“I Looked Like I Was In Love But I Was Being Abused — This Is How I Escaped”

Sometimes, a violent relationship looks perfectly fine from the outside. Here’s a real life story on how this reader escaped a vicious cycle of domestic abuse. 

Text and Interviews Lina Esa Photography Shutterstock Special Thanks To Sarah Zehan and Heang-Lee for their input *Names have been changed to protect privacy*

Violence is usually linked to control, and not everything that seems perfect is what it is. Illustration credit: Shutterstock

“I thought I could change him. But I learned that you really can’t change a person,” Lydia* said, when prompted about her last relationship with Ben* which ended after two-and-a-half years. They had dated straight out of college and embarked on the first phase of their lives together. But instead of figuring out where to have Friday night dinners or who should get the tab, Lydia had a darker secret. While the couple was very much in love, Ben turned physical after one-and-a-half years.

“I remember that first fight so vividly. We fought like any regular couple and they always say that fighting is healthy for a relationship. Which, I feel, is misleading for a lot of young women. I literally saw him snap and transform into a whole other person,” Lydia revealed.

With November 25 designated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, #TeamCLEO tells the firsthand account of an abuse survivor, what you can do if you ever find yourself being compromised physically, and how you can potentially help someone who is facing an abusive partner.

domestic abuse in malaysia: why are women under-reporting

At the time of this interview, it had been a year since Lydia left Ben and moved on. She said that in hindsight she wished she had done more, yet couldn’t explain why there was inaction on her part. “I had a good first job. I did well at University. Then when this happens to you, you don’t know what to do. You want to ask for help and you wonder ‘How did I let myself get into this?’.

“I never pressed charges because I had little evidence. It pains me to know that he might do it to someone else. On the same token, I also can’t imagine him in jail. I’m still torn,” she revealed.

“When this happens to you, you don’t know what to do. You want to ask for help and you wonder ‘How did I let myself get into this?’.”

While it’s a frightening reality, most domestic violence or abuse goes unreported or slip through the cracks. “According to a 2014 study by Universiti Sains Malaysia, nine percent of women in Peninsular Malaysia who have ever been in a relationship have experienced domestic violence. This is around 800,000 women in Malaysia. However, reporting of domestic violence is still low. In 2017, only 5,513 domestic violence cases were reported to the police,” said Tan Heang-Lee, Communications Officer of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

As to why that may happen, Sarah Zehan, a clinical psychiatrist, says: ”Women who are abused often feel as if they are worthless due to the belittlement they face at the hands of their abuser. Other times, they could also be in fear because of the traumatising experience, leaving them helpless and trapped, because the abuser has threatened
to harm not only them but their loved ones.”

Heang-Lee had another point: “It’s often under-reported because of the perception that it’s a private family matter. In actual fact, domestic violence is a crime under the Domestic Violence Act.”

red flags, warning signs, and cover-ups

Not every power imbalance manifests itself in obvious ways. Ben had lots of friends, he was charming, charismatic and no one would have known he had this secret side. But for Lydia the red flags came up pretty early.

“I remember him using words to tear me down. He’d use my insecurities against me, like, ‘You’re lucky you even have someone who loves you’; knowing that my dad left my family when I was very young.

“The thing is, he often ‘forgot’ about it or acted normal the very following day. He wasn’t sorry at all. Most days, I told friends I was busy with work. I couldn’t tell them that I was dating a monster,” Lydia said.

“One way to assess if you’re in an abusive relationship is to ask, ‘Do you feel fear when you’re with your partner? Do you feel like you’re walking on egg shells?’. If your answer is yes, that could be a red flag.”

In general, it is quite often that you’d experience some sort of verbal or mental abuse even before anything physical happens. Heang-Lee explains, “This sort of abuse is fundamentally about power imbalance and control. One way to assess if you’re in an abusive relationship is to ask, ‘Do you feel fear when you’re with your partner? Do you feel like you’re walking on egg shells?’. If your answer is yes, that could be a red flag.”

Lydia sometimes never even believed it was happening. “The thing is, he was always very loving and lavished me with affection. When it was good, it was really good. Then when it’s bad, it’s really bad,” Lydia explained.

Sarah said this is common: ”Some abusers are very good at concealing their violent or aggressive side, so it is usually unexpected and can go unnoticed. Often, the abuser will resort to grand gestures to show that he’s sorry, or to try make up for what he’s done. This only reinforces the victim’s hopes that he will change, but the more time passes, the more it continues.”

listen to, and believe the survivors

When it’s a secret or done behind closed doors, that’s when the issue slips through the cracks. What can be worse is where someone is brave enough to speak up about it and no one believes her. “I did know one of his exes spread a ‘rumour’ that he bashed her up. No one really believed her.

“Shame that I was one of those people who also thought ‘Ah, she’s just making that up,’ and went on to date Ben thinking that if anything was ‘wrong’ with him, I could ‘fix’ him. I was wrong. You can’t change a person,” Lydia said. Unlike some women who aren’t able to escape a violent and/or abusive partner, Lydia was considered lucky. “Sure, I count myself fortunate. I see some women who have no option to get out. Some end up in hospital, or even worse,” she shared.

“Women who speak up about the abuse tend to experience victim-blaming. They may be told that they had provoked the abuser.”

Heang-Lee lamented that it was often the case that people don’t confide in people because it makes it seem like the fault is upon them. “Women who speak up about the abuse tend to experience victim-blaming. They may be told that they had provoked the abuser, or they hadn’t been a ‘good partner’. However, abuse is is never the victim’s fault,” she said. “Moreover, abusers often shift the blame to survivors, which is a tactic for psychological abuse. If you’re experiencing abuse, know that it’s not your fault,” Heang-Lee affirmed.

For contact numbers and resources regarding domestic violence, visit wao.org.my.

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