As ‘non-violent control’ enters the legal definition of domestic violence, Nicola*, 31, explains how easy it is to find yourself psychologically bullied.
"I wish I could unravel it all and set it out in a clear, chronological progression. Maybe it would make more sense to those who think, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ if I could show how he chiselled away at me, gradually breaking me down from an ambitious self-assured woman to someone who felt sick with nerves at the prospect of asking him for money to buy food.
But that’s the power of emotional abuse - it sneaks up and takes grip while you’re busy believing it’s love.
We met when I was 21 and working in an ad agency in London. He was a gorgeous, charming professional rugby player. So I couldn't believe it when he pursued me. And though I was young, I wasn't a typical victim; I had a large group of friends, I’d grown up with healthy, happy relationships.
Looking back I can see the power games started early on. ‘Why are you being so clingy? Don’t you want me to have fun with my friends? Are you one of those girls?’ He was so convincing, I accepted it was my fault I was stuck at home with no plans. Yet, girls would ring his phone in the middle of the night. He’d evade any questions. I pushed at first, but I slowly learned it wasn't worth the punishment.
That’s the hardest thing to convey. Because in those early years, there was no shouting, no swearing. Silence was his weapon. If I challenged him, he’d punish me for days. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I’d cry. ‘Please talk to me.’ Somehow he always became the victim.
And all the time there were the comments – the ‘jokes’, the ‘banter’. ‘It’s too complicated for you, you’re too stupid to understand… You’re so boring, I need someone more exciting.’ If I ever became upset, he’d go silent on me for ‘being too sensitive’.
I left him once. After three years, I still had enough about me to know this wasn't normal. But shortly after we split up, I discovered I was pregnant. He begged me to come back. I went, because for everything terrible about our relationship, he could still be charming and loving. But, of course, the bad bits just became more frequent. And his version of me became the one I saw. When he’d tell me I was so miserable I should be on ‘antidepressants’, I was just grateful he stayed.
After two sons and seven years together we finally married. It marked a turning point – as though now he legally had me he stopped pretending. The rages began. It would happen when I asked something of him, even to empty the dishwasher, and he would explode: ‘You’re such a bitch!’
I was easier to dominate now. I was working part-time around caring for the children, so he was the main breadwinner. It would take me two days of planning to ask him if I could have some money for the supermarket shop – if I timed it wrong he would hurl abuse at me, accuse me of bleeding him dry.
It was only me who saw this side of him. He never let the mask slip in public. Once, on my birthday, my mum came over and cooked a big family meal for us all. But he just went upstairs and lay down on the bed, refusing to take part. It was his way of saying, ‘I don’t care about your birthday’. I was so embarrassed I told everyone he was genuinely ill.
Life became about making him happy. I’d do anything to maintain the status quo. That included sex on demand. And his demands became more degrading – once he brought a friend back to our house with the intention of watching me have sex with him. I refused, and angrily he told me that, once again, I’d let him down.
It’s hard to describe what it does to your confidence. It’s as though you cease to exist as a proper, functioning person; that everything inside – all the bits that make you you – crumble into nothing and you’re just a shell. You spend so long putting everything you want and need to one side you stop mattering, even to yourself.
"You spend so long putting everything you want to one side you stop mattering to yourself"
In the end, I didn’t leave for myself. not even when I found out he’d been having a five-year affair. His aggression was becoming more tangible – he was punching walls, pounding tables. And then one day he got annoyed with our eldest son, James, seven, and pushed him so hard that James crashed into a banister and broke it.
Then, months later, he had another rage. only this time he flew at me too. ‘Hit me!’ I screamed. In a warped way, I wanted physical proof. He didn't hit me, but admitted that he was close to it. When I told him to leave he did.
He returned the next day to talk his way back in. He even suggested we go for couples counselling. He told the counsellor that we had ‘a few issues’ that I just couldn't ‘get over’. When I told my side of things – as everything came tumbling out – he wept in front of her. Then as soon as we walked out of her office door, he sniffed, shrugged, and handed me his wedding ring, ‘Well, I guess that means we’re over,’ he said.
Nine months later, I am determined to move on and have started to recognise myself again. I no longer believe I am boring and stupid and I am retraining as a teacher – when I’d first suggested this idea to my husband, he just gave me a look and carried on watching TV.
But I can’t imagine ever being in another relationship. I can only think, ‘You’re nice now, but when will the real you emerge?’ I hope that changes. If physical scars fade, perhaps emotional ones can too."
If you know someone who is being abused, keep talking to them, as many women in abusive relationships become isolated. Suggest places that provide help and support, such as womensaid.org.uk
Interview by: Katie Mulloy. Photography: posed by models, Getty Images, Rex Features. *names have been changed