with “How much was that then?” If I point out I work too and its my salary I get “but I’m only joking” in response. No you’re not. You never are. I learnt to hide five and ten pound notes in sanitary towel wrappers if I need to save for something. He once stopped talking to me for nearly a day on holiday one time because I treated myself to a new hoodie without asking. The first crime was spending about £25 without checking with him first and the second was because it was a hoodie. He had a weird and totally irrational hatred of hoodies. Apparently “only thugs wear them.” He wouldn’t allow me to wear them unless I was going to a gig without him. He also wouldn’t allow my Iron Maiden t-shirts, tattoos, piercings or any boots bigger than Doc Martens. I now have multiple tattoos, piercings, bigger boots and loads of metal t-shirts. My body art is the biggest FUCK YOU and its my way of reinforcing my agency over my own body. I sold my wedding and engagement rings and spent the proceeds on tattoos. I nearly flushed my wedding ring down the toilet but stopped myself when I realised I could profit from it.

He is actually pacing the floor beside our bed continuously and not even looking at me. All I hear is contemptuous noise coming from his mouth. I remember to make sure that I at least sound as if I’m actually paying attention. I’m well used to hearing how shit I am as a human being but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful. I’m worn out and all I want to do is sleep now. He’s actually depriving me of sleep and my heart is hammering out of my chest. Eventually he wears himself out, gets into bed, grunts “Night” and turns over away from me with a passive aggressive thump. No affection, no warmth, no nothing. Well, that’s me told then, isn’t it? I lie there with a racing pulse and I can’t possibly go to sleep now. I’m scared to. He’s never actually hit me – he likes balling his fists and his anger outbursts, with spit flying from his mouth, are so unpredictable that sometimes I have to leave the house – but I can’t go to sleep until I’m satisfied he is actually sleeping and not likely to kick off any more tonight. I lie there not moving a muscle until I eventually hear his breathing change from drowsing to sleeping. I can then try to sleep, except I can’t. I lie on my side away from him and tears run down my face. If I’m so obviously what he doesn’t want and hates what I am so much, why is he still with me? I often catch myself daydreaming about being single. I imagine myself being alone in my flat, making whatever I want to eat, whenever I want and just minding my own business. I just want to feel safe and at peace. My marriage affords neither and isn’t what I signed up for. I can’t quite admit to myself that I haven’t been in love with my husband for years and years. I already feel like a failure. No-one wants a failed marriage. It’s for life isn’t it? My tears stop and I finally fall asleep.

The next day I force myself to go to work, put on a good face and act like nothing’s wrong when in fact inside my heart is shrivelling inside and I’m shattered emotionally. When I get home my husband is all over me like a rash. I’m his “perfect wife” again. He loves me so much. He’s delighted to see me. I’m not delighted to see him. I’m thrown. It’s as if the night before didn’t happen. It’s like dealing with a totally different person. You weren’t saying I was perfect last night, mate. I don’t have the energy to unpick this with him so I just go with the flow because I’m relieved that, for now, things have calmed down. It takes me at least two days to recover from a Monthly Rant. Until the next time, because there will be the next time.

It’s only after he finally leaves me for someone else after draining me of life, money, sense of self and not being any fun to torment any more – did I mention that he had told his family that we had split up long before I knew about it? – that I realise that my ex husband’s behaviour fits a typical pattern of abuse – Tension, Incident, Reconciliation, Calm. I’ve highlighted one example here for the purposes of this narrative but wearily, I could write so much more. It was my normal. I actually thought husbands did this but I’m reliably informed they don’t. I do want to highlight that this can happen in ANY relationship to ANY gender.

It’s only comparatively recently that non-violent domestic abuse has been given the awareness it sorely needs. During the week running up to when I split from my ex and I was forced to go home because he was making me feel frightened, I did an internet search for domestic abuse and I had that awful cold prickly feeling you get when you read something and it clicks. I had no idea that controlling bank accounts, shouting, yelling, the silent treatment, forcing you to account for spending, anger outbursts, refusing to help you around the home, violent mood swings, constant inappropriate sexual language and I could go on and on, are all abuses. Domestic abuse charity websites were invaluable and helped me see things for what they were. Fortunately my ex went missing one Saturday evening. His mobile phone was switched off. The next day when he eventually called me to say he didn’t think we should me married any more (hallelujah) I told him I deserved better and I couldn’t do it any more. Nearly 12 stones of dead weight fell off my shoulders immediately. How did it come to this though? Let me take you back to 1998.

I see this clearly with middle aged eyes now. If someone is intent on targeting you they will transform themselves into whatever you will need them to be. It’s the ultimate manipulation. I was 23, wide eyed, inexperienced and with the usual disappointments in young men that young girls have. I met my ex and he quickly worked out that I wanted a man who was cute, smart and kind. That’s what I very quickly got and the phrase that goes sometimes the devil shows up as everything you ever wanted is alarmingly true. He was attentive. Gallant, even – he would make sure I was walking at the inside of the pavement. He charmed my parents. He drove me to see an old neighbour in hospital and Jesus wept, he even charmed her. When he did take me to meet his parents he insisted I had my own room and he wouldn’t share with me. We weren’t at that stage in the relationship. He worked out I was pretty old fashioned. He even took me to meet his Granny that weekend. He kept telling me that he’d never been so happy and it was just getting better and better. There were red flags that I could dismiss because everything seemed fine. He burst into tears one time claiming he didn’t have 50p to buy me an ice cream. He was badly overdrawn. Could I maybe give him £100 and he would pay me as soon as he could? I never saw that money again. His friends in the town he lived in mostly wouldn’t talk to me. What had he been saying to them about me? Why did his female friends actually walk on the road rather than have to pass by and look at me? What was that all about? Why did his fiance in the early 90s suddenly call off their wedding just weeks before and she never saw him again? I never did get to the bottom of that but I can now guess.

He locked his keys in his car and had a violent screaming fit in a car park – kicking the car, screaming, spitting on it and scraping his keys along the paintwork. I was scared and I didn’t equate this mad bastard with the kind and sweet boyfriend I had. Maya Angelou said when someone shows you their true colours, believe them. Of course he explained it all away. He was so very sorry. Have a hug. He just got angry and would never hurt me. He only hit things and not people. Wait, what now? Run. Run NOW. Save yourself. The ultimate red flag was proposing to me after only 3 months. We were happy and committed. He was my perfect boyfriend, right? It was romantic. I accepted. What he did is now called love bombing and it’s designed to get a partner to a place where they can be manipulated and controlled. I was a puppet and he was pulling all my strings. I just didn’t see it. We got married and on the way back from the honeymoon, which was very pleasant, he refused to stop the car so I could have a comfort break. It warm and I was thirsty. All I needed was to nip into a service station for 10 minutes to pee and get a drink. I was so uncomfortable I sat with tears silently streaming down my face. Oh he was sorry! He didn’t realise I was upset! Oh darling, I’m so, so sorry! If I’d known I’d have stopped for you! Bollocks. Utter bollocks.

But he didn’t hit me.

I am disappointed in the mental health services I have accessed in that they didn’t offer me much support in leaving my ex and seeing him for what he is. No-one as far as I can recall actually told me that what he was doing was abusive, as I sat in consultation rooms bent double sobbing with whatever latest atrocity he had perpetuated on me. I was listened to but that was it. I was asked by my first psychiatrist “do you actually want to be in this relationship?” but that is NOT the same as “what’s happening to you is wrong and if you want to leave we will help.” I think there’s more awareness training given now but it certainly wasn’t available when I was initially seeking help for my poor mental health. To be fair, my first psychiatrist gave me anger management booklets and told me to pass them onto my ex with her best wishes. If SOMEONE, ANYONE had sat me down and told me to leave, he wouldn’t change and you’re wasting your whole life it would’ve made such a difference to me. I wouldn’t be sitting here with a decimated pension, a higher mortgage than I’d planned in my late 40s and wasted years on a man that would never change. I clung to the hope that I would get the sweet and kind man I first met back if I tried harder.

Don’t be me. If you are in this situation, there is help and you will be believed. Helplines are below. I love you.

Refuge – 0808 2000 247

Respect – Men’s advice line – 0808 801 0327 

Galop – LGBT helpline – 0800 999 5428

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