By WENDY SQUIRES.
As soon as I saw the number come up on my phone I knew. It was a girlfriend I hadn’t seen or heard from in months.
The last time I had spoken to her she was head over heels in love. He was the one. She knew it the minute she met him. They had so much in common, it was like they had known each other forever.
It had only been a few weeks but she was going to move in with him. She knew what everyone was thinking – but she was determined to follow her heart. And so she did, floating off in her love bubble and out of sight of those who loved her.
I hesitated answering the call because I knew it would no doubt be a long and tear-filled one. How? Because I had been there before with other friends. What’s more, I had been there myself. It’s what you do when you emerge from a toxic relationship. You go in search of your old life.
I had heard through the grapevine my friend had been through a shocker break-up after months of abuse and was reeling with shock and depressed as a result. Another friend told me to expect her call and to be gentle, not that I needed the advice.
I still remember so clearly making those first calls after my emotionally abusive relationship ended, reaching out to the friends I had ostracised in order to make him sole axis of my existence, as he demanded. I remember cringing thinking of the “I told you so” comments I so deserved but had stoically ignored in order to follow my heart. Luckily they didn’t come because, like me, most of my friends had been there before, too.
The harsh reality is that domestic violence is at epidemic levels in Australian society, posing the greatest threat of serious injury or death for women aged between 15 and 44. A partner or ex-partner abuses one in three women in their lifetime, and one woman a week is killed.
These statistics do not take into account severe emotional abuse, which, as any woman who has opened her heart then her eyes too late will attest, is rife and devastating. So, when you add up all the stats, the chance you or someone close to you will suffer abuse is pretty well a given.
When I came out of my love fog and back to reality and saw my toxic relationship for what it was many years ago, I discovered the book But He Says He Loves Me: how to avoid being trapped in a manipulative relationship that explained much I still didn’t understand.
Witten by multi-degree holding social psychologist and long-time expert in the field of domestic violence, Dr Dina McMillan, I suddenly saw how I fell in to the trap in the first place, why I stayed when I should have known better and how vital it was I escaped.
The book was so insightful I contacted its author, a sincere sister resolute on helping others. Together Dina McMillan and I worked on a lot of stories trying to educate women about the warning signs and ways to leave abusive relationships, both physical and mental. We naively thought we were making real inroads.
But we hadn’t. In the years since, the domestic violence and abuse problems have only got worse, which is why Dina McMillan is now concentrating on prevention – uncovering common facts about abusers that every woman should be aware of before submitting to love – which she wants to release as part of a national awareness strategy.
There is a modus operandi, she has discovered, such as that abusers work fast, sweeping women off their feet. Their methods are effective, evidenced by the huge numbers if women who enter and remain in abusive relationships. But most of importantly, there is substantial uniformity to abusers’ actions women can learn from.
She stresses there are safety tips women should follow before allowing the compliments, pheromones and romance tactics of abusers to shadow good sense. As such she advises all women embarking on a relationship to consider the following:
1: Acknowledge your risk. Anyone can be abused, regardless of the happiness of your childhood or your current economic standing. Abuse also happens within all nationalities and ethnic groups.
2: Don’t trust strangers. Until you’ve known someone for a while and in a variety of situations, he (or she) is still a stranger. Keep some things private and don’t make plans for a future together.
3: Don’t mistake desire for love. Thinking a guy is hot is not the same as being in love with him.
4: Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t buy into false flattery and unwarranted praise because of your ego.
5; Keep realistic feet on the ground. It’s not romantic to want to commit to a relationship with immediately. This should sound alarm bells, not wedding bells.
6: Be bigger than gestures. Anyone can buy flowers and candy and gifts. Don’t take it as a sign that someone is really into you. Real romance requires genuine emotion. Genuine emotion requires time, knowledge and true intimacy.
7: Keep your family and friends around – and listen to them. Don’t allow your new romantic interest to talk you into spending all of your time with him. Don’t allow him to plant ideas in your head that will turn you against your loved ones. Abusers need isolation to operate. Don’t give it to them.
8: If a guy seems too good to be true, he probably is. Cinderella only exists in fairy tales. Don’t be so quick to date someone who has every advantage over you. This dynamic gives him all the power to decide everything about your lives together.
After I spoke to my girlfriend on the phone that day – well, listened to her all too familiar sobbing more like it – I sent her Dina’s McMillan’s book (available through Allen & Unwin) as it said more than I ever could.
I was aware her healing process would be a long one, as getting over my own abusive relationship hasn’t been easy. Any day now I hope I will be fully recovered but I doubt it. The legacy is deep and potent still, so many years on. To think I allowed it to happen in the first place is frightening. To think of how many still do, absolutely terrifying.
You can contact Dr Dina McMillan on [email protected]
Wendy Squires has been a journalist for more than 20 years, starting work at News Ltd as a cadet journalist before moving to New York where she worked, lived and wrote for several years. Upon her return she edited CLEO and Australian Style magazines as well as holding senior positions on Elle, Mode, Who Weekly, Madison, Woman’s Day and the Australian Women’s Weekly. She released her first novel, The Boys’ Club, based on her brief experience working as a network television publicist in 2010, and is working on another. In 2011 she moved to Melbourne where she now writes a regular opinion column for The Age and freelances for numerous publications.
If you or anyone you know is suffering abuse, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Experienced counsellors are available 24 hours a day.