So what is domestic violence or abuse, and where do we get our ideas about it from? Often we see the same images and stereotypes on TV: housing estates, working-class families, drunk men coming home from the pub, women surrounded by children, and a sequence of shouting, followed by immediate physical violence or assault. But soap opera scenes tend to focus on only one or two aspects of a much bigger and more complex picture.
Domestic violence has many faces, and the faces of those who survive it are varied, too. There are 650 MPs in this place—650 human beings. Statistically, it is highly likely that some of us here will have directly experienced an abusive relationship, and we are just as likely as anyone else to have grown up in a violent household.
Abuse is not just about noticeable physical signs. Sometimes there are no bruises. Abuse is very often all about control and power; it is about abusers making themselves feel big, or biggest, but that is not how they present themselves. It is not how they win your heart. It is not how they persuade you to meet them for a coffee, then go to a gig, and then spend an evening snuggled up in front of a movie at their place. When they ask you out, they do not present their rage, and do not tell you that while they like the idea of strong, independent, successful women, they do not like the reality. They do not threaten, criticise, control, yell, or exert their physical strength in an increasingly frightening way—not yet. Not at the start. Not when they think you are sweet, funny and gorgeous. Not when they want to impress you. Not when they turn up to only your third date with chocolate, and then jewellery. Not when they meet your friends, your parents, or the leader of your political party. They do not do any of that then.
It is only later, when the door to your home is locked, that you really start to learn what power and control look and feel like. That is when you learn that “I’ll always look after you,” “I’ll never let you go,” and “You’re mine for life” can sound menacing, and are used as a warning over and over again. It is when the ring is on your finger that the mask can start to slip, and the promises sound increasingly like threats. It is then that you spend 12 or more hours at work longing to see the person you love, only to find that on the walk or tube journey home they refuse to speak a single, solitary word to you. Eventually, at home, they will find a way to let you know which particular sin you have apparently committed: your dress was too short, the top you wore in the Chamber was too low-cut, or you did not respond to a message immediately.
It starts slowly: a few emotional knocks, alternated with romantic gushes and promises of everlasting love, which leave you reeling, confused, spinning around in an ever-changing but always hyper-alert state, not knowing what mood or message awaits you. You tell yourself to be less sensitive, less emotional, to stop over-analysing every little thing. Ignore the moods—he never stops saying he adores you, right? All seems good again.
A whole week goes by: a week of summer evening walks home and maybe a drink on the way. A long weekend is booked and organised as a surprise while you are at work. The journey there is full of promise and promises—time away alone together in a place away from stress—but then it starts. In a strange city, his face changes in a way you are starting to know and dread, in a way that says you need to stay calm, silent and very careful. He goes for a walk. You sit in your hotel room and wait. You read a city guide and plan which sights you want to visit, mentally packing a day full of fun. But he seems to have another agenda. He doesn’t want you to leave the room. He has paid a lot of money and you need to pay him your full attention. You are expected to do as you are told, and you know for certain what that means—so you do exactly as you are told.
In the months that follow, those patterns continue: reward, punishment, promises of happily ever after alternated with abject rage, menace, silent treatment and coercive control; financial abuse and control; a point-blank refusal to disclose his salary or earnings, an assumption and insistence on it being okay to live in your home without contributing a single penny, as bills continue to pile up; a refusal to work, as your salary is great and public knowledge; false promises to start paying some specific bills, which you discover months later remain unpaid; and the slow but sure disappearance of any kindness, respect or loving behaviour.
You get to the stage where you are afraid to go home. After 15 hours at work, you spend another hour on the phone to your mum or a close friend, trembling, a shadow of your usual self. You answer the phone, and the sheer nastiness and rage tell you not to go home at all. So you leave work with your best friend, exhausted and shaking, and buy a toothbrush on the way, knowing that the verbal abuse followed by silent refusal to speak at all will be 100 times worse tomorrow.
Every day is emotionally exhausting. You are working in a job you love but putting on a brave face and pretending all is good, fine—wonderful, in fact. Then the pretence and the public face start to drop completely: being yelled at in the car with the windows down, no attempt to hide behaviour during constituency engagements —humiliation and embarrassment now added to permanent trepidation and constant hurt and pain. It is impossible to comprehend that this is the person who tells his family how much he loves you and longs to make you his wife.
But the mask has slipped for good, and questions are starting. Excuses are given to worried friends, concerned family and colleagues who have started to notice. One night, after more crying and being constantly verbally abused because you suggest he pay a bit towards your new sofa, you realise you’ve reached the end and you simply cannot endure this for another day or week, and certainly not for the rest of your life. Having listened intently for two whole weeks to the sound of his morning shower, timing the routine until you know it off by heart, you summon up the courage to take his front-door keys from his bag.
You have tried everything else on earth and know for certain, 100%, what awaits you that night if you do not act today. Heart banging, you hide them carefully and creep back into bed, praying he won’t discover what you have done. You know for certain what will happen if he does. You know an apology will not follow. You know for sure it will be because of what you have done and that it is all your fault. He leaves for the gym, telling you how much he adores you. He tells you to remember that you will always be his. He kisses you lovingly, as though there has not been months of verbal abuse, threats and incidents he knows you will never disclose. He tells you he will bring something nice home for dinner.
Sure enough, the next few days and weeks are a total hell—texts and calls and yelling: “You’ve locked me out like a dog”, “No one treats me that way”, “This is the last thing you will ever do”. You cry, you grieve for your destroyed dreams, you try to heal, you ignore the emails from wedding companies, but it is like withdrawal, and it takes six months.
But one day you notice that you’re smiling, that it’s okay to laugh, and that it’s been a week or two since the daily sobbing stopped. You realise you are allowed to be happy. You dare to relax and you dare to start to feel free. You realise it is not your fault and that he is now left alone with his rage and narcissism. You dare to start dating someone, and you realise that you have survived, but the brightest and most precious thing of all is realising that you are loved and believed by friends, family and colleagues who believe in you and support you.
So if anyone is watching and needs a friend, please reach out, if it is safe to do so, and please talk to any of us, because we will be there and we will hold your hand.