It doesn't take a punch to hurt

Four years ago today, Sophie Elliott was brutally murdered by her boyfriend, Clayton Weatherston. Today, as part of the White Ribbon campaign against domestic violence, her mother, Lesley Elliot, offers her tips to save other young girls from a similar fate. Don't just look for signs of violence, she warns. As she learned to her cost, relationship abuse is all about manipulation and control

Lesley Elliott wants to help girls recognise signs of psychological abuse before someone else suffers like her daughter Sophie did at the hands of Clayton Weatherston. Photo / APN
Lesley Elliott wants to help girls recognise signs of psychological abuse before someone else suffers like her daughter Sophie did at the hands of Clayton Weatherston. Photo / APN

When Sophie was first assaulted by the man who eventually killed her, their relationship had been over for some time. In a way, I wish he had hit her earlier because she would have been out of there so fast. Of that I have no doubt and, consequently, Sophie would be alive today.

I've travelled all over New Zealand these past two years giving my presentation in schools and at community meetings. My talk is entitled "Sophie's Story - What WE missed", because it's what I missed as well. I talk about Sophie's five-month on-again/off-again relationship with Clayton Weatherston. I do this because I don't want to see other people in the position I'm in. In Sophie's case there was no physical violence until near the end. It was all psychological and that, I believe, is something we as a society have not adequately dealt with. Sophie was intelligent and I like to think I'm reasonably astute. So how did it happen without us becoming alert to the signs?

Women tell me that bruises, black eyes and broken bones heal. It's what gets inside their heads that is harder to deal with.

And I've seen it first-hand. I watched Sophie, a remarkably confident young woman, become an emotional girl lacking in self-esteem only weeks after she started dating Weatherston. I believe his behaviour, rather than warning her off, confused her. She would say, "he's doing my head in", and I used to reply, "he's doing mine in, too", because I couldn't rationalise it. I'd not struck this before so how could I, or Sophie for that matter, recognise this as classic abuse?

How can this happen? How can we recognise the signs? From what I've discovered as I campaign to help young people become aware of what I missed, I have learned one thing. That the non-violent aspect of relationship abuse is insidious and can easily lead to more serious repercussions.

I would implore young women in a dating situation to look for answers if they feel a relationship doesn't feel right. Talk with friends or, more especially, an older person you can confide in. There is plenty of information available on the internet, including the Sophie Elliott Foundation.

So what are some of the signs of non-physical abuse that I missed in Sophie's relationship?

It's almost like there is a textbook for abusers to go by. Humiliation by name-calling is the most obvious. Fat, ugly, stupid, slut, are the common ones and almost every abuse website contains those same words. Sophie wasn't fat and, even though I might be biased, she wasn't ugly and she certainly wasn't stupid. But the sad thing was, Sophie believed him. She would often say, "if I lost a bit of weight he'd like me more". That seems incredible to me now. Why should a person change because their partner wants them to? What's wrong with being attracted to someone as they are? No need to change. Also there is often constant criticism. Hurtful put-downs quickly erode self-esteem and self-worth.

Alienation is soul-destroying. The abuser will exert control by alienating the partner from friends and family and by making decisions on where you go and who you go with. Hand-in-hand with that is communication, texting in particular. It seems that abusers are insane texters. They want to know where you are, who you are with, what you are wearing, where you are going. Control over your life is a classic sign and it can be suffocating.

Possessiveness is easier to detect. The abuser will often accuse the other of cheating on them, determining what friends you can have and tell you how to think, dress and act. A woman - or man, for that matter - shouldn't be treated like property. If your partner makes all the decisions, then controls who you see, alarm bells should begin to ring.

Threats are common, usually along the lines of if you don't do something they will either leave you or commit suicide. If they threaten to harm you, however, or more particularly, if they threaten to kill, then take it seriously - very seriously.

My advice is never accept intimidation where a partner screams and yells insults or abuse. Don't accept being talked down to. When possessions, especially ones important to you are smashed, it's not physical violence as such, but it's frightening and intimidating. It's not acceptable.

A friend of mine who sometimes presents alongside me talks of young women being made to feel worthless. Does that mean being made to feel worth less than him? I believe any healthy relationship should contain a good dose of respect for each other.

I am a firm believer in the White Ribbon campaign. It's all about guys supporting guys. From a woman's point of view, when I think about the level of violence in our society, I wonder, why? Why the selfishness? Why the anger? I say to men - think about life. We only get one shot at it and there are too many good things out there for everyone. The good life is there for us all to enjoy and it doesn't cost anything. If things are beyond you, get help to make your life better. The alternative just brings misery on those you supposedly love.

Take Weatherston as an example. What did he get out of killing Sophie? Nothing - except untold grief for his family and mine. What does he get? - a life now totally ruined. He's behind bars - what joy is there in that? Was getting rid of Sophie worth it? He will forever be labelled a murderer and vilified by everyone. He loved sport but now all he will ever get to see of it is on a television set. He was sociable and liked drinking, dancing, partying and girls. Now he lives in a small cell, forever fearful for his life from other prisoners. He had a career and could have gone places. Now he has no future without conditions.

My message to men is simple. I say support each other and don't stand by and let violence pervade our families. If you are being abusive to your girlfriend or partner, take time out to think about what you are doing. Ask yourself, "does it make me happy to hurt the ones I care about, or would I feel better treating them with love and respect?"

To women, I often use a quote from Michelle Obama when she spoke at a girls' school in Oxford, England: "Reach for partners that make you better. Do not bring people into your life that weigh you down. Trust your instincts. Good relationships feel good, they feel right. They don't hurt - they're not painful."

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 19 Dec 2014 10:10:32 Processing Time: 538ms