For survivors of domestic abuse, the trauma does not end when the relationship does. In the decade since I was able to leave my own five-year relationship, I have never felt like I fully escaped.
I maintained my view that it was “complicated” and “emotional”, that he was my teenage sweetheart and first love. I told myself that we were young, in our formative and hormonal teenage years, and that, as he regularly told me, we were “different to everyone else”.
There was no way I could have explained that half-decade together to an outsider – not because they wouldn’t understand, but because I couldn’t see the abuse for what it was.
But years later, he entered a new relationship with someone in our wider friendship group. I found out from a close friend that he had punched her – in her face – while she slept. This news was passed around as pub chat and people idly wondered why someone would punch a woman in her sleep, questioning whether this action would even be possible.
This was a milestone moment for me: the time when I realised that we weren’t “different from everyone else”, and that the abuse wasn’t unique to our intense teenage relationship.
I recognised again those familiar patterns of behaviour that mirrored my experiences. I learned how the same fingernails that dug into my thighs if I said something he didn’t like had now been digging into her thighs too.
So I told them how he had behaved towards me. Some of them had heard our arguments or seen the signs of violence. Stories were compared, action was promised, and everyone had an opinion to share.
It was not a relief to recognise that my relationship had been abusive. It was not a relief to come out to my friends about my experiences. But I was snapped out of the manipulative spell I had been under, in which every attack had been caused by my own bad behaviour.
This manipulation is common in domestic abuse but rarely talked about. It meant that I saw myself as to blame for both being hit and for being the one who hit out.
I administered my own abuse, too: one summer, as punishment for wearing a swimming costume in public and getting sunburnt, he told me not to apply after-sun. I let my skin peel off in angry red blotches and felt guilty and ashamed of myself.
Once I had begun to piece together these memories, I realised how the relationship had shaped me. And I was forced to confront a new reality: I had suffered and lived through a badly abusive relationship, and he had now gone on to abuse another woman.
The fault lay with him, but this new situation also meant I had no control. He was free to continue to abuse future partners.
Eventually, I would learn that she had left him, and I distanced myself from the friends who had proven themselves too cowardly to support me without question. Over time, I began to talk to those I still trusted about my experiences.
He still dominated my thoughts. The night terrors and dreams started in earnest, the flashbacks began, and panic set in when I thought I saw his face in public.
Eventually, the trauma was becoming unmanageable and I turned to medication and therapy from our threadbare network of women’s centres. I felt that I had really entered the system as a string of diagnoses – complex PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder, depression – were added to my name.
Like so many survivors, however, I never reported his abuse to the police. And neither, it turns out, did she.
For me, it felt too late and too scary to drag up all that trauma. I didn’t know what I would achieve by telling the police. I was scared of repercussions. I had no single, clearly defined incident to report.
Perhaps she just wanted to move on with her life and put the horror behind her. I hope she did. I feel now that there is an invisible thread that connects me to all of the sisters who have suffered at his hands. We are the women in a secret club of Women Who Have Been Punched in the Night as They Slept. I don’t want anyone else to live through that.
This year, I learned that he had married a new partner. Another milestone. Perhaps to them, this was a happy occasion, a genuine commitment to each other. To me, though, it was sign that I had failed, that he had wormed his way into another woman’s heart and messed with her head.
I flicked through photos on Facebook, and felt a sickness rising inside of me. A photo of them feeding each other wedding cake. A comment about the beautiful couple. A posed group shot. None of it felt real.
Was his new bride also a member of our secret club, I wondered? I felt keenly a survivor’s guilt, of having been lucky to escape but at the expense of another woman’s life. I was the first, and I feel I should have been the last – or else my pain felt somehow pointless.
I googled their names. His and hers, different combinations. I craved facts, to see figures on abusers re-abusing, to work out what her odds were. I scoured the internet for facts about them, I peered into the wedding photos to look for sorrow in her eyes, or anger in his. I found news stories about women killed by current or ex-abusers. Two women a week.
I thought about how I’d feel if this was her story, a few years from now. Two women a week. What if I escaped and she didn’t?
“Can he change?” asked a forum user. The internet couldn’t make up its mind. I was hoping to find my story reflected back at me online. I wanted to find someone who had been in this situation and who could give me the advice I need. Someone like me, facing the marriage of their ex-abuser and trying to work out what to do, how they could manage the deep anger and feelings of hollowness, discomfort and guilt.
I also wanted to act. I wanted to do something to help. I ran through my options with my therapist, and soon realised how each felt impossible.
I could tell his new bride. This might be easier if she was someone I knew, or had some connection to. But even if it was, why would she believe me? When I had been her, I refused to believe anyone who spoke badly of him. Worse still, if I contacted her directly, he might find out. Things might get worse for her. Things might get worse for me. That latter risk remains too frightening and big for me to process.
I could file a historic abuse claim with the police. I called a helpline to ask how to go about this. But I had no evidence, nor witnesses to call on. There was no one-off attack I could recall in detail. The thought of approaching the police made me feel sick.
I could reach out to his other ex, the other member of the club. I could approach her as a sister and ally. Maybe we could work out together what to do, or go to the police as a team: safety in numbers. But I soon realised this isn’t possible either. I don’t really know her. I have no idea where she is in her own recovery. The last thing I want is to trigger this trauma for her.
I could reach out to one of his friends or his family and ask if there’s anything to worry about. But neither of these options will work: his friends were my friends until they decided to equivocate, and I would no longer trust them for help. Approaching his family feels like it puts me in direct danger.
I could use the law. The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme – known as “Clare’s Law” – is an imperfect but important tool for any woman who has experienced or fears domestic abuse. It came about after Clare Wood was killed in 2009 by an ex-boyfriend who had a history of violence against women.
Clare’s Law allows us to ask the police for the criminal history of someone we fear could be abusive, and is to become official in the Domestic Abuse Bill that returned this week to the House of Commons.
So I invoke Clare’s Law. I fill in an online form on my local police force’s website. I wait.
A generic and cold email comes back within a few hours:
“Your request has been considered and a decision has been made not to progress the matter or make a disclosure to any parties as there is no details to disclose” [sic].
The response feels like swallowing grit. No details to disclose. His record is clean. Because, like so many who have experienced an abusive relationship, I never told anyone.
I wish so much that I could do nothing. Take the final option that everyone seems to be gently coaxing me towards: let it go.
I know now that there’s nothing practical I can do. I turn to suicidal thoughts, to drink, to self-harm. I feel anger – not for me and what I went through, but for all those other women out there who can’t escape, for the abusers who re-abuse again and again while keeping a clean record.
I feel rage towards those who leave ruined lives behind them and can keep on ruining lives long into the future.
When Clare’s Law turns up nothing, and you are told that there is no evidence, it feels like being told that none of the abuse ever happened. It feels like covering up bruises with make-up and lying about walking into doors. It feels like all those years of trying to protect myself and those around me from knowing the truth have simply given him a clean record and a license to do this all over again.
The author has put together a list of contacts that she found helpful: National Domestic Violence Helpline as a starting point to find out which services are available in your area; Women and Girls’ Network Hub; Women’s Trust; Freedom Programme, a group 12-week programme to help women who have experienced abuse recognise the patterns of abusive behaviour and understand their experiences.