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Charlotte

Age at interview: 38
Brief Outline: Charlotte experienced years of emotional abuse during her marriage to a ‘clever bully’. Although the relationship ended three years ago, her ex continues to affect her life, and at the time of interview, Charlotte was signed off sick from work due to the continuing stress and upset caused by his behaviour. (Video clips read by a professional.)
Background: Charlotte is a White British woman who lives in her privately owned home. She has three daughters, aged 11, 15 and 16 years and she works part-time as a teacher.

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Although she didn’t see it at the time, the emotional abuse and controlling behaviour started only a few weeks into Charlotte’s relationship with her ex-partner. For 15 years she experienced a ‘subtle, insidious drip, drip, dripping of not being good enough’. For example, her partner would criticise her parenting style, who she socialised with, how she managed finances, and her thoughts and beliefs. At times he would look through her phone and accuse her of having affairs. He excused his behaviour by telling her that it was only because he loved her, it was just because he was stressed at work, and it was due to his unhappy childhood. 

Four years into the relationship, Charlotte witnessed her ex-partner’s first violent outburst, when he broke a chair and threw a plate across the room, because he was unhappy that the house was untidy. After this episode, similar incidents slowly started to occur, and Charlotte recalls other times when he punched walls, shouted and smashed property and personal possessions. Daily life eventually became a ‘careful balancing act’. Although Charlotte tried to ‘cling on’ to the good bits, she also found herself ‘walking on eggshells’, knowing that at any point, she or her daughters may do something unacceptable, but not knowing what that would be.

Charlotte recalls ‘slowly shutting down and disappearing’, and she started to lose sight of who she was and what she believed in. It was a private counsellor, who she was seeing after the loss of her father, who first flagged up that she may be in an abusive relationship. This insight helped ‘open her eyes’ to the fact that what was happening in her marriage wasn’t normal, and enabled her to recognise that she didn’t want to live like this anymore. 

Early one morning in June 2012, following a night of enduring her husband’s drug and alcohol induced abuse and threatening behaviour, Charlotte took her daughters and drove them to her mother’s house. Later that day, supported by her mother and sister, she returned to the family home. After further confrontation, her husband went to stay with his friend. However, he subsequently moved back home for a short while before permanently moving out. 

A year after they broke up, Charlotte recognised that she was missing shared experiences, and got in touch with Women’s Aid who referred her to a local specialist domestic abuse service. Through them she attended the Freedom Programme, which was invaluable for Charlotte, as it gave her the chance to talk through her experiences with others who had ‘lived through similar things and who understood it.’ She has since also attended The Recovery Toolkit course.

However, three years on, the emotional abuse has not stopped and she describes him as a ‘very clever bully’. Her ex-partner has threatened to commit suicide, has refused to agree to a financial consent order and has scared the girls to the point where they have now chosen to have no contact with him. Furthermore, after being made to feel for years that she wasn’t good enough, Charlotte still has many self-doubts. At times she feels sad that she did not leave him sooner so that the ‘damage’ could have been lessened on everybody. 

Charlotte urges women who are living in an abusive relationship to leave ‘quickly and safely’ because ‘nothing’s ever going to change’. (Video clips read by a professional.)
 

Charlotte described the ‘insidious drip, drip dripping’ of her partner’s control, which he was careful to balance with enough ‘niceness’ to keep everyone thinking he was alright (read by a professional).

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And everything just kind of fell apart from there really. He kind of went into this spiral of just vileness. He just was nasty and angry all the time. And it started coming out more towards the girls as well as me. I was kind of slowly shutting down and, and disappearing really. And he was just getting angrier and angrier with everyone around him, desperately trying to control everything. I didn’t go out anymore. The girls weren’t really ever allowed friends back. They weren’t allowed to go to birthday parties at the weekends. And it just became this desperate, desperate clinging for him to kind of control us all more and more and more and more. 

He was looking through our phones. He made me go through my Facebook account and he wanted to count how many pictures of him were on my Facebook page. And then we had to sit down and compare that with all of my friends, how many pictures of my friends’ husbands were on their Facebook pages compared with how many were on mine. Yeah, taking the girls’ phones. He smashed my eldest daughter’s. I can’t even remember what he said that she had done wrong. She hadn’t texted him, or something, to say when she was coming back. Something like that. I can’t remember. And he grabbed her by the neck, he had her by the kind of scruff of the neck in one hand and he had her phone in the other hand and he forced her head down while she had to watch him smash her phone against the banisters. And then he told her to go and get her laptop because he was going to break that too. and then when she brought that back up - and I was just standing by watching this awful thing happening, knowing if I tried to step in and do anything it would make it worse, so I just had to stand by and watch it – then she had to thank him for not smashing her laptop. And he said that he had, he had chosen not to do that, so she had to thank him for that. And there were just lots and lots of incidents like that. He just was going crazy. 

Was it a daily kind of occurrence or?

No, no not daily. Always enough niceness to keep everyone thinking that he was alright and he was OK. So it was always a very careful balancing act between nice things and fun things and spontaneous things,

Right.

With the outbursts and the that kind of subtle insidious drip, drip, dripping of not being good enough 
 

Charlotte said she ‘nearly lost’ her mum and only realised after she left her partner that he had manipulated her feelings against her (read by a professional).

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I mean I almost lost my mum because of him worming his way in-between me and her.

What did he do?

Oh he was telling me all sorts of things about her, how, how much she mollycoddled me, how controlling she was of me, how manipulative she was of me, how it was her fault that we couldn’t go and live anywhere else. And why couldn’t I see that she was just trying to control my life and she would never really let me grow up and never really let me be free? And you know, and my mum’s, she’s a very Mumsie mum – don’t mean that, that sounds awful. She’s a very loving, quite protective mum. She does do the whole, “Oh come to me, sweetheart, you know, it’s been really rough.” Which can be irritating. But equally, she’s my mum.

Yeah.

You know, she loves me. She’s – she wasn’t being all of those things, but he managed to twist it in such a way that I believed him. You know, “My God, he’s right. You know, I’m a mother now, I’m the grown-up. I shouldn’t be going to her for advice. I shouldn’t be talking to her about things.” I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody about anything. I only should only need him; he was enough. And I shouldn’t need to talk to my mum. And we did, you know, she thought she had lost me. She thought that we were this cosy little clan of two and she wasn’t allowed in.

And did that continue for years or?

That was probably yeah, probably about four or five years.

Yeah.

I can’t even remember, we had a long conversation, I have a vague memory of walking round a big lake in [Country] with her, having it all out and telling her that I was cross. And there were things I was cross with her for. But actually, when we talked about it, I think I realised, “Actually I’m not as cross as I thought I was. Actually you haven’t really done anything wrong and I’m not quite sure why I’m this cross.”
 

Charlotte secretly got treatment and counselling for depression and her eyes started ‘to become open to actually what he [her partner] was doing’ (read by a professional).

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[I] phoned the doctor and said, “I need an appointment today.” Went to the doctor, explained the situation, I don’t think I mentioned anything about home stuff at the time, I think I just I can’t remember. She described, prescribed antidepressants. I was too – so I started taking them – I was too scared to tell him that I was taking them because he would have just had a go, “You’re not bloody depressed. You’re just moaning.” and I didn’t want him to know. I kind of instinctively felt like I needed to just do this on my own. So then I was on the antidepressants and having the counselling and I think that all happened then before that was all happening before the day that he read the text message that wasn’t for me.

Right OK, yeah, the suggestive message.

Yeah.

Yeah.

So by the, by the time he had read that message I had already been on the antidepressants, I’d already had all the counselling and my eyes were starting to become open to actually what he was doing. I was starting to witness it from a different perspective and see it for what it was. So I think that’s what then enabled me to say, “It’s inevitable that we’re going to get divorced.” Because I think I finally realised then, “I can’t put up with this anymore. I don’t want my children growing up with this anymore. I don’t want to live with this anymore.” And I think the antidepressants and the counselling together kind of enabled me to do that. You know, I was the antidepressants suppressed the craziness in my brain enough to give me a sense of perspective, and the questions from the counsellor as well started kind of making me realise what was actually going on. 
 

Charlotte wished she could go back in time and ‘fill them [the children] up’ differently. She regretted not leaving sooner (read by a professional).

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When you live with someone who is constantly, constantly bashing that [self-esteem], to build that back up again is really hard.

Yeah.

That’s really hard.

So again, a long-term…

Yeah.

…impact of what you lived with for so many years?

Absolutely. And, you know, I had 20 years of not living with it. So I had 20 years of normal life.

Yeah.

My girls have lived with that from the minute they were born. They’ve got nothing different to fall back on.

Yeah.

I almost feel like, with them, I almost need to go back to you know, I need to almost tap back into them as babies and toddlers and start filling them back up again from there. You know, my eldest one is going to be 17 in a few weeks. She’s borne the brunt of a lot of damage from him. That’s going to take a long time to rebuild. There is no quick fix for this.

And that’s what makes me really sad and that’s what makes me really angry. You know, and there’s a big part of me that wishes I had left way before I did, just to lessen the damage on everybody. But I didn’t know.
 

When Charlotte’s teenage daughters realised how controlling and abusive their dad was, they decided they did not want to continue seeing him (read by a professional).

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The girls are now all saying, “Actually, do you know what, suddenly we’re aware now…

Yeah.

…of everything that’s been going on.” And they then went, they went to [Country 4] to stay with him for a week. It was awful. They had a terrible time. By the last night they were sleeping with their passports under their pillows and they had a grab bag by the door, because they were scared, they thought they might have to do a runner in the middle of the night. He was behaving really badly. Didn’t feed them properly, there was no proper food in the house. Lots of lectures about respect and the way he expected them to behave. Lots of, he would go out, leave his phone at home, go out, get drunk, 4.00 in the morning. Just frightening, they just were frightened of him. He’s unpredictable, he’s volatile and they’d suddenly, all their memories of their childhood had been blown open again.

Yeah.

So since then, since they, since that week, they’ve decided, they’ve even said they need to not see him, not even – they don’t want to. They need to have some space from him. He’s barely been in touch with them. I think he’s probably – I think actually he’s relieved, I think. He even said to them when they were over there, “The thing is, mum’s always been better at the looking after and the love bit. I’m just better at the fun and the adventures really. So I’ll do that and mum can like look after you and love you and stuff.” And they, I think because they went there - we had, we had had a few conversations before they went about domestic abuse, and I’d started talking to them and using that language and kind of getting them to look at different tactics that he has and different ways that he, that he manipulates people and tries to control people.

Yeah.

So because they went over with their eyes much more open you know, they were, they were able to see it. So they phoned me up, and as scared as they were, they were still laughing. You know, “Can you believe he said this? Can you believe he said that he doesn’t really do looking after? He’s told us all that we’re a pain in the arse to parent and, you know, ‘Fucking teenage girls, I can’t wait till you’ve got teenage daughters and you know how fucking hard they are to look after.’” You know, you don’t swear like that at your children. He took them all off to the cinema to go and watch a 15, and my youngest isn’t even 12 yet. And it’s so they’re, they’re all starting to see it.
 

Charlotte had to breastfeed her babies in secret so that her husband, who disapproved, could not find out (read by a professional).

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And then I think the, the biggest influence he’s had in terms of effect on my relationships was affecting the way I was allowed to parent the girls. I think that was the biggest one. Because if he was around I wasn’t allowed to parent them; I had to pay all my attention to him. He didn’t like it if I was sitting on the floor playing with them, that wasn’t OK.

And was that from very young?

Yeah, from when they were tiny. If I comforted them when they were crying, that wasn’t alright. He didn’t really like me breastfeeding. You know, they had to be toughened up, they had to learn to look after themselves and be toughened up. I would shout at them for things that I knew he would shout at them for, because I thought my shouting was more gentle than his. So tidy bedrooms, I didn’t care if their rooms were a mess, but I knew that he cared. And I knew he expected them to tidy their bedrooms, rather than having them tidied, you know, rather than me doing it, he expected them to do it themselves. So I would shout at them for having messy bedrooms, in the hope that they would tidy it up, in the hope that by the time he got back from work they’d be tidy and he wouldn’t shout at them for it.

Yeah.

You know, that’s so messed up.

But it was a logic that you had at the time. And having to change your parenting as well because of him, you were saying, like not comforting your daughter if she was crying or whatever, how did that feel?

Awful, that was awful. Not being allowed to go to them when they were upset was horrible. Being forced to do the whole controlled crying thing when they were babies and in cots went against everything. Every instinct in me was to breastfeed, co-sleep, carry in a sling, you know, nurture my babies.

Yeah, very attachment parenting styles.

Yeah absolutely. You know, and I was young, I didn’t know, you know, I wasn’t – that’s just what felt instinctive to me, that’s what I felt I wanted to do. That just made sense to me. And to feel, not only unable to do that, but to have the person you’re parenting with basically tell you not to and kind of get in the way of that and make you feel bad for wanting to do it and telling you were doing a bad job by doing that, that was really horrible. That was really hard. That was probably the hardest thing. I can remember breastfeeding in secret, telling him I’d stopped breastfeeding and then still breastfeeding in secret. And kind of listening to him coming up the stairs and quickly whipping my nipple out of [laughs] her mouth and thinking, “Oh God, now make it just look like you were just giving her a cuddle. Oh no, you’d better not be giving her a cuddle. Right, put her in her cot and just put your hand on her, and then he won’t think” – you know. That’s, and that’s crazy. 

But what about now, thinking, looking back at the fact that he’s made you change or be different, in terms of your parenting style, how do you feel about that now?

That makes me angry. It just makes me really angry and sad. I feel really sad that the girls missed out on that. I feel angry that he did that to me and to them. It makes me feel stupid as well for allowing it to happen and not being strong enough to just say, “Actually, this is how I want to do it.” And I was with some things. You know, there were some things I did that he said, “I don’t think we should do this,” and I said, “Tough.” But it was always about placating him, you know, and making sure that nothing bad happened.

Hmm yeah.

But I don’t think I really – I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time.
 

Charlotte’s counsellor was ‘very gentle and helped Charlotte to ‘open her eyes’ to her partner’s behaviour by showing her the ‘Duluth Power and Control Wheel’* (read by a professional).

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And then I went, I had another session with my counsellor who actually, she was the person who flagged up the whole domestic abuse thing for me in the first place.

OK.

When did I first go and see her? I can’t remember. Probably a couple of years after my dad died, because I wasn’t handling my grief properly. I wasn’t grieving properly, I was still being really miserable, I was still banging on about missing my dad after all this time and it wasn’t working for him, so I needed to go and get some bereavement counselling. So I dutifully went off and got some bereavement counselling.

Was that through your GP or was that private?

That was privately. So I found this woman who just was local and she looked nice and she sounded good. So I went to go and see her. This must have been a year before we broke up, maybe even a year and a half before we broke up. It was about a year and a half, I think, before we broke up, I went to go and see her. I’m trying to remember my timelines. I went to go and see her. So I had my first session with her, which was kind of, you know, background history, you know, “Who is your family? What is your support? Why are you here?” all those kinds of questions.

Yeah.

So that was that. I went back to see her the following week for my second session and she handed me, can’t remember what it was called, ‘The Wheel of Control’ or ‘The Power Wheel’ or something. It’s this, like a visual of different ways in which people can be controlled. So she handed me that and she said, “I just want you to have a little look at this and see what you think, you know. I just wonder if there’s anything on there that might speak to you.” So I sat down and I looked at it and I was like, you know, “There’s me thinking I’m here for bereavement counselling.”

Yeah.

I was looking at it and she said, “Just, you know, have a look at all the different segments and tell me if you can relate to any of them.” So I looked at them and I said, “Yeah, I can.” And she said, “Well, how many of them?” I said, “Well, all of them.” And she went, “Right,” and she said, “well, from some of the things you were saying last week I thought there might be a couple of things on here, but that’s a lot worse than I had realised. Talk me through it.” So as I started talking her through it, pennies started dropping a little bit. “Hang on a second, are you telling me that this isn’t normal? You know, are you telling me that all of these things I’ve been living with, thinking that’s just how men are, this is just how a marriage is, this is just what is expected, am I wrong?” So that was, that hit me like a train. That was quite hard to acknowledge. And from that point I then went and saw her a few more times. She wasn’t a specialist in domestic abuse at all but she was able to kind of talk me through, or help me question why I thought any of those things were OK. Would I accept that kind of behaviour from a friend or from a family member? If not, why not? Why did I then accept it from him?

Just those kinds of things. She was really gentle and she didn’t kind of tell me what to do. She was just helping me open my eyes. And as that started happening, I could – you know, he was still being horrendous at home and getting worse and worse and worse. I was starting to realise and see what was going on in a different way. I was becoming more and more detached from myself and my life and my family, just shutting down completely.

* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services (see our resources).
 

The Freedom Programme was the first time Charlotte had discussed her experiences with others who understood. They helped her to see that her partner’s behaviour was not ‘normal’ (read by a professional).

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And then a year after we broke up, that’s when I found the Freedom Programme. And that happened quite randomly through talking to a friend who was having addiction therapy, group therapy, doing a 12 step programme. So he was talking to me about that and about the benefit of group counselling. And he didn’t, he didn’t know anything about that, you know, it was literally a conversation about him and how beneficial he had found group counselling because of shared experience. Because, you know, addiction is this horrible quiet thing that nobody talks about and it seems really seedy and you feel really dirty. But when you’re in a room of people who are all in the same situation, you start realising that, actually it’s not some dirty, nasty thing, there are reasons. So through having that entirely separate conversation with him, I suddenly thought, “Do you know what, this is what I’m missing. I’m missing shared experiences. I’m constantly trying to, trying to explain myself and nobody gets it. And that’s great, I’m glad nobody gets it, because it means they haven’t been through something so horrible. But I [pause 2secs] maybe I would benefit too.”

Yeah.

So I got in touch with Women’s Aid and they put me in touch with the people in [Place] who were running the Freedom Programme. And I remember going along to the first one and just thinking, “I’m going to be laughed out of this room as some kind of fraudster. You know, they’re literally going to turn around and say, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing here? You don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t been a victim of domestic abuse.’” And it’s a 12 week programme. And as the weeks went on I began to realise that actually, not only was I not being laughed out, but I was getting sympathy from people who had been through similar things, who were looking at me and going, “Wow, that’s really awful.” So it kind of made me realise that, not only was I not crazy for being there, but that actually perhaps it really had been that bad. 

How did that feel to have that?

Horrible, really horrible, because I hadn’t realised. And I still think now I probably don’t give it enough I probably don’t take it seriously enough. There’s still a bit of me that thinks, “Oh maybe I was just overreacting. Perhaps he did have a point.” So that was, that was really, that was really – there were a couple of weeks in particular, things that really hit home that were really difficult. I’d come home and just in pieces. There were a couple of times I phoned my mum on the way home to say, “You’ve got to be at my house when I get there because I can’t walk in through the front door.”

Yeah. But to be in that group and to have these other women who you had shared experiences with, what did that feel like?

That was amazing.

Because they really, truly understand the issues?

Yeah, that was amazing because that was the first time when I’d actually been able to discuss it with people who had lived through similar things, and who understood it, and who would say, make suggestions of things. And I’d go, “Yeah but that’s normal, isn’t it?” And then they’d look at me, “No, that’s not normal.” And the facilitator, the woman who facilitated, she was incredible. 
 

Charlotte hid in the kitchen when a party-goer antagonised her husband, forcing Charlotte to face up to his behavior (read by a professional).

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So we had a barbecue, which of course meant he gets to stand by the barbecue, drinking beer and barbecuing meat, and I’m doing everything else. And there were a couple there, a woman who he worked with and her girlfriend, never met either of them before. The girlfriend was a very feisty [Nationality] lady. So we had this barbecue, had all the niceties, everyone was drinking a bit. I put the girls to bed. And she start [laughs] she started, she’d obviously got the measure of him really quickly; she started pushing and kind of prodding a little bit and questioning him on certain things. She was questioning him about depression and questioning him about various things. And he was being she, she was kind of antagonising him, and he absolutely responded and he got crosser and crosser and crosser. And I got scared because he was frightening me by that point. And I spoke to her girlfriend and I said, “Pl - you’ve got to tell her to stop. Please ask her to stop, you know, he’s in a really bad place at the moment. He’s quite angry, he’s quite volatile and I’m feeling frightened. Please can you just tell her to stop?” And this girl was just kind of laughing it off really and said, “Oh God, there’s no stopping her once she’s off on one. You know, she’s a big grown-up, she’ll look after herself.” And I was getting more and more scared in this house full of people so I was kind of hiding in the kitchen quite a lot. I didn’t want to be out in the garden with everyone. I didn’t want to be exposed to it and listening to it. And this [removed] girl came into the kitchen and found me. She looked me straight in the eyes and she just said, “Oh my God.” And I said, “What?” And she said, “You’re just existing, aren’t you?” And it absolutely floored me, because I didn’t know her, didn’t know anything, never met her before and suddenly this woman’s in my house completely seeing through my life, seeing through my marriage, seeing right into me, things that nobody, you know, none of my friends, none of my family had seen it. And I just burst into tears and I just thought, “Do you know what, you’re absolutely right. How, how do you know like?” anyway, he was awful. He went into a complete drunken, drug induced rage that night and was quite scary. 
 

Charlotte described her ex-partner moving back home and refusing to leave although no-one wanted him there (read by a professional).

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So I’d finally got to the point where I’d been accepted for teacher training. And on my first day - I did it based at the primary school where I’d been a TA, so I was four days a week in school and one day a week in college – and on my first day in my first proper job he turned up on the doorstep at 6.00 in the morning and said that he’d decided he was moving home and we had to make it work. And I said, “But it’s my first day at work.” “Well, what’s more important, fixing our marriage or going to work?”

Was that coincidence or did he know?

No, he knew, he knew. But I refused to, so I went to work. But then he refused to believe, “You can’t kick me out of my own house. This is my home.” So for the next two or three weeks he was living back at home. It was awful. I didn’t want him there. The girls didn’t want him there. We’d all just started being able to breathe out a bit with him not being there over the summer.

Was it a few weeks or a few months, how long was he staying with his friend for?

So he moved out at the end of June, so it was all of July and all of August, so two months that he was staying there. And he still was coming back and seeing the girls. And I think he had taken them up to [Place] a couple of times to go and stay with him there. But then he decided that actually he wanted to move home, why should he have to leave his home, and we should make a go of it, we should make it work, so he came back. And it was awful. That’s when I had to cut my credit cards up, that’s when he was transferring things to my bank account but there was no money in my bank account to pay these standing orders, but they were all being transferred into my name anyway.
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