When staying has to stop

07:43, Jun 24 2013
domestic violence
REFRAME THE QUESTION: Instead of wondering why she stays, question why he doesn't stop.

The horrific photos that emerged of Charles Saatchi apparently strangling his celebrity chef wife Nigella Lawson have brought domestic violence into the spotlight.

Charles Saatchi explained, suavely and urbanely, that the photographs were misleading. That he and his wife, Nigella Lawson, were having a discussion about the children, and that to "emphasise his point" he had held his hand to her throat.

It was, he explained, merely a "playful tiff".

And it was then, with an effort of will, I carefully put down the iPad and walked away.

Please tell me nobody bought that bullshit. Seriously? Did you see the look on Nigella Lawson's face? Clearly no-one thought to tell her it was just a "playful tiff". And who puts their hands around someone's throat to "make their point"? This was not a tiff, nor was it an argument. It was violence.

And so now, I need to make it clear - if it is not already - that this is not going to be some coolly unbiased look at the dynamic of domestic violence. I need to be upfront about the fact that I have been in an abusive relationship. I have had too many dealings with police while dressed only in my nightie and dressing gown, too many calls from Victim Support, dealings with Women's Refuge, with lawyers, crying to my friend; feeling frightened, angry, sad, humiliated and ashamed.


There were too many "incidents", as I euphemistically called them, times when I was forced to leave my home - usually at night - either by being pushed physically out the door, or because I was frightened for my safety.

Too many days of my life spent waiting for my partner to snap out of his mood and stop giving me the silent treatment. Too many hours wondering what I'd done wrong, what I'd have to do to no longer deserve the label of fat, ugly, lazy slut.

I spent too many hours looking out the window waiting for my partner to come home from the pub, wondering if he was going to drive drunk, wondering what kind of mood he would be in when he arrived. And wanting to see him arrive just so I had time to prepare a little for it; maybe see from his body language whether he was happy or not.

And I blamed myself, and I blamed the drink, and I blamed the people he was drinking with - in short, I blamed everybody but the person who was actually to blame. My abusive partner.

And here's a dirty little secret that abused women share. We fantasise about our partners dying; maybe crashing into a power pole on their way home (we don't want anyone else to suffer), or having a nasty accident at work. Because deep down, we know that their death would be much easier to deal with; we know that leaving them is going to be difficult. And for many of us, leaving them will be dangerous.

But, as the old saying goes, only the good die young - (sorry if that offends, but the black humour's a bit of a coping mechanism).

So, like many women in my situation, I tried to leave a few times. But I always went back, much to the dismay of family and friends. But each time, I got a little stronger, I think, and somewhere along the line, through many very public situations, I decided that this wasn't my shame, it was his.

And one day, he threw a toy at me. A stupid little plastic car that came with a kiddie meal from Burger King. It hit my forehead, which then bled like there was no tomorrow; seeping through the fingers of the hand I'd instinctively held to the wound.

And I had a moment of clarity, I guess. There was so much power in that throw, that I felt like we were just a small step away from a throw becoming a punch in the face.

So I got out.

And while that's an easy sentence to write, it wasn't an easy thing to do. It took every bit of strength I had. I needed ongoing support from friends and family, from police, Women's Refuge, Victim Support, and lawyers.

And while I'm out, and have been for a while now, I suspect I will never be entirely free of the effects of that relationship. I still struggle to understand or explain why I stayed; why I didn't leave at the first sign of violent behaviour. I am not a stupid woman; many people would probably consider me reasonably intelligent, strong and forthright.

What it has given me, however, as I've tried to make sense of the whole thing, is a passionate interest in the field of domestic violence and abusive relationships.

And as I've read about abusive relationships, and have talked to other women who have experienced them, one thing has become very clear to me; abusive men are very similar. Friends and I have speculated that somewhere there's some secret "abusive man's handbook" that gets shared around; South Canterbury Women's Refuge strategic operations manager Dawn Rangi-Smith says they often hear that comment when they're holding courses for women.

So, here we are, back with Saatchi and Lawson.

Rangi-Smith and Timaru police family violence co-ordinator Steve Wills both say the same. The situation just proves what has been known for years. That domestic violence is no respecter of income level or status.

That what appears to be happening in this relationship is happening in many, many other relationships, all over the world. What they both say, too, is that if this sort of thing is happening in public in this relationship, what the hell is going on in private? And being pretty sure - based on their experience - that it will be much worse. They are in no doubt this was not an isolated incident. It seldom is.

Rangi-Smith says the incident illustrates the heightened sense of entitlement that abusive men often share; an arrogance, confidence that they will not be challenged. It often marries with an ingrained attitude that women are inferior.

And as I've read everything I could find that was written about the series of photographs that were taken, I've noticed a few interesting things.

Unless I've missed it, Saatchi hasn't actually publicly apologised to his wife yet. Because so far, he's shown no signs of acknowledging that he's done anything wrong. He's attempted to minimise what was happening. Abusive men are good at minimising what they've done - hell, abused women are pretty good at minimising what's happened too. Having "a playful tiff" is light years away from saying "he assaulted her". He didn't go to the police voluntarily because he had done anything wrong, he went so that this matter wouldn't "hang over them" for months.

Words are very powerful. Some media have minced around the action, saying Saatchi "put his hands on her throat". Others have been a little more blunt, using the word "choke".

I use the word choke when I talk to Wills. He stops me and says it's strangulation.

A playful tiff? Or strangulation? There's a big difference.

What the photographs seemed to so clearly show was a man choking a woman. That's assault in anyone's book. But if we start talking about it being "a domestic", it trivialises that assault. There is an implication that just because these two people are in a relationship that somehow, it's not so bad, that it's private, just an argument.

Let's pretend Saatchi got a bit heated over the bill, and put his hands around the waiter's neck in order to "emphasise his point". Would someone have stepped in then? Or would bystanders and other staff felt it was a private matter between the restaurant and a customer? An argument? A playful tiff? I doubt it.

There has been a lot written about Lawson; about her upbringing, her mother, things she's said previously about her marriage. Which is all very interesting, but subtly shifts the blame from the person who should actually be in the spotlight here; the person who was violent. Her husband.

Rangi-Smith says that's a common occurrence; all the analysis goes on to the victim, throwing the scent off the abuser.

"We should be talking about him, about his behaviour."

She challenges any suggestion this was a "boiling point", or temper situation. Most abusers are well in control of what they're doing. They choose to do what they do.

Any attempt to strangle a person raises a massive red flag for police and Women's Refuge. Because, with very little effort involved, it is an action that can kill. There is a fine line between someone passing out from strangulation, and someone dying. If a woman reports her partner has attempted to strangle her, she is considered at a much higher level of risk.

I ask Rangi-Smith what she takes from the nose tweaking photograph. It seems demeaning to me, as if he's treating her like a child.

Rangi-Smith's interpretation is more chilling. She says that kind of action is often a threat; "wait until we're at home". She remembers a client who had suffered a broken nose at the hands of her husband. Any time the husband wanted to exert control, he'd just tap his own nose to send a message.

There have been some suggestions that Lawson should become a poster girl for abused women, that she is obliged to leave her marriage in order to send a message to others. But in reality, Lawson appears to be a woman in an abusive relationship, and - take it from me - sometimes it just doesn't seem that easy.

As Rangi-Smith says, women like Lawson need support. She speaks about sisterhood, and I'm right behind her on that. If our fellow women won't support us, something is seriously wrong.

She says a woman told her recently that her husband was being abusive to her in a public place. Women stopped to look, could clearly see something wasn't right, but carried on without doing anything. Rangi-Smith doesn't think it's fear that stops people - after all, often all that might be needed is a call to the police - but just an unwillingness to become involved.

Women, she says, need to realise how powerful we can be when we work together.

And just to finish off, let's look at that all-too common question - and implied criticism - of all women who remain in abusive relationships. Why does she stay?

Rangi-Smith wants us to turn that question around, and instead of putting the responsibility on the victim all the time, let's ask, instead, why doesn't he stop?

Nine common reasons women choose to stay in an abusive relationship:


1. Leaving can be the most dangerous time

Abusers often threaten to kill women, the children or themselves if she leaves. Many women are stalked and harassed by ex-partners, and violence can escalate when a Protection Order is served on the abuser. Abusers can even make arrangements from prison to send friends or family to assault or threaten women. If women leave, they have less chance of predicting when violence will happen, and women who stay may be doing what they think is necessary to stay alive and protect their children.

2. Lack of money

Women and children's standard of living often drops significantly when they leave a violent relationship. Women may not have any access to the family's money. Some women, especially migrant women, may not know where to go for financial help or may not be eligible for benefits. They may not even have possession of their or their children's passports. Women may never have been allowed to deal with money, and they are worried they won't be able to survive. Some women may feel they won't be able to get a job to support themselves. Going on a benefit may also mean a huge drop in income, and it might not cover all the bills.

3. Nowhere to go

If family and friends can't provide a place to stay, moving house can be very difficult for women with little money, or for women with disabilities or those who live in remote areas. Landlords may not want to rent to women if the violent person has caused problems in the household - for example, if bills haven't been paid, the neighbours have complained, and/or the house has been damaged.

4. Fear of losing their children

Abusers often threaten to inform Child, Youth and Family that women are bad or abusive mothers. Abusers also often say that if she leaves, they will never let her get the children. Mistrust from previous negative experience of government agencies and the justice system can mean women are unwilling to allow authorities to become involved. If the abuser has access to the children the woman can't control what happens when she is not there. Also, the children might not want to leave their father.

5. A belief in family values

Some women believe that parents should stay together for the sake of the children, or that marriage/commitment is for life. The religious or cultural beliefs of some families mean that they pressure women to stay despite the violence, and some women may believe that there needs to be a male around for the children's sake. Some genuinely want to make their relationship work, no matter what.

6. Not being believed

Many people still don't understand domestic violence, and blame women. It might be hard for people to accept that there is violence if an older woman has hidden it all her life, especially as abusers can be charming, friendly, and respected in the community. Some people think women"make it up" to get back at men. Many people believe that violence doesn't happen in lesbian relationships, or they think that the violence is not as bad for lesbians.

7. 'I still love him'

Many women think that they can change the abuser, especially if they remember the charming person that the abuser was in the beginning. Abusers often promise to change. Women want the violence to stop because they still have feelings for the abuser - despite the violence, there may be times of companionship and socialising, and the woman may not want to be left alone.

8. Social isolation

Abusers often isolate women, and make it difficult for women to have friends or stay in touch with their whnau or family. Migrant women and lesbians may feel ashamed or unsafe about speaking out in their close-knit communities. Women may risk losing a lot by leaving, such as a house, friends, money and status.

9. Not wanting to be judged by others

Some women feel whakam or ashamed, fearing others may think they are a failure, or a weak or bad person. There are still many social expectations about being in a couple, and children needing two parents, which makes it challenging for women to leave. Women may feel ashamed and guilty that they have hit their abuser at some point, planned to hurt him, or have hit their children.