Inside an abusive relationship
"Get down on the floor right now and pick up those shoes." My heart thumped as my boyfriend glared at me. We were on holiday in an idyllic Sardinian hotel but, treading on eggshells as usual, I had been fretting all day as we sat around the pool that something would ignite his temper. In the end, it was the way the maid had arranged my sandals that set him off.
"Well? Didn't you hear me?" he barked, pointing down at the shoes. "I don't want them lined up against this wall. I want them lined up over there. Come on. Do it. Now."
It was pitiful - an intelligent woman like me literally grovelling at a man's feet, but I couldn't risk sparking a full-blown tantrum. So I knelt down and did what he asked. Oh, the shame of it. How on earth had I come to this? But in my heart of hearts I knew. Looking back to the moment I met and fell hopelessly in love with a high-powered city banker, the warning signs were all there.
The first time I went back to his house after dinner, I noticed that his wardrobe was replete with identical sets of shoes and suits and ties ranged meticulously in order of colour. I realised I was getting involved with a perfectionist. What I wasn't prepared for were the relentless demands of perfectionism that he would impose on me.
But he swept me off my feet. He showered me with compliments and, after we had only been dating a few weeks, whisked me away on the first of many holidays. I told myself it was nice being with a strong man who took decisions. But, in truth, this was a tactic. Controlling men trade on high excitement and high intensity. Possessiveness, paranoia, jealousy, an obsession with former partners - I went through it all.
During that first holiday in a sprawling farmhouse, he was on the edge. One evening, after driving back from a nice dinner, his face grew dark. When I got out of the car and walked towards the house, he shouted, "Don't you dare walk away from me." "I'm not walking away from you," I pleaded. "I'm just going into the house."
"Come back here," he yelled. I carried on, trying to act normally, but he cornered me in the living room and pushed me into a chair. Wagging his finger, he screamed, "You are going to sit there and listen to me."
He ranted that I should never again dare to walk ahead of him. It turned out that I was required to walk alongside him or behind him at all times. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I went upstairs and packed my bags, then spent the night on the sofa. But the next day he begged me to forgive him and stay. Against my better judgment, I did.
He was the dream boyfriend for the next few days, showering me with affection. But on the way back home he exploded again. We were at a service station and, while he was filling up, I bought a Britney Spears CD. It was a joke present, but he didn't find it funny. He grabbed the CD and threw it at me, then screamed at me to get in the car.
He drove like a maniac, swerving all over the road. He began phoning to book an earlier ticket home because, he said, he couldn't bear to be with me a second longer than he had to. Then he lost it completely and threw the phone at my head.
Cowering, with my hands covering my face as he lashed out at me with his left arm, I simply sat it out. Sure enough, after about an hour of screaming, he suddenly went quiet, sank into a depression and started grovelling.
Over the next three years, it was always the same pattern. He would accuse me of a minor misdemeanour - often it was just looking at him the wrong way, or not showing enough interest in what he was saying. He would erupt and scream blue murder, then hours later he would apologise and beg my forgiveness. And he would look so sad and lost that I would take pity on him.
Another tactic: in sick relationships, controlling men alternate terror with tenderness. Eruptions are always followed by extreme generosity and kindness. Temper tantrums give way to profound remorse. The more extreme the outburst, the more lavish the nice spell afterwards. I could chart how bad our relationship was by the size of the bouquets piling up in my kitchen.
I lost weight and, more to the point, I started to lose my mind. Soon, I was as hysterical as he was during rows and then, I realised to my horror, even more so. Desperate and disorientated, I found myself screaming like a banshee, begging him to listen to me, wailing miserably. "Look at you, you're a mess," he would say, after he had picked on me for hours until I was a gibbering wreck.
There were many breaking points, when things were so unbearable that I nearly got out. Once, when we were on a skiing holiday, we drove to dinner, then on the way back, for no reason at all, he started madly accelerating his car. We clocked nearly 270kmh on the motorway as I gripped the seat in terror, fearing for our lives.
When we arrived back at the hotel, he looked furious, so I crept into bed praying he would go to sleep. At about 2am, when I was in a fitful slumber, he shook me awake and started yelling obscenities. Apparently, I was annoying him by sleeping too loudly. He ranted until I packed my bags, ran down to reception and begged the night porter to find me another room.
In the morning, I decided to catch a last-minute flight home, and vowed I would never go back to him. But a few days later, with protestations of love and more flowers, he talked me around.
The control he was exerting was becoming absurd. He bought me several pairs of flat shoes that he said were by a designer he liked, though I assumed it was more to do with the fact I was taller than him when wearing high heels. And one evening he arrived to take me to a family party with a box containing a very plain, matronly dress. It didn't fit, but he demanded I wear it anyway. When I tried to explain that I couldn't because it was too big, he refused to take me to the party. I rang his mother in a panic to explain why we weren't going. She sighed and said, "Oh well, you know what he's like. Probably best just to wear the dress."
I was at my wits' end - and I knew that the only way I could save my sanity was by focusing on the reasons I had become stuck in such a bad relationship in the first place. I found a fantastic therapist who slowly put me back together. Over weekly sessions we unpicked why I had become stuck in such a toxic cycle. I had to look at my part in this mess, or I would simply go from one manipulative man to another.
While friends were telling me it was all his fault, I was desperate. But I felt hopeful when the therapist told me I had played a role. That meant I could do something. She suggested I read Is It Love or Is It Addiction? by Brenda Schaeffer, and The Betrayal Bond by Patrick Carnes - both revolutionary books that explore why people stay in exploitative relationships.
It's not going to win me plaudits with women's-rights activists to say this, but it made sense to me that a part of me colluded in the abuse because I have a naturally addictive personality. I was hooked on the excitement and drama. Like an alcoholic vowing "just one drink", I tried to make it work time after time. And when friends and family begged me to leave him - it was ruining their lives, too - I refused, saying I could handle it.
My therapist explained that I had to move on. It felt like going cold turkey. The next time he phoned, I didn't take the call. I ignored his texts. It was hideous.
I longed to be with him, but I resisted. At one point, I noticed my skin was itching as if I were coming off drugs. Mercifully, after a while, the messages stopped, and with them the sense of compulsion. I never spoke to him or saw him again.
I'm actually grateful to my ex now. Because of him, I've addressed issues I would never have looked at otherwise. I hope that he has found some help, too.
Since breaking away, I haven't met Mr Right - but I haven't allowed another man, or indeed anyone, to control me. And I only tidy my shoes when I want to.
- Real Life: One Woman's Guide to Love, Men and Other Everyday Disasters by Melissa Kite is published by Constable & Robinson.
WHAT IS AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP?
Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour in an intimate relationship that over time puts one person in a position of power over another, and causes fear. Apart from physical violence, abusers use many tactics to maintain control, such as:
Emotional abuse, name-calling, put-downs and disrespectful treatment.
Isolation from support networks, family and community.
Stalking or monitoring every move.
Psychological abuse, including denying the abusive behaviour occurred and blaming the person being abused for the behaviour.
Financial abuse, including denying living expenses, preventing someone from working, and manipulating child-support systems.
Harming or threatening to harm loved ones, including children.
- For help, call Shine's confidential domestic abuse helpline, 0508 744 633, or the Women's Refuge Crisisline, 0800 Refuge. You are not alone.