Psy­cho­log­i­cally vi­o­lent re­la­tion­ships of­ten be­gin with an un­healthy in­ten­sity be­fore phys­i­cal abuse be­gins. It can take sur­vivors sev­eral years to es­cape

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS | REVIEW - Jen­nifer O’Con­nell

‘He was a true gen­tle­man. A really lovely guy. He couldn’t do enough for me. And then, the sec­ond night of our hon­ey­moon, the abuse started.”

Priscilla Grainger was a strong, in­de­pen­dent wo­man be­fore she mar­ried her ex-hus­band. She was street­wise and proud of it. The only child of two par­ents who adored her, she had never known any­thing ex­cept love and kind­ness in her re­la­tion­ships.

So while “there were red flags” in their five-year re­la­tion­ship be­fore the wed­ding, she adds: “I didn’t see them, be­cause I was never look­ing out for them. He would do this thing of ‘ You’re not go­ing out with your friends again’. He was quite con­trol­ling and very intense.”

What she was be­gin­ning to ex­pe­ri­ence, though she didn’t yet recog­nise it, is ‘co­er­cive con­trol’ – a pat­tern of acts of as­saults, threats, hu­mil­i­a­tion, and in­tim­i­da­tion or other forms of psy­cho­log­i­cal or emo­tional abuse.

Ac­cord­ing to the EU Fun­da­men­tal Rights Agency (FRA) in 2014, one in three Ir­ish women have ex­pe­ri­enced some type of psy­cho­log­i­cal vi­o­lence by a part­ner since the age of 15.

Co­er­cive con­trol, which is to be pun­ish­able by up to five years in prison un­der the Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Act 2018, is so com­mon amongst per­pe­tra­tors of do­mes­tic abuse it’s as though they’re fol­low­ing a script. It fre­quently starts in the same way – with an un­healthy in­ten­sity.

“We met on a blind date when I was 20. Within a cou­ple of weeks things had gone from zero to a hun­dred,” says Ais­ling Byrne of the early days of her re­la­tion­ship. “I saw him ev­ery night, he’d ring me five or six times a day from pay­phones. It was only a few weeks be­fore he asked me to marry him.”

She was madly in love, but her par­ents didn’t like him, Byrne says, which she now recog­nises as a warn­ing sign.

“We broke up for a few weeks, and I was dev­as­tated. I re­mem­ber my mam say­ing ‘ You don’t have to get back with him. We don’t like the way he treated you’. He was telling me not to see my friends. He was crit­i­cal of ev­ery­one. He’d drop me to the bus in the morn­ing, and I’d come out of work and he’d be wait­ing for me. I thought that was love.”

First chil­dren

For both women, who fea­ture in a TG4 doc­u­men­tary to air on Wed­nes­day night, the con­trol be­came more intense af­ter their wed­ding; and more intense again af­ter they be­came preg­nant with their first chil­dren.

It was on the sec­ond night of their hon­ey­moon that the abuse in Grainger’s re­la­tion­ship turned phys­i­cal. She was jet­lagged, and wanted to go to bed, and so she said good­night to her hus­band in the ho­tel bar, and told him she was go­ing up­stairs to read a book. When he came up later, he was fu­ri­ous.

“He started on at me, ‘ Don’t you ever leave your hus­band down­stairs in the bar like that’.” Grainger, who was in bed read­ing, stood up. “He grabbed me and fired me onto the bed, and he kicked me in the side.”

She was shocked, but he im­me­di­ately said: “I didn’t touch you, I only tipped you.”

That be­came the mantra that de­fined their re­la­tion­ship. “I only tipped you,” he would say, as he hit her and kicked her and pushed her, care­ful at first never to leave bruises where they would be seen.

Later, he cared less – once break­ing her jaw, af­ter he threw her against a ra­di­a­tor – be­cause he knew she’d cover up for him.

“You ac­tu­ally do be­come ad­dicted to mak­ing ex­cuses for them, and that’s all you know. There was a bit of me think­ing ‘What would peo­ple say?’ The stigma of it,” Grainger says.

The same re­search by the EU Fun­da­men­tal Rights Agency found that one in four Ir­ish women re­ported some form of phys­i­cal and sex­ual vi­o­lence by a part­ner or non-part­ner, and 79 per cent of who ex­pe­ri­enced it did not re­port it.

It took Grainger many years to get help. The shame kicks in, she says, the self- es­teem be­gins to be stripped away, and it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to leave. It’s a kind of groom­ing, she says.

Glass or­na­ment

When she was preg­nant i n 1998, her ex-hus­band threw a glass or­na­ment at her. Al­though she was only 32 weeks preg­nant, her wa­ters broke, and her daugh­ter, Ainie, was born pre­ma­turely. Af­ter that, she be­came even more ter­ri­fied to seek help in case she lost her child, a fear that is not un­com­mon among vic­tims, says Safe Ire­land.

Byrne’s hus­band’s be­hav­iour also in­ten­si­fied af­ter their first child was born, al­though in her case the abuse was pri­mar­ily about co­er­cive con­trol.

“At one point I re­mem­ber say­ing to him, ‘ Tell me when I do some­thing right, be­cause I know I do ev­ery­thing wrong’. When you have a baby the fight goes out of you. She never slept for more than three hours and there was con­stant ar­gu­ing be­cause she kept cry­ing and he kept say­ing, ‘Can you not get that baby to shut up?’”

She felt he con­trolled who she saw; how she spent her time; what she could spend their money on.

“It chipped, chipped, chipped away at me. Through­out all that time, you think ‘ It’s me, I’m not a good enough mother, I’m not a good enough wife.’ In his view, he was per­fect. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he was the per­fect hus­band, he didn’t me beat me and he gave me his wages.”

She felt “the vi­o­lence was im­plied. I felt in­tim­i­dated. I felt the threat of it was al­ways there. I walked around on eggshells for years. I couldn’t win. It was all mind games. If I cooked din­ner, he’d come home and taste it and throw it in the bin. If I didn’t, it was ‘ What were you do­ing sit­ting on your ass all day?’ I re­mem­ber one time say­ing ‘ Just hit me and get it over with’.

When her two old­est daugh­ters were eight and 12, Ais­ling be­gan mak­ing plans to leave. But then, un­ex­pect­edly, she be­came preg­nant.

“I think he sus­pected I was plan­ning to leave, be­cause all through­out the preg­nancy, I’d never seen him so happy. Things were good, he was nice to me, and then I had her, and I re­mem­ber get­ting out of hospi­tal, and it all started again. When my youngest was six weeks old, I was out walk­ing with my friend, and I turned to her, and I said ‘I can’t be with this man’.”

She couldn’t af­ford to leave, so in­stead, she started try­ing to re­claim her in­de­pen­dence, lit­tle by lit­tle. She con­structed a men­tal wall be­tween them.

“I’d put the kids to bed, then I’d go out to the gym, or if I didn’t I’d go on Face­book. I had com­pletely de­tached my­self from that whole sit­u­a­tion – it was a case of ‘ you can say what you want, but it’s not go­ing to af­fect me’.”

One Sun­day morn­ing, she was hav­ing a cup of tea with her un­cle and aunt, and he phoned and told her to come home.

“He started roar­ing down the phone at me. So I went home and my two el­dest were cry­ing their eyes out.”

She’d fi­nally had enough. “It was that night that I said to him ‘We’re fin­ished’. He walked over, and put his face to mine, and he said ‘Our mar­riage is over when I say it’s f**king over.’”

“That was the first night of months and months of be­ing ter­ri­fied.”

She sought help from the guards, who ad­vised her to get a safety or­der, but even with the safety or­der in place, what she calls the psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture con­tin­ued. “I would wake up and he’d be stand­ing over me.”

He was later con­victed of mul­ti­ple breaches of or­ders, but he never got a cus­to­dial sen­tence.

“He ba­si­cally got a slap on the wrist. I had to leave that court­room and walk down the quays and know he was walk­ing along the street that was run­ning par­al­lel to it. Why are the courts award­ing th­ese or­ders if there are no con­se­quences?” she says. “It’s not worth the pa­per it’s writ­ten on.”

Agen­cies like Safe Ire­land have been call­ing for the ur­gent com­mence­ment of the Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Act 2018, which will also en­sure stronger sen­tenc­ing for part­ner vi­o­lence, and in­tro­duce emer­gency bar­ring or­ders.

Byrne has re­turned to col­lege, through the Trin­ity Ac­cess Pro­gramme, and is in her fourth year of An­cient His­tory and Ar­chae­ol­ogy, and Jewish and Is­lamic Civil­i­sa­tions.

Grainger’s daugh­ter, Ainie, was a con­stant wit­ness to the abuse and the vi­o­lence un­til her par­ents’ mar­riage fi­nally ended when she was 12.

“I grew up with it, so I thought it was nor­mal. I re­mem­ber be­ing in sec­ond class and ask­ing an­other child ‘Does your daddy hit your mammy?’ and the other child was shocked,” she says.

The first time it hap­pened to her, she was eight.

“I didn’t want to eat my din­ner, so he put me out in the back gar­den. I had no jacket on, and I have asthma, but he left me out there in the rain un­til my granny came over.”

The ver­bal abuse started at the same age: she re­mem­bers vividly her shock the first time her father called her “a c**t.”

Priscilla even­tu­ally ended the mar­riage by hir­ing a security com­pany, which served him with a safety or­der. It took seven years from that night, for the di­vorce to be fi­nalised.

So­cial me­dia

When Ainie was 14, she and her mother set up an or­gan­i­sa­tion to help vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, Stop Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence in Ire­land. They pro­vide prac­ti­cal help for peo­ple try­ing to get out of abu­sive re­la­tion­ships – mo­bile phones, food vouch­ers, cloth­ing, money. Ainie reaches teenagers in abu­sive sit­u­a­tions through so­cial me­dia.

“Con­fide in some­body and plan your exit,” Priscilla says. “A leop­ard never change their spots. If they do it once, they’ll do it, again and again and again. There is life af­ter­wards. I have come out of it and I now have three guest­houses, I do a huge amount for the home­less, and I run this or­gan­i­sa­tion for do­mes­tic abuse vic­tims.”

Ainie Grainger still sees her father in the street some­times.

“At the end of the day, he is my dad, but I can’t for­give him. I see him around all the time, and he looks at me in dis­gust. But I’m not afraid of him. Now that I’m nearly 21, I feel I’d have the strength to go up and to him and say if you ever go near my mam, you’ll never live it down. I have the words now that I didn’t have when I was younger.”

Tabú: Ag Teacht Slán i s on TG4 on Wed­nes­day Novem­ber 21 at 9.30pm

He was telling me not to see my friends. He was crit­i­cal of ev­ery­one . . . I thought that was love

Ais­ling Byrne, a sur­vivor of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, ap­pears in Tabú: Ag Teacht Slán: “He’d ring me five or six times a day from pay­phones”. Left: Priscilla Grainger and her daugh­ter, Ainie Grainger, also fea­ture in the TG4 doc­u­men­tary on Wed­nes­day

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