Caroline West-Meads: How can I leave my abusive partner?

Ask caroline

Q. I started my first relationship when I was 16 – my mum couldn’t wait to see the back of me. She was physically and mentally abusive. By 17, I was living with my abuser. He controlled everything, even my job. He drove my friends away and if I dared to go out, when I got back my belongings would be packed. I’m now 32 and three years ago I met a man online who promised the world. After a few months I left my ex. But this man is worse. I found out he had been in jail for sexual assault. My life has become a nightmare – he doesn’t want me to work. I adopted a cat but he has smacked her and repeatedly shouts at her. The past year has been perfect for him because he is at home all the time. He stands over me when I cook, clean or order online shopping. He calls me names, swears at me and criticises everything I do. I’m not even allowed to shut the bathroom door. He checks my phone and I can only use it when he has drunk himself unconscious. I’m desperate to leave but have no money and nowhere to go. I can’t go to a refuge because they don’t allow pets and I can’t be without my cat. I’m at breaking point. I’m beginning to think it must be me.

A. This is very distressing for you and, ultimately, I hope you will be able to find a way to leave this violent man. I must stress that it absolutely isn’t you or your fault in any way. Tragically, you have never known what it is to feel safe and loved. So you may feel as though you somehow deserve to be treated this way as your confidence and self-esteem have been eroded to nothing – but you don’t. His behaviour is deeply abusive, coercive and illegal. I know many readers will think ‘Why doesn’t she just go?’ – and indeed, I hope you will in time. However, domestic abuse charity Refuge (refuge.org.uk) points out that leaving an abusive and controlling partner is very complex as it can be dangerous if your abuser knows this is what you are planning. So you need a great deal of support. Please contact Refuge’s Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit nationaldahelpline.org.uk (access live chat Mon-Fri, 3pm-10pm). They will support and help you whatever you decide to do. Regarding your worries about your cat, I totally understand how important she is to you. If your partner is violent towards your cat, it is possible that he may turn violent towards you and he could seriously hurt you or your much-loved pet. Refuge has links with animal charities which offer pet fostering services specifically for women fleeing from domestic violence. So your cat could find a temporary home and, once you are safe, you can be reunited. Seeking help is the first step to safety and the much better life that you deserve, so I urge you strongly to do this.

I feel as though I’m second best

Q. My husband was deeply in love with another woman before we met. But he wanted children and she didn’t – so she left. We’ve been married for ten years, have two children and – I thought – a happy marriage. But recently he discovered his ex has married and had a baby. I overheard him telling a friend how angry he was, saying she lied to him, and not wanting children was obviously an excuse and she hadn’t loved him. He was really upset. When he came off the phone, he went for a walk and was really quiet for a few days. Since then, everything seems normal, but I’m devastated. I now feel as though I’ve always been second best and he has never stopped loving his ex. He’s not aware that I know about it.

A. I can understand how painful this must be for you. It is akin to the problems which sometimes arise when people marry widows or widowers and then feel that they can never compare to the deceased partner, who is often placed on a pedestal. To reassure you slightly, it may be that for your husband it has simply brought back all the pain of many years ago – the break-up must have hurt him deeply and he could be reliving that. He may need a little time to process it. I expect that wounded pride plays a part, too. It doesn’t mean that he is not just as much in love with you. You do, though, need to have a conversation with him. It won’t be easy, and I’m sure that you are avoiding it because you fear being hurt. But you need to tell him what you heard and ask him what this means for you both. Contact relate.org.uk for counselling if you find that the marriage needs a little TLC.