Friday 30 September 2016

Could you spot the warning signs of a controlling relationship? This Women's Aid Campaign is helping partners identify dangerous behaviour

Tanya Sweeney

Published 11/02/2016 | 02:30

Dangerous liaisons: Jennifer Lopez and Ryan Guzman are neighbours whose affair takes a dangerous turn when Guzman's character becomes obsessed with Lopez's in the 2015 film 'The Boy Next Door'
Dangerous liaisons: Jennifer Lopez and Ryan Guzman are neighbours whose affair takes a dangerous turn when Guzman's character becomes obsessed with Lopez's in the 2015 film 'The Boy Next Door'

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy refuses to accept no for an answer. Boy pursues girl and wins her back if he tries hard enough. It's the cornerstone of many romantic films and songs, but the reality is so very different.

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The first flush of young love is intoxicating, but 25-year-old Dubliner Claire* was determined to keep her head about her when she met her ex-boyfriend Patrick at 16. Sure enough, Patrick was every bit the charming, attentive and devoted partner, and their romance started on a high note.

"It was as if I was the only woman he'd ever had eyes for," she recalls. "At the same time, they can be cheating, but you soon start to hear a lot if 'you'll never be as unique to another person as you are to me'."

Not long after that, the cracks began to show; barely perceptible at first, but then becoming harder to ignore as time went on.

"He'd pull on the heartstrings a lot, saying things like, 'poor me, I grew up this way'," recalls Claire. "He'd tell me my friends were no good for me and I'd be better off without them, and started to suggest things that I should wear as he considered himself more fashionable.

"In retrospect, I have no idea what my friends thought of him because I never got to be around them, but my family certainly didn't think too much of him."

Claire gave birth to the couple's daughter, Aisling, four years ago. By that time, the relationship was in full-blown 'drama' mode, with Patrick regularly disappearing for weeks on end during each subsequent break-up.

"The breaking up part was horrible as he would often threaten suicide if I didn't get back together with him, but when he'd turn back up you wanted to know what was happening in his life," recalls Claire.

"When he returned, if he wasn't apologising for something he did, he'd tell me he was changing his life around and going to rehab. I learned later that this is a typical tactic for abusers. Often they don't mean it at all."

Eventually, the relationship turned physically abusive, prompting Claire to look into the leaving Patrick once and for all.

"Strangely, the mental and emotional abuse is worse than the physical," she reflects. "You start to believe that everything is your fault.

"It took a whole year to step up, gain knowledge about custody and to take that knowledge further. When we talked about access (to Aisling), Patrick made out that he knew a lot more about it than me, and that he would take her away from me."

In this regard, Claire's certainly not alone. There's such a gossamer-fine line between passion, infatuation and emotional abuse that few women can barely prise one from the other.

Still, it's a widespread phenomenon, and according to Women's Aid director Margaret Martin, is one that's growing. Two-in-five women have experienced some form of psychological violence by a current or previous partner, according to a recent report by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

"Our latest figures from 2014 show that of the 16,000 disclosures (made through WA's services), around 10,000 of those are in relation to emotional abuse," she reveals.

Yet surveys in the US and the UK show that girls aged 16-24 are most at risk of dating abuse. In Ireland, 60pc of domestic abuse starts before a woman is 25.

Some young women believe that when tensions boil over, they're going through a 'phase of adjustment' in their relationship.

"With new technology, relationships can happen faster and become more intense," explains Margaret. "Women feel they're being bombarded with texts in a seductive way, but in time it becomes more controlling. It's also common for us to hear that if a relationship ends, the man continues to harass and stalk them."

There's no such thing as a typical victim or perpetrator, yet the men involved in such emotionally abusive relationships tend to be highly charismatic.

"A lot of them are good at grooming women and get more polished as time goes on," reveals Margaret. "You'll commonly hear, 'I met him after my mother died', or at some other vulnerable point. Often, the women become isolated and even more dependent on the man, which was the aim in the first place."

Women's Aid has launched their 2IN2U campaign this year, prompting younger women who are even casually dating men to do their 'relationship health check' on their website 2in2u.ie.

Among the questions raised in the health check are: if he complains about your friends; if he chooses what you wear; if he insists you spend all your time with him; if he is jealous and suspicious; whether you feel afraid to break up with him as he has told you he will hurt you or himself.

"If it doesn't feel right, trust that instinct," says Margaret. "Also, know that if things escalate or if you feel threatened, we're available 24-7.

"If you see this happening with a friend or family member, the thing is that they may not be at the point where they themselves see it. In that case, I'd be inclined to tell them in a general way that you'll be there for them."

Women's Aid can then discuss with victims the steps needed to move forward, including the possibility of obtaining court orders or discussing the rudiments of child custody.

For Claire, the process of grieving for her old relationship is ongoing. She is hoping to retrain in the long term as a therapist and is solely focused on getting herself and Aisling up and running. "It's still hard for me to realise that not all intimate partners are going to be abusive," she says. "I think that's the big thing that's missing from me right now - the trust."

*All names have been changed. For more information on Women's Aid's 2in2u Campaign, see2ini2u.ie

Irish Independent

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