The woman seated opposite me wore her mask well. She was cheerful and confident.

I imagined passing her in the street and trading a simultaneous smile, not knowing that this woman had a story to tell.

For 18 years she had suffered domestic abuse. Yet her scars were not physical, they were mental. She carried trauma from her past and so did her four children.

Kate (not her real name) had welcomed me into her office and I remember thinking - under the circumstance of our meeting she seemed very much in control, or at least was very good at putting on a brave face.


But there was a time when Kate wasn't in control - a time when she had sunk into a hole so deep she had planned how she would take her own life and she still carries the bruises.

The mood deepens as Kate gets ready to tell her story.

"When I was 24 I found out that the love of my life, who I had been with since I was 16 and bought a house with, had been having an affair. The year prior I had just lost my mother. I was grieving for more reasons than one, and I was vulnerable."

It was at that time she met Paul (not his real name), at her best friend's wedding.

"I think he honed in on my vulnerability. He was charming and treated me like a princess... within six weeks he wanted to marry me."

She wasn't alone in thinking he was the perfect catch.

"My friends and family all thought he was lovely."

A year later the smitten couple married and things "subtly and gradually" began to change.

"He became controlling and isolated me from my friends and family."

Before getting married and having four children together, Kate was a successful career woman and after every pregnancy she was desperate to go back to work but that's not what Paul wanted.

"He would make life really difficult yelling and screaming that dinner wasn't ready or that I wasn't keeping up with my household duties.

It became easier for Kate to do what he wanted, a mindset that began to rule her life.

"I didn't have access to money, I was given a certain amount of cash each week and if it wasn't enough then that was tough luck."

Kate said he targeted their daughter because she had learning disabilities.

"He would call her a 'retard' and 'stupid' and drag her down the hallway with her hair - he was quite physical with her.

"For me it was all psychological - if I didn't do what he wanted he would threaten to kill himself... he would say 'today might be the day I kill myself, I might walk in front of truck I think'. I was made responsible for his happiness."

Kate said that she always thought if someone was in an abusive relationship why didn't they just leave... but it was not that simple.

"I didn't think I was in an abusive relationship because it felt so normalised. You are right in the middle of it.

"You can't see it and you don't know that it's happening because of the manipulation and the isolation.

"You actually begin to wonder if you are losing your mind and questioning whether this is actually happening."

She said she remembered nervously looking at the clock, wondering when he would be home from work and what mood he would be in.

"We walked on eggshells and everyone in the house would just scatter around him. He was quite an angry man and the kids were scared of him."

Then one evening he came home from work, packed his bags and said he was leaving.

"He slept on the couch with my son sleeping on the couch opposite him. He wanted to leave us all suspended for maximum effect.

"The next morning he got up and walked out the door with our four children crying and he didn't even look back."

All her children have suffered psychological damage. For six months after Paul left her youngest stopped speaking. Her daughter now suffers anxiety and her eldest wants nothing to do with his father.

Realisation didn't hit until Kate's counsellor said to her: "Are you ready to accept that you have been in an abusive relationship for 18 years?"

"I was in shock, how could I have been so stupid. I remember coming out of that meeting walking towards the traffic lights and my whole body was shaking.

"Had I known then what I knew now, I would have gone to Women's Refuge but I didn't think it was abuse. The realisation was huge."

Kate's partner has moved out of Whanganui and sees his children on rare occasions.

She now works with perpetrators of family violence to help create change in the system and make more people aware of the harm caused.

"Pushing, intimidating, unlawful imprisonment, grabbing things, shoving, harassing, restraint, but no hitting is still abuse.

"Through conversation, change will happen."


Executive officer Tim Metcalfe from Jigsaw Whanganui said psychological abuse was the most dangerous type of family violence there was because it so easily slips under the radar.

"You don't see the bruises but they are very real and hugely damaging."

Mr Metcalfe said Kate's story was so common and not taken seriously enough.

For that reason psychological and emotional abuse was a focus of this year's White Ribbon campaign against violence towards women and children.

One in three New Zealand women experience abuse from their partner in their lifetime- that includes emotional, sexual and physical violence.

In 2016 alone police attended to 2269 family violence incidents. Children were present in 52 per cent of these callouts. But charges were only laid in 21 per cent of the incidents.

Mr Metcalfe said the long lasting impacts of family violence are directly proportional to the social responses.

"If people see an act of physical violence they immediately think that's wrong and it shouldn't happen and our key institutions take very decisive actions to build safety for those people.

"But when people are subjected to emotional and psychological violence it's not actually recognised or appreciated."

The Ministry of Social Development reports that nearly 80 per cent of family violence incidents are not reported to police.

Mr Metcalfe said it was common for people subjected to psychological abuse to blame themselves and not be aware of the damage it was having.

Kate's story is a good example of that. She didn't seek help because she identified herself as suffering ongoing psychological violence and abuse; she came because she was having difficulty with her children and from there we identified abuse.

The danger when it doesn't get responded to is huge and a lot of conflict builds up within the families causing long lasting impacts.

Mr Metcalfe said there needed to be more awareness and better analysis of abuse because the bruises may be hidden.

During 2016, agencies linked with the Whanganui Family Violence Integrated Services Project (FVIS) worked with 443 families who had suffered family violence.

Saturday is White Ribbon day - a time when men are invited to stand up, speak out and act to prevent men's violence against children and women.

Where to get help:
Police: 111
Domestic Abuse Helpline: 050874463
Oranga Tamariki (Ministry of Vulnerable Children): 0508326459
Rise Stopping Violence Services: (06) 3477992
Jigsaw Whanganui: (06) 3451636
Women's Refuge: 0800 733 843