Dora: Taking Domestic Violence Out of the Home
interview by marie chung
It is one big step to acknowledge there is a problem and another step to share this story with others. In our conversation, it was apparent that due to the rawness of the situation, Dora had not accepted elements of what had happened to her. She speaks to us about her recent escape from domestic violence and challenges what is commonly assumed about these women.
Before the interview, I asked Dora what would be the best way she could portray herself as a woman who was not weak but rather, an informed and well-educated individual. In response to my request, Dora gathered her favourite books. She explains that women suffering from domestic violence are not always uneducated or from lower income backgrounds. They read books, they can be just like you and me. They can be women that we least expect.
What do you think is the common stereotype of women suffering from domestic violence?
Women who are in abusive relationships, whether it be physical or mental, are perceived as uneducated or of a low socio-economic background.
I don’t like using the term domestic violence, but rather women who are easily controlled.
Why do you think having this conversation would be useful for other women?
Firstly, the whole of society needs to understand this problem a lot better and that it is a big problem that will not go away unless it is addressed and discussed openly. Also, I would like to think that if there is someone in a similar situation that I was in, they would perhaps realise something from this conversation today and know that they can walk away and do something about it.
That’s right, women have limited spaces and platforms to talk about these issues. Dora, when did you began noticing that things were unusual in your relationship?
For me it was difficult because I was quite young when we met and unfortunately I have a natural desire to try and fix people. The fact is that I should have realized that everything was not okay when he had a serious alcohol and drug problem. Being young, I just assumed these things were normal. It’s hard to specify when I noticed these things because I know he mentally manipulated me.
So would you say at the start that things were not that obvious?
When down the track did you start feeling it was a problem?
I wanted to believe he was going to change or that things would get better. Things got significantly worse after we moved in together because I was around all the time.
Was there one specific moment in your relationship that really identified this was an issue?
I mean there are quite a few moments that stand out where I have thought, “wow, I should have most definitely got up and left.” Once he blamed me for his boss not giving him a long enough holiday break. He said it was my fault because I spoke to his boss about it. He was really quite horrible, it was interesting because it was the first time he was horrible in front of others towards me.
What were some of the things he was saying?
Basically that it was my fault, I shouldn’t open my mouth and not to get into his business. This was quite hard because I was just having a conversation with his boss. He was resentful.
Did he scream and shout at you in front of his boss?
Yeah. It was initially at work but then when we got home he continued.
How did you react?
I just went to bed and cried, which made him more agitated because he hated that. He’d say, “stop crying, you are just whinging, there is no need to cry”. It was very hard to deal with, I felt like I was trapped and couldn’t go anywhere.
"I’d take a few tablets prescribed to me in earlier months for an unrelated illness because it was easier than dealing with these emotions".
You never dealt with the problem?
How often did he verbally abuse you?
It was not so much the abuse but more so his disregard for me as a human being. I still don’t understand why he treated me the way he did, he was a very good person to others but when it came to me and asking him whether he could do something simple for me, it was out of the question. When he came home from work, I would not get spoken to for the first five or ten minutes. If I did start a conversation, it was like stepping on egg shells because it could turn bad at any moment. It was very unpredictable.
Did that scare you?
Yeah because he was very fiery. If he had been drinking, it would’ve made the situation worse. He was angry and agitated at the world and he took that anger out on me.
When did the verbal manipulation start becoming physical?
Compared to what a lot of other women suffer, it was not nearly as bad. He was mainly mentally manipulative.
What was the degree of his physical aggression? Do you have an example?
Quite often he used to push me out of bed. I know that sounds like nothing drastic.
What do you mean push you out of bed?
Sometimes he would be agitated at me and if we were lying in bed, he would kick and shove me and let me fall to the floor. It wasn’t very nice because your bed should be somewhere safe.
For someone to physically force you out of bed, it takes a lot of force to do that.
So, the way you are describing it sounds like it wasn’t a big deal, or you are making it out to seem like it wasn’t a big deal, but I think it is.
I think I tell myself that.
It is interesting to hear how you describe this situation. Obviously now that you are seeing a psychologist, you must already be talking about this to her.
No, because from what I understand I was always under the impression that the psychologist had a legal obligation to tell the police if they thought I was in danger. I’m not 100% sure if that is true, but it was something that I never addressed because of that.
You never spoke about it because of the legal ramifications. Was there any other reason why you didn’t tell her?
I had this perception of myself as being weak and I didn’t want people to know that I was in that type of relationship.
Other times when he was drunk, he had a tendency to shove me out of the way, I think the worst time was when he came home very drunk and noisy. He brought a friend home with him and the friend went to the toilet. I asked him to be quieter because I had to get up early the next morning for work. He got really agitated and said, “the world revolves around you.” He made it out to be that I was selfish and that he never was allowed to have any fun in the house. He started pushing me and I retreated back into the bedroom but he kept following me and kept pushing. I realized then that he could actually hurt me, so I tried to push him away because I was scared. I ended up on the bed and he was on top of me. I didn’t know what he was going to do at this point. He had his hands on my forearms and grabbed them tight.
What did you do?
His friend pulled him off me. I stayed in bed and cried.
Why didn’t you address it at that time? When it got that bad, were you ever concerned about your safety?
I think after that incident, it was when I told myself that he was not going to change. It was probably then that I said to myself that I needed to get out of this. It was a shock to feel that fear.
Was that fear there at the start of the relationship?
There was fear, but not fear that I was going to be physically hurt. What scared me most was that if I was injured and couldn’t get out of that house for whatever reason, no one would notice for a couple of days.
Did you think you loved him the whole time?
I thought that I loved him and that I had to change his behavior and make him happy. I blamed myself for his reactions.
Did you still love him at the end?
Why do you think that is?
Partly because I had spent such a long time with him and I also felt sorry for him because he had a horrible childhood, I wanted him to feel that he was loved but then I question that as well because I wonder if I loved him only because I always wanted his approval.
You are very rational and well-educated. From an objective perspective, you could probably say that it would be an easy situation to get out of and that you would get out of it as soon as warning signs were showing.
Yeah it is interesting because if one of my friends came up and said half of what I said, I’d immediately act and deal with the situation with them.
From a personal level, why do you think it is that women would stay in an abusive relationship and not leave?
I was lucky because I did not have kids with this other person. Unfortunately there are a lot of women who have kids and also may not have the financial security to leave the relationship. I think also that there is that fear of being alone. Part of me justified at some stage that I would rather be in an unhappy relationship than be alone.
Also, the legal system and the treatment of women and domestic abuse is not brilliant. You get a restraining order against someone and they have all the details of where you live. It is not until they breach that order that something can be done to protect these women. In that sense, a lot of women would think “why bother leaving”? If they go to the cops, nothing much will be done.
It really comes down to inner strength and I think some women perhaps are able to realize something earlier than others and understand that they are not the degrading person the other partner makes them out to be. They realize that they are human. Unfortunately, it is something every woman has to go through before they can get out of a violent relationship.
Would you say you were fortunate that you were able to leave him because you could set yourself up elsewhere?
Yes very fortunate. A lot of family and friends did not know about this when we were together or even now still don’t know what went on. On a number of occasions, he had threatened me that if I left him, he would hurt my family.
When you did leave him, what was his reaction?
It was not what I expected, he was sad and cried when I first told him. Once I actually left, it was as if he didn’t actually care which hurt even more. It was as if you spent this long amount of time with someone who you thought loved you, yet is just capable of letting you walk away. In some respect it was good because it confirmed that I had done the right thing and that my family was going to be safe.
We have talked about how a lot of women experiencing domestic violence generally come from a lower socio-economic background, do you think it is a more common experience than we think?
"No one has much knowledge on the issue because it is not something that is talked about. The very few women that I have spoken to about this have come out and said they have suffered the exact same thing in a relationship – it is something happening quite regularly".
Women don’t feel okay about publicizing this. They don’t feel comfortable in going to the authorities and doing something about it.
Why do you think that is?
I think that there is still the perception that what happens at home stays at home. There still is that idea that women should do what they are told to do and follow their male counterparts.
I can see that it is definitely still happening given some of the conversations that I’ve had. Do you think that any of this is also to do with personal shame?
How do you think that relates to you in particular?
I think there is a part of me that is disappointed in myself for not getting out of that relationship sooner and I find it quite embarrassing to speak about it openly. I have been in this relationship for quite a long time and have not gotten out of it sooner.
"I think some people don’t understand that it is not as simple as getting out".
Sometimes I think that psychological abuse is more powerful than the physical. Not to say that the physical is not bad but the ability for someone to control how you feel and see yourself is a very powerful thing. I think until someone has experienced that to some degree, they are going to understand that it is not as simple as walking away.
What do you think essentially you’d like to see progress in the future?
I’d like society to acknowledge that this is a massive problem.
What was your step forward?
It was getting out of that relationship. I’ve definitely gotten my confidence back and my sense of worth.
What is your advice to other women out there who are in a similar situation?
The best thing you could do is tell someone. Tell someone that you can trust and someone you know that will have a calm response to it. It is not as simple as getting up and leaving, it requires a lot of planning ahead to do so but it is also important to have as much information and support. It is hard to take that step but in the long term, it will be the right step to take.
And finally, for those who perceive these women as weak and cowardice, what would be your advice to them?
I would say to be extremely grateful that you are not in that situation and also to not judge these women. The best thing that others could do is to support and listen to these women. Nine times out of ten, they need to tell someone but it is hard to do so. It is important in society generally to talk more about these issues. If you could start up a conversation and say “I heard about this in the news, what do you think about it?”, it would be great. Half of it is about creating a conversation and once there is some support felt, hopefully it will become an issue addressed much more easily in the future.
Throughout our discussion, it was difficult to hold back feelings of moral authority and the desire to express my contempt towards Dora’s inaction in the course of her relationship. I later realized that this internal response is one of the reasons why individuals do not want to share their story, they fear the negative reactions of others. Although some details remain ambiguous and untold, we can appreciate the courage it has taken Dora to acknowledge and discuss her recent experiences and that the story she shares with us is a step forward for herself and for other women.
Dora was fortunate enough to find the will and the resources she needed to be able to leave her relationship. She also reminds us that it is not a dead end road for women. We can begin to help them by taking their stories into the public sphere. By listening to these women and creating a platform for them to speak, we can start to tackle the issue more openly in society.