Tracey Barnett

Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Recognising signs of abuse first step to breaking free

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

I won't ask this often. If, after reading this, you recognise a friend, a colleague, or a classmate, cut this article out from the newspaper. If you feel you can't talk about it, put it in their coat pocket, on their desk, or maybe in a book they're reading.

It might just be the right beginning. Just like the two sets of girls who shyly approached Leslie Elliott, the mother of murder victim Sophie Elliott, and Lynda Kearns, an Auckland Family Law Barrister who has seen two decades of domestic violence cases. As the auditorium emptied after their presentation to senior college girls, a few students lingered, waiting to go up to the speakers to talk quietly.

"Does that happen often?" I asked afterwards. It does. The girls were worried about a friend. They recognised some of the warning signs of abuse from the presentation.

Leslie Elliott has needed "a lot of therapy" to live with the signs she feels she missed. They were all there. When she found them on a website (www.womensrefuge.org.nz) three months after her daughter's murder, she cried for half an hour.

It had taken just five months to turn her bright, confident daughter into someone who thought she was going crazy.

Amazingly, by age 21, 48 per cent of these young women may experience physical abuse by a live-in partner, 21 per cent for those dating, according to a long-running 1999 University of Otago study. Barrister Lynda Kearns doesn't want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff anymore. She feels passionately this kind of presentation should be in the school curriculum.

She's seen cases where it was only the sound of a woman's arm snapping as her partner ground her face into concrete that saved the woman's life. He was a high-powered businessman. Clayton Weatherston was a research fellow with a PhD. This isn't poverty talking. It's us not talking.

So, see if you recognise someone you know, man or woman, though I will frame this for young, dating women here:

It usually starts with control, often in the excitement of first falling for each other. You might not think of it as control, but you do know he is exacting about some things, maybe returning his texts immediately, cleanliness, or picking him up on time.

You do notice his jealousy. At first it feels like an affirmation of his passion for you, but soon that intensity turns into possessiveness.

Initially, the jealousy might be about another man, but it changes. It starts to get directed toward your best friend, time spent with your sister, or even work.

He begins to use phrases that may feel like lose-lose entitlements, "if you like/loved me, you would ...", "You're lucky to be with me because [of some deficiency of yours]".

Like remote control, he stops asking and begins to order, "Pick me up. Get this for me."

You find yourself having to choose between others and him. You may not see it, but friends or family notice you're getting more isolated from them to keep him happy.

How you look becomes an issue. He wants you to change how you dress, your hair, your weight. You feel his disrespect, argue back, and the seesaw of his intense anger, forgiveness and renewed devotion begins.

Lynda Kearns says the three most common shaming words she hears from clients in the first stages of verbal abuse are "bitch", "slut" and "whore". Words you know don't apply to you, until he follows it with three others your plummeting self-esteem may now begin to believe, "ugly", "fat" and "worthless". There may be sexual pressure, or worse. Lynda reminds young women, "The only person who can decide when you are ready to have sex is you. It must have three elements, or it is wrong: 1. It must be consensual, 2. It must be mutually pleasurable, and 3. It must be safe." He crosses the line and you forgive him - again.

Leslie and Lynda say there is one specific phrase those in a newly abusive relationship most often feel; "You are going mad".

You lose confidence and begin to doubt yourself. It's your fault. If only others knew his problems. After the first time he raises his hand to hit you, you try to focus on the intensely loving moments. The next time, all he has to do is raise an eyebrow, Lynda Kearns says. The most dangerous time will be when you leave.

If this sounds like your mirror, go back to a loved one you trust. Ask them to help you get enough clarity to find help together. Hold on to one thing; you are not crazy, but staying in a relationship that diminishes you is.

Read more on www.womensrefuge.org.nz. Lynda Kearns can be contacted to do an Auckland high school presentation at ljkearns@xtra.co.nz; www.traceybarnett.co.nz or Twitter @ TraceyBarnett

- NZ Herald

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