My story begins in 1983, I was 27 years old, and this was my third “serious” relationship with a woman. I met her through a friend and she was a real charmer. I was chronically depressed and suffered very poor self-esteem but I didn’t realise that at the time – I just blamed myself for “being so useless”.
I was completing a one-year course, working in crappy jobs to support myself and partying, clubbing and taking speed.
My experience is not extreme compared to many other people’s, it didn’t go on for very long but I didn’t recognise the warning signs.
I had enrolled at University, which was a huge step for me. I felt like I had messed up my life and was now struggling to “do something” with it.
I think the first signs that something wasn’t right with our relationship was that my partner really resented me going to University. She was from a working class background, with an abusive father and abusive brothers. She had a lot of bravado and a butch demeanour. She continuously came into the little room I had set up as a study and interrupted me, mocked my attempts to study and would put the University and me down.
A one point I became very sick. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom on my own. She refused to drive me to the doctor and said I was “exaggerating”.
We were still clubbing and doing a lot of drinking and speed. I felt I had to keep up with that scene or seem like I was dull and boring. It was a real struggle for me to keep up with working, studying and partying. Her manner became more aggressive and there were lots of angry words exchanged between us. Then one day she hit me. That was the first black eye.
There were the apologies and the “making up”. We both explained it away as a speed induced come-down drama and left it at that. I remember a friend remarked on the black eye and that she wasn’t happy about it. I got defensive and brushed off her comments. I don’t recall the two other women we lived with saying anything about it – but my memory of those times is pretty blurry.
… my feminist politics at the time meant that I shouldn’t ‘blame’ another woman for anything because we were all oppressed by ‘patriarchy’…
I didn’t go and see any support services because I didn’t think of what was happening as ‘domestic violence’. I explained it away as drugs and her abusive childhood. Part of me wanted to rescue her and it seemed very anti-feminist and wrong to blame someone for their behaviour when they had come from an abusive background.
The relationship soured and she took to partying without me and to bringing women home. One morning after she had brought another woman home I ‘lost it’. I threatened her and she lashed out and gave me my second (and last) black eye.
I think it was only the physical abuse that woke me up to the subtle control and domination that had been going on in the relationship. I tolerated the put-downs, the mocking and the emotional manipulation. When someone has poor self-esteem to start with it’s so easy to erode what little confidence she has down to zero. After that I decided that I really needed to salvage what dignity I had left. So I left. I did keep paying rent on the house for months as I felt guilty, coerced and bullied. She used to come around to collect the rent from me every week like clockwork and I dutifully handed it over. It wasn’t until months later that I found out that the rent never got paid. She stole my money and eventually did a runner from the house!
About eight or nine years later I did have another very short term (three months), rebound relationship with a woman (another charmer) who I didn’t realise was an alcoholic. With the help of a friend I identified the warning signs more quickly. There was immense pressure for me to support her drinking habit – she would start drinking at 10 or 11am and keep going until well into the night. She pressured me to do everything with her and to spend all my money on going out with her. She was jealous, coercive, manipulative, aggressive and threatening. One night, when she was extremely drunk she aggressively tried to force me to have sex with her. It was very scary. I felt really, really stupid but didn’t seek any help. I managed to extricate myself from the relationship but she continued to harass me with abusive letters for some time afterwards.
Even if I had thought I had a right at the time (of either situation) to access services I didn’t think of myself as a victim. I just felt “it’s my fault for being so stupid, so pathetic and not being able to stand up for myself”. I also think that my feminist politics at the time meant that I shouldn’t ‘blame’ another woman for anything because we were all oppressed by ‘patriarchy’ and to ‘blame’ another lesbian would be particularly ‘wrong’. I suspect in some ways this unsophisticated politics might still be around today – troubling some women and inhibiting them from seeking support or identifying the problem.
I think these situations have taught me to be hyper-vigilant for signs of manipulation and abuse in any interpersonal exchanges. They have made me fierce about my independence and overly sensitive to comments and jokes from others – especially my partner. They have also made me aware that we need a culture that supports the development of women/lesbians with a robust sense of self, a strong sense of self-respect and a sense of their right to non-coercive, non-violent relationships. We also need legal systems, health services and personnel that are well promoted and well equipped to deal with same sex domestic violence.
My advice to anyone else in a similar situation is, ‘Don’t blame yourself, that is part of the cycle of abuse and control. The other person needs to take responsibility for their own behaviour, no matter what their own circumstances are or have been. Get help and get out.”