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'My friend left an abusive relationship. Three years later, I'm still terrified of her ex.'

This article contains references to domestic abuse and may be triggering for some readers. If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). 

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My friend is a survivor of domestic violence. Yet she still lives in fear.

I feel the fear as I type this – it’s like a tingling sensation in my limbs, a queasiness in my stomach. My mind is distracted, flitting from scenario to scenario, underpinned by a general sense of unease.

By right, I have no reason to feel this fear. I’m not being threatened. My life isn’t in danger, and yet there it lurks, underneath, an instinctive response to a text message sent by a dear friend. A friend who left an abusive relationship three years ago.

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At this point, it’s important to note, these thoughts are anonymous. I don’t want to identify her. Her ex-partner is also unlikely to identify himself in this piece, having taken no ownership of his controlling behaviour, or its impact, over the years.

I choose to stay anonymous through fear. I can’t risk the repercussions for her if he were to be identified. To call out the behaviour of a man who is so warped in his own reality is to risk an escalation of his behaviour.

It isn’t lost on me that this is how the perpetrators of domestic and family violence stay in control. Because we stay silent, for fear of poking the bear, leaving the victims to try to live their life in the shadow of a ticking time bomb.

Will it be him? Will it be me, or my child, next time?

Tick, tick, tick…

My friend isn’t in immediate danger. The text was a response to a horrific family violence murder in the news. Old wounds have been unpicked, wounds I dread will never get to heal as her ex steadfastly refuses to diminish his relevance to her life, his continual manipulation always there, weaving around her like a strait-jacket she will never escape.

He hasn’t coped with the break-up – his rage always focused on the sheer audacity she had for leaving him, more than any genuine sorrow.

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If you catalogued his behaviour since, it makes for unsettling reading. He threatened to burn her clothes. He told people he barely knew she was a slut. He tried to get her dog put down. He relays tales of his loneliness to her via their young son. He keeps wearing his wedding ring. He has threatened to harm himself. He has sent hundreds of abusive emails and texts to her, criticising her behaviour, her parenting, her family, her friends.

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All because my friend chose to leave a 12-year toxic relationship she couldn’t bear to be in any more.

Like many perpetrators, this man insists he’s the ‘good guy’. He has always played the victim, the behaviour of others always at fault. To his own behaviour, he remains blind. His control was coercive and all-consuming – financial, emotional, psychological. Having never physically hit my friend, he insists she was the aggressor in the marriage. He was an accomplished gaslighter, manipulating her highly anxious state, the result of her existence of walking on eggshells, never sure why she was being punished.

Tick, tick, tick…

So three years on, the abuse continues. Regular emails, texts, all to remind her of the damage she has done to his life. A refusal to pay child support, or engage in a financial settlement, a barrage of emotionally-charged excuses always at the ready, even in defiance of court orders, believing himself to be above the law. The police are powerless to act until he threatens or carries out actual harm.

And we stay silent. We choose not to poke the bear. We fear the escalation.

Tick, tick, tick…

So to the latest drama. He is claiming he may become redundant, so he can’t pay the financial settlement. On the surface, we know it’s another excuse. He is a wealthy man, and works for himself. He could easily remortgage his home. It’s likely he has enough cash in the bank to settle immediately.

And yet.

I know exactly where my friend’s fear is coming from. A workaholic, this man is successful, his arrogance entwined in his professional status. He also acknowledges receiving solicitors letters and not opening them – continuing to ignore the reality of a separation that happened three years ago. So we question – is this yet another attempt to elicit sympathy?

Or could this be the moment he cracks?

Tick, tick, tick…

My friend is emotionally drained, his behaviour impacting her mental and physical health. She’s also frightened. It is apparent that her rights – to leave a relationship, to be free of abuse, to live a life without fear – count for nothing.

For onlookers, the sense of powerlessness is unbearable. How do we fix damaged men who cannot see they are damaged?

Heartbreakingly, looking at the prevalence of domestic violence in this country, I don’t know if we can.

As for my friend, all we can do is watch and wait. We hope her perpetrator will one day be able to move on, and – finally – leave her alone.

Because the alternative is too unbearable to think about.

Tick, tick, tick…

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.

Instances of domestic and family violence often increase in times of disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be no exception globally, with financial abuse also likely to increase. To people experiencing domestic and financial abuse, CommBank has produced a guide about the impact of the coronavirus and domestic and family violence;  with helpful information about financial abuse, pathways to support and useful suggestions about staying safe and staying connected

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