What do you do when the person you considered the love of your life turns out to be physically, verbally and financially abusive?
This was the reality for Australian mum-of-two Clarissa*, who has chosen to share her harrowing story to raise awareness of just how devastating domestic violence can be.
A better life
Clarissa emigrated to Australia from Europe as an 18-year-old with the dream of making a better life for herself. Just three years later, having settled in a beachside town, she says she serendipitously ran into her future husband standing outside her local hotel.
"I'd just walked out the doors of my local bar and there he was, this tall, good-looking Aussie guy," she says.
"Perhaps it was love at first sight, I don't know, but from the start he made me feel very special. He told me I was his soulmate and bought me expensive jewellery. I thought he was great."
Clarissa says their relationship got serious very quickly and within 18 months he'd whisked her away on holiday to propose marriage and present her with an exquisite diamond engagement ring.
"Of course I said yes!" she says. "When he decided to get married that was it, we got married right away. We had our wedding on the beach, with all our family and friends there to witness it."
Clarissa says they planned to have a baby straight after their wedding. "He wanted me get pregnant because he was 14 years older than me and he said he didn't want to be an old dad," she says. "I loved him so I said okay and I got pregnant straight away.
"I was very young and immature. I didn't know what I was doing."
The warning signs
"I should've seen the warning signs," she says. "We could be pretty volatile and we argued a lot. I can be fiery, sure, but he's got this terrible temper and when we had a fight he'd always swear at me and call me all kinds of disgusting names, like a c**t, f***ing bitch, wh**re."
"People say, well, she's reactive, so it's kinda like I deserve it. But I'm just trying to stick up for myself. What are you supposed to do, sit there and let someone degrade you like that?"
And then there was her ex-husband's drug habit. "You know, there was a third person in our marriage the whole time - drugs," she says.
"Before we had children, we used to go out all the time together, drinking and partying. But after I fell pregnant, that was it for me. He still went out and kept partying while I stayed at home because, well, I was pregnant or caring for kids and I didn't want to do any of that anymore."
Once their daughter was born, Clarissa says things seemed to go from bad to worse. "A woman grows up when she gets pregnant, but for some men that doesn't happen and so we started to grow apart," she says.
"He wanted to be a dad but without any of the work that goes into it."
A family falls apart
Clarissa says a business failure saw her ex-husband's drug use and violence escalate. She began to suspect he was dealing drugs but couldn't prove it, and was feeling increasingly isolated at home with a baby and another one the way.
"Baby number two came along 18 months later and really, all I can recall of that time is a blur of toxic, shitty marriage," she says. "He had absolutely no respect for me and continually abused and threatened me in front of our children."
She tried to talk to her in-laws about her ex-husband's behaviour and drug use but they dismissed her claims out of hand and offered no support.
"I used to go to his parents and tell them he's partying all night and coming home and threatening me. They were like, 'you just need to be a better wife'," she says.
"My family are all in Europe, so my in-laws were my only support network. And despite me wanting only what's was best for their grandkids, these people have gone out of their way to make me feel like it was all my fault and that their son was not at fault in any way.
"I wasn't working, I had two small children, no money and nowhere else to go. I felt so trapped. What else could I do?"
The catalyst and escape
Despite calling the police on numerous occasions, it was her ex throwing her against the living room wall in front of their young daughter, that spurred Clarissa to take out an anti-violence order against him.
It all came to a head one evening when Clarissa threatened to contact the police after witnessing his drug use in the house. As a result, her ex threatened her and the children and they were forced to flee.
Since then, there have been endless court orders and appearances about parental visitation rights, ongoing legal disputes and an endless barrage of ongoing financial abuse perpetrated by her ex husband.
Despite the extreme trauma and difficulty she and her children have experienced, and the significant legal debts she's accumulated as a result of her escape, Clarissa remains positive.
She says she feels empowered to have removed herself and her kids from a toxic situation and is now 100 per cent focused on creating a better life for them all.
"These days I work hard at my job to pay the bills, the school fees, to put food in my children's mouths and ensure they have everything they need," she says.
"While he's drinking in the pub all day, I'm raising our children, doing homework, going to the park to feed the ducks, all the things they need a parent to do for them. I don't drink or do drugs and all I want is to protect my children from all that crap."
Clarissa says her daughter now suffers from serious anxiety as a result of the domestic violence she has witnessed throughout her young life. "Now I must do everything in my power to repair the damage that's been done to her," she says.
"You know, I would've done anything to fix my marriage, to keep it together, but I just couldn't fix something that's that broken, no matter how hard I tried."
Where to get help:
If it is an emergency and you or someone you know is at risk, call 111.
• Women's Refuge: 0800 733 843
• Victim Support: 0800 842 846
• Lifeline: (09) 522 2999
• Family Violence Info Line: 0800 456 450