We begin our book with one woman’s story. “Allison” is not this woman’s real name, but her experiences are real. We hope that you will see aspects of your own life reflected in hers. At the same time, we know that every woman is unique, and parts of Allison’s story will not be familiar to you. We also know that the choices Allison made may not be your choices. Every woman finds her own solutions; these are Allison’s solutions, and this is her story.
I met Paul on an airplane flight. We struck up a conversation, and he said, “Why don’t we get together for dinner and a movie?” meaning that we should move to the centre of the plane for the meal and film. It was unusual for men to pay attention to me, so when Paul did, I found it very flattering. I thought to myself, “Here’s this handsome charming man talking to me. This is quite wonderful.”
We talked for a long time on the plane, and I really enjoyed myself, but I also thought that after the flight we’d just go our separate ways. To my surprise, as the plane landed, he asked if we could get together the following evening. We went out for dinner and a play. That night I stayed over at his hotel, which was very romantic. It all seemed so exciting. Looking back, I realize that it happened so quickly I didn’t have time to think it through.
We started dating. He called me all of the time and gave me small gifts and cards. No other man had ever treated me so nicely, and I felt swept off my feet. After a few months, I got a strange call from him in the middle of the night. He was drunk and pressuring me about something, and he just wouldn’t let it go. This was my first indication that there was a problem. Still, it seemed to be an isolated event; I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
We did lots of fun things together, but I always had an anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. When I expressed doubts about the relationship, Paul reassured me by saying, “Don’t worry, my job is to win you over.”
Paul put a lot of pressure on me to live with him, and he also asked me to marry him early on. It was very confusing—he seemed so committed, but at the same time I didn’t like feeling pressured to move things along quickly. He said he wanted to have children with me. This appealed to me as I was 29, I really wanted kids, and it seemed to be the right time in my life for a family.
While we were dating, things seemed to be working out, but I often felt frustrated. Paul never quite understood me; even when I explained things very carefully, he would misinterpret me. He would get angry and insist I had said things I knew I hadn’t. This would make me question my competence, my sanity. I put so much effort into communicating, and he never did. It was exhausting.
One night while I was driving us to a friend’s party, we began arguing, and he hit me on the leg. I stopped the car, and he started screaming. I was really frightened. At other times during our relationship he would slap or hit me, and sometimes I would hit back. No one had ever hit me before, and I had certainly never hit anyone either.
I became clinically depressed and went to see my doctor about antidepressants. My doctor asked, “Are you sure you aren’t just depressed about your relationship?” I said my relationship was good, but looking back on it I see that a lot of my depression was related to Paul.
Around this time, Paul and I also started to see a counselor. When I revealed that Paul had hit me, the counselor said he wouldn’t work with couples if there was any violence. He told me that I had to stop pushing Paul’s buttons and that Paul had to stop hitting me. (Paul still refers to this counselor’s advice many years later by suggesting that our relationship problems were all about me “pushing his buttons.”) Because the counselor was a professional, I wanted to take his advice even though it didn’t feel right to me.
I wanted to buy a place of my own, but we just sort of ended up looking for a place to live in together. I had doubts about buying a home with Paul, but the day the deal went through, I found out I was pregnant. Getting pregnant wasn’t unexpected, and we were both pleased. It became very hard to say no to all of this—a new home, a baby, a partner. I figured I just hadn’t pushed myself hard enough in other relationships. I thought, “These are my insecurities, and I just need to work through this.”
Once we got into our own place, the fights escalated. One night during a disagreement, Paul started smashing a crystal tumbler against my head repeatedly. It was the first time he’d really hurt me. I probably needed stitches, but I didn’t go to the hospital. I was fifteen weeks pregnant and felt emotionally and physically vulnerable. I didn’t tell anyone because I knew others would want me to leave, and I knew I wasn’t going to. Now that I was pregnant, I thought, “I need to make this work.”
When Alex was born, Paul was more supportive during labour than I’d ever hoped, but the next night he called me at the hospital very late. He screamed at me for talking so much to the midwife during the delivery and “flirting” with the doctor. His ranting was awful, but at the same time he did some very nice things, and I was very confused.
Once we got home with the baby, it was all up to me. Paul never dressed, bathed, fed, or changed Alex. I had just assumed that Paul and I were in this together and was disappointed at his self-centredness.
Even at this point, we still had lots of fun together, but it was always interspersed with bad times. We liked to go out to nice restaurants, but there was always tension because I never knew what would set him off.
I finally got some information about a support group for women who have been abused. At first I was hesitant, but hearing other women’s stories was so powerful. I immediately felt that this was a group of women who understood me and all of the crazy stuff that was going on with Paul.
Paul was less physically abusive after the baby was born, but he was much more emotionally and financially abusive. This was confusing because, in some ways, it seemed that things were better, but I actually felt more controlled and intimidated. I see now that Paul just got smarter about his abuse. He appeared to be managing his anger by not hitting me, but he used his anger to be abusive in other ways. It was hard for me to consider leaving when I didn’t feel physically at risk. It has taken a long time for me to figure out what’s normal arguing and what’s abuse.
Because I could be nasty sometimes, I thought I was at fault. I often felt that Paul’s abuse was justified. Sometimes I would blame myself because I felt I had started things. I thought these were arguments, but they were really about Paul staying in control.
A lot of things kept me from leaving the relationship. I thought I was a failure if I couldn’t make it work, and I really wanted a family for Alex and me. I loved my little home and didn’t want to leave it, and anytime I suggested I might leave, Paul threatened me. He also told me that he would want joint custody, and I really didn’t want that for Alex.
We did eventually separate, but Paul made that very difficult too. He fought me on custody, access and support payments.
Once I got some distance from Paul, his abuse continued, but it didn’t affect me nearly as much. The ongoing support of my women’s group, family and friends was crucial.
Some of the decisions that I had to make were really hard, and I never had any guarantees that things would work out. But our lives are so much better and happier now, despite Paul’s ongoing attempts to undermine and control us. Alex and I are happy in our own little home and neighbourhood; the two of us are a family. Not all women need to leave their relationship to feel safe, but I did.