The women represented in advertising campaigns for domestic violence prevention are usually portrayed as young, inexperienced women, or young stay-at-home mothers, trapped by circumstance. Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel, Big Little Lies, attempted to highlight that domestic violence does not discriminate by socio-economic status. Set in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Big Little Lies catalogues the physical and emotional abuse of Celeste, a wealthy stay-at-home-mother, by her banker husband, Perry. But never have I seen a domestic violence campaign where the victim is wearing a sharp suit and killer heels. Yet, I know, both from lived experience and from confidential disclosures from more than one of my colleagues, that domestic violence and coercive control affects all women, including high-earning, professional women who would never put up with the treatment they receive behind closed doors in their professional life and who, once they make the decision to end such a relationship, are financially able and capable of protecting themselves and their children.
So, how does a highly-educated, financially independent, professional woman find herself in an abusive relationship, and (the question that is always asked of any victim of domestic violence), why doesn’t she leave?
The answer to the first question is the same for a professional woman as for any woman. I didn’t marry the man I finally told to leave, or at least when I did, I didn’t think I was. Ours was a whirlwind romance. A proposal less than five months after we met and married four months later. I was a single mum with two very small boys, and I was swept off my feet by a charismatic, charming, romantic man who repeatedly told me I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He told me that he was proud of my career and would take care of me and my two little boys like they were his own. He was nearly six years older than me at 42, never previously married or partnered and had no children of his own. That didn’t raise any flags for me, as I now know it should have; it seemed simpler, no baggage or blended family to contend with and I believed he would love me and my boys forever. My wedding day was one of the happiest of my life. Believing I was not able to have more children didn’t worry him at all, and then we were stunned and overjoyed to find out I had gotten pregnant on our honeymoon. I thought life was too good to be true. It turns out it was.
Throughout my pregnancy, there was a lot for my two little boys to grapple with. One was in kinder, the other had just started school. There was a new house, a new step-dad, and a new baby on the way. We were just finding our way as a family and it was changing before they even adjusted. They, like most little kids, weren’t always perfectly behaved. On the first occasion I saw my new husband smack the two boys hard on their bottoms for running across a road, I was heavily pregnant and shocked. I made it completely plain that I did not agree with smacking or any physical discipline. I recall now him saying that he didn’t think a smack now and then could hurt (and “it never did me any damage”), but was reassured that he said he accepted my views and I was sure he would not do it again. That was a promise made and broken more times than I like to remember.
The boiling frog is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. From hours after my third baby arrived, I was that frog.
As I sat in tears in a wheelchair on the way to the neonatal intensive care unit hours after my baby was born, my then husband told me “I don’t give a f*** how you feel right now, all I care about is my baby”. I of course pushed that aside, I said to myself that he was beside himself with worry, he was not himself.
Needless to say, it did not stop. The psychological torment of me – vile, name calling, negative comments about my work and career, my clothes, my appearance, extreme financial control, and verbal attacks in front of the children that left me in tears – got worse. If that’s where the abuse had ended, directed only to me, I doubt this frog would ever have jumped out of the pot. I would have continued with my misguided view that watching the abuse of me didn’t harm my kids. Like most women who spend their lives walking on eggshells, I blamed myself for saying the wrong thing, not being home from work early enough, arriving home from work tired and stressed, for being “too materialistic”. In my mind, a few of my tears were not enough to tear a family apart. I wish it did, but the abuse didn’t end there, it escalated.
I was back at work six weeks after the birth of my third child because his business failed. I was now the sole financial provider for the family. Looking back, I realise that this was devastating for a man raised in a wealthy, extremely gender-stereotyped family. His mother ceased working as a nurse from the day she was married. Neither his sister, nor sister-in-law nor any of his friends’ wives worked until their children went to school (and then only part-time). Yet his wife was not just pursuing a full-time career, she was now supporting the family. I now know from my older boys that this is when the physical abuse of them, particularly my eldest, became more regular.
By the time I had a 15-month old, a six year old and nine year old, I could see things getting worse, and was wondering how to keep things together. And then, suddenly I found I was pregnant again.
Bringing my fourth baby into the world is one of my best life decisions, but he arrived premature, small and sickly; allergic to everything and not sleeping through the night for nearly two years. The first three years of his life is a blur. I was still financially supporting the family and worked full-time on roughly four hours sleep a night for two years. I don’t recall all of that time, the older boys remember more than me, but as the blur of those exhausted years faded the need for things to end became clear. His abuse of me did not abate and the emotional and physical abuse of my eldest escalated.
Throughout our marriage I was told by my ex-husband that my eldest child was the problem, a sentiment echoed by my parents-in-law. It made me ignore what I knew to be the truth, to stop trusting my instincts. My ex-husband was the problem. Not long before I finally made my ex-husband leave, I visited his mother, explained the problems, the violence at home and abuse of me, and begged her to help me convince him to attend a men’s behavioural change program. I thought I had a sympathetic ear over that cup of tea. Weeks later she arrived at our house to tell us that she had a proposal that would “fix our problem”. She proudly announced she had enrolled my eldest at a private boarding school as a “term boarder”, coming home only in the school holidays. It was then I knew that my ex-husband’s conservative, wealthy, upper-middleclass family would never accept he had a problem – it was simply too embarrassing for them to accept.
Both my ex-husband’s and his family’s minimisation of his abuse has continued since I finally refused to let him return home from work one day. Days after that decision I was contacted by DHHS about the final of four reports made to it about him that year, which was also referred to the police. A family violence safety notice was issued by the police and he was arrested and questioned under caution. A police family violence intervention order was put in place. Yet the minimisation and the enabling support of his family means he still blames me for our “marriage collapsing”, does not accept his abuse has damaged the children and sends me text messages saying, “You know as well as l do that l was an involved, committed and loving dad.”
So why didn’t I leave earlier, or throw him out sooner?
Because every day was not filled with the horror above. After each episode, there would be sincere apologies, remorse, love-bombing, promises, tenderness and care. A period of calm would follow, where again I believed I was living the best possible life. Then, again, the tension would build until a new incident followed. At the start of our marriage, the period of calm would be many months. By the final year, the period of calm was weeks, then less, until it was intolerable. That is the cycle of abuse.
Also, like so many women, for me his abuse started my endless cause to fix things. Visits with and without him to psychologists, psychiatrists, a social worker, all to try and get him to change, to fix it. I still now sometimes wake from dreams where we are living together, a happy, normal family because he “got it” and changed. There was also fear of Family Court proceedings and the boys being forced to spend time with him without me or the nanny being able to supervise or moderate his behaviour. Fear of how he would react and whether his violence would escalate when our marriage ended. Fear of managing to financially support and care for four boys all on my own whilst continuing a stressful career. For the most part though, it was shame. Shame that, as he constantly told me, I had failed at my first marriage and I was a failure again. Shame that I was allowing him to hurt my kids and me. Shame of telling anyone what was happening behind closed doors.
I am no longer ashamed. Rationally I know I am not responsible for his behaviour, but I do carry an enormous burden of guilt for what living with domestic violence has done to my children. Apart from my baby, who was five when I finally made him leave (and seems to be well-adjusted) the other three have all had ongoing mental health issues consistent with a post-traumatic stress reaction to the domestic violence they saw and were subject to. Thankfully I have the resources to get them help. That they don’t blame me is extraordinary to me. Instead, they are hyper-protective of me, each other and their friends and determined to grow into good men and wonderful dads.
As I watch them grow, I have no doubt that the world will have four more good men in it and that fills me with hope and lifts some of my guilt.
So why would a professional woman have chosen to bare her soul in this article? It is to remind you that domestic violence does not discriminate. If you see a colleague’s husband or partner make a joke at her expense in front of her colleagues at a professional function, or behave poorly at her work function so as to undermine her career, or even just notice a colleague who comes to work far too often looking like she has cried all the way to work, please don’t hesitate to ask if she is ok. She, like me, might just be hoping someone will see through the charade when she is too ashamed to tell her family and friends what she is going through.