I met him online. As many of us do nowadays, but years ago – it was more unusual. He was sweet, unassuming and polite. He stood out from all the other chancers on the website, most of whom loved “travelling”, “having a laugh” and women to be on the right side of thirty. I cancelled the first meeting two hours before we met, he wrote back to tell me he “understood” and to get back in touch when I was “ready”. His patience took me aback.
We finally met on a cold winter evening. It was my first online date – and I was horrendously nervous. I had not slept properly the night before, my dress felt uncomfortable around my middle and my cheeks were bright red. When I saw him waiting there, I was surprised as he looked just like his pictures. Maybe even better. He had broad shoulders, a soft grey coat, and he looked slightly awkward and unsure.
Talking came easily. He bought the wine and insisted on looking at the list rather than just buying the “house” (as I would have done). We finished a bottle, he suggested food and soon it was gone eleven o’clock. He appeared very open. He talked about his mental health, feminism, his family, his problems with being “one of the guys”. And about his job. A fireman. A job that was more than a job, that he loved, that he lived for, the only issue he had with being a fireman was some of the “unacceptable bloke chat” at the station. He came across as a hero with none of the machismo.
He often talked about his job to my friends and family. None of them had spent time with a fireman before. And the job was so unlike what they all did in offices, writing endless emails about endless meetings. He talked about the vulnerability of those he helped, people who hoarded to the point of their homes being hazardous, older people who haven’t seen another human for weeks. I had no idea of the “community” side of being a firefighter. It wasn’t just running into burning buildings (though there was the fair bit of that). There was also a great deal of talking to people who had no one else to talk to, and checking on the safety and wellbeing of people who had somehow dropped out of society. He talked about them with empathy and even love. He was the kind of man who always chatted to the homeless man who comes up and asks for change, and gave them tips on where in the area you could get a bed.
He was protective of me very quickly. And it felt good. This strong, polite, sweet tough guy who insisted on walking between me and traffic, who pulled out my chair and always checked when I got home, who texted me in the morning to see how I slept. What sounds overbearing and patronising now felt comforting. I often pushed that feminist voice to the back of my head – I told myself he was just old fashioned. He often talked about women’s rights and their safety, which might seem normal now but back then was much less part of the public narrative. The word feminism didn’t feature on t-shirts.
He worried about my safety when I was out. He wanted me to stop drinking so much. I was at the age where I thought nothing of drinking from the afternoon until the early hours. All my friends did. “Many young women get themselves into dangerous situations,” he said. But it was hard to go out with my friends and be the only one not drinking, so he suggested just seeing them a little less. I remember furiously chewing gum outside the front door and checking my eyes, because I was so worried I would disappoint him if he could tell I’d been drinking.
It seemed reasonable. And to be honest, I loved spending evenings at his flat, curled up on the sofa, watching telly and him cooking me dinner. When I wasn’t with him I missed him, and he missed me. My friends teased me for the fact I was always on the phone to him, texting him, calling him. After a couple of months, he started to get upset when I went out. He said he had women cheat on him on the past and that perhaps he was a bit paranoid, but would I mind just staying in a little more. When I said I had something I had to go to – a friend’s birthday, for example – he questioned my loyalty, asking why I would choose getting drunk over his wellbeing. I felt guilty and stopped answering my phone to my friends.
After four months he asked me to move in with him. He said he might feel calmer and less stressed if we were a “proper couple”. I had never lived with just a boyfriend before and was excited and thrilled. My friends seemed less positive, but didn’t say much. I moved in and felt like a real adult for the first time.
We struggled. I was too messy, too noisy. I got stuff wrong a lot: the wrong thing for dinner, the wrong wine. I would put food in the fridge incorrectly. He began to stay up late and play aggressive video games in the bedroom, on full volume. I asked him to turn them down a couple of times but learnt very quickly that was not acceptable.
He would come home from work and get angry. Throwing things, drinking by himself until 3am, locking me on the balcony. He said I couldn’t understand the pressure he was under at work. That my job just involved “wearing tight skirts and drinking wine at 4pm with my boss”. He risked his life every day and was still paid less than me.
When he went to work on a night shift, he would lock the flat and take my keys with him. He told me that it was the only way he could feel calm at work. A few times when he was working I had gone to see my friends and lied about it – he had found out by looking through my phone (something he did every day) and he said my betrayal of trust left him with little choice. If I behaved like a lying teenager, he would treat me like one.
He wasn’t always like that. I was always scared of him because I knew anything could make him flip: turning the channel over or buying the wrong sort of milk could mean the kitchen got smashed up, but there were good times in between those moments. Now I look back, I realise they weren’t good, but it was simply the gratitude and relief I felt when he cuddled me, when he told he was sorry and that it was his mental health “playing up” but he was so grateful that I stood by him. When he told me I was the only one who could help him and he owed me everything. I fell head over heels for him, because in comparison to what he was like the rest of the time, those moments felt like magic.
As the abuse hardened, avoiding getting him angry became part of my daily routine. I would put my phone on top of the fridge all evening so he could see it, or work from home all week to calm him down. People often ask why I didn’t leave when the violence started. But it’s not that easy. Often, when I left, he would text me saying goodbye and that he was going to slash his wrists, and then he would turn his phone off. It was very hard to stay away, and I often found myself running back to the flat, only to find him sitting on the sofa watching TV. I could have called the police, but he made very clear he would lose his job, and that was the only thing that “kept him sane”. Through all of this, he worked. He went out in the morning and spoke softly to elderly women about their fire alarms or heroically saved actual suicidal men from bridges across railway tracks, and then he would come back and throw my dinner at my face as I went to take the first bite. No one would have any idea.
I am safe and happy now. I finally left in the middle of the night and went to stay with a friend. He began his normal campaign of phone calls and messages: telling me he would find me, he would always love me, that he was going to kill himself. It was only when I informed him I was speaking to the police that he went quiet. He used to say he couldn’t control himself, and that the hundreds of messages was because of his love for me, but when he thought he might get in serious trouble he was more than able to stop.
When you’re with an abusive man, you believe that they are trying to stop, but I see now he did not see me as an equal or a person: he saw me as an object that belonged to him and when I was out of line I needed to be punished. Men who are abusive choose to be so, and the idea that all this time he could have stopped but he chose not to was what tore me up inside.
A few people know of the extent of the abuse, but not many. He told me all the lads at the station hated me for “ruining his life”. They wouldn’t have believed the truth even if it was right in front of them – because no one wants to believe your colleague, your friend or family member could treat someone like this, least of all someone who has dedicated their life to helping others. You read all the time that one in four women experience abuse, but no one seems to want to face the uncomfortable truth of how many men we know and love must be acting like this behind closed doors. Perpetrators are perfectly able to be one person to everyone else and another person at home. That, after all, is how they get away with it.
If you are affected by any of the issues in this story, you can find out more about recognising the signs of domestic abuse here and find a list of helplines here.