'When my husband abused me, people always looked the other way'
A domestic abuse survivor tells Deirdre Reynolds the common reaction is to ignore the problem
When those distressing images of Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson and her husband Charles Saatchi emerged last week, they sent shockwaves around the world.
For mum-of-three Maria* (38), snaps of the star sobbing as she left Scott's Restaurant following the incident in which Saatchi was seen putting his hands around his wife's throat were especially hard to stomach, sparking memories of her own ordeal at the hands of her husband – and of the people who looked the other way.
"My ex-partner was often violent to me in front of his family," says Maria. "Once, when he was choking me, I asked them to go get help.
"Instead, they told him that I asked for help, which only made it worse for me."
"I think it's awful that no one helped Nigella, but the mentality is very much to look the other way," she adds. "I've heard the excuse: 'It's none of my business'."
Despite defending his actions as a 'playful tiff', art dealer Saatchi (70) later accepted a police caution in a bid to avoid "the alternative of this hanging over all of us for months".
Domestic abuse survivor Maria recalls the first time her husband – whom she met online – assaulted her.
"During the course of our relationship, I suffered every type of abuse imaginable," she tells. "Our eldest child was six months old the first time he hit me.
"We had no money and he was sleeping on the couch during the day, so I begged him: 'Please get up – we need food for the baby.'
"He was so mad at me – all I remember is him punching me in the back as I stood at the sink doing the dishes.
"Eventually, it didn't matter what I did, he was just mad at me for everything."
In a statement to The Evening Standard newspaper, Saatchi told how he "held Nigella's neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point" during a row about their children at Scott's Restaurant in Mayfair.
For Maria, her husband had a stranglehold from the very beginning: "After we moved in together, I wasn't allowed to make friends or work.
"Being gullible, I believed him when he told me that it was dangerous to go out on my own at night.
"Within a few months, it got to the point where I wouldn't even look another man in the eye in case it started a row.
"Once, I remember having to cancel an appointment with my personal trainer because he didn't believe that's where I was going.
"Other times, I had to take photos to prove that I was where I said I was. It was like being held hostage."
She adds: "I tried to leave him several times and even went to the local women's shelter.
"But every time, he either promised he'd change or threatened to break down the door – and I took him back.
"By that stage, we had three children and, despite the abuse, I felt like I needed his help."
Last week, mum-of-two Lawson's representative confirmed: "Nigella and her children have moved out of the family home."
When her husband struck her in front of their children, Maria too finally packed her bags with the help of Sonas Housing – a refuge for women and children made homeless by domestic violence.
"For me, that was the final straw," she says. "Even then, it took me a few days to pluck up the courage to leave.
"I brought the kids to school in the morning as usual.
"After he left the house, I packed our things into the car, picked the kids up early from school and was gone by the time he got home.
"Sonas provided me with an apartment for me and my children. We're very lucky that when I was ready to leave, there was somewhere available for us – otherwise, I'd probably still be in the relationship today.
"Meanwhile, I did a programme to help me recognise the signs of an abusive personality so I never fall into that trap again.
"Two years on, I've finally broken free of his control," adds Maria. "My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner."
*Name has been changed