Don't judge Rihanna. I know how hard it is to break free from a violent lover
00:45 GMT, 21 August 2012
Early one Saturday, my partner Tim and I were enjoying a lazy morning in bed. We chatted idly about how we intended to spend the weekend.
Soon we were making outlandish suggestions such as ‘visit Mars’ and ‘change the world’, laughing as we outdid each other.
Then the atmosphere changed. I can’t even remember why — it just did. But instinctively I knew we had entered dark territory.
Abusive boyfriend: Sonia Poulton's partner could become abusive toward her just minutes after laughing and with her. It was then she instinctively knew they had entered 'dark territory'
Within minutes, Tim had accused me of flirting with a work colleague. Given that my colleague was openly gay, I laughed at the idea. Tim was not amused and his eyes narrowed and sparked with anger.
Seconds later he jumped from our bed, grabbed me roughly by my arms and hoisted me into the air, slamming me hard against the bedroom wall, all the while screaming obscenities at me.
Then he spat in my face.
I froze on the spot and experienced what I can only describe as out-of-body detachment. Like I was watching this madness happen to someone else.
Tim dropped me to the ground. I grabbed
my clothes and fled the house, tears cascading down my face, vowing
never to return to him.
Yet within 24 hours I was back in his arms.
You may call me crazy. I wouldn’t blame you. It is a form of madness to return to an abusive partner. But I did.
Opened up to Oprah: Rihanna got emotional, left, telling Oprah Winfrey about feelings she still has for Chris Brown even after he was found guilty of assaulting her, right, three years ago
Easy to be judgmental: Rihanna angered many when she said Brown was 'the love of my life' but Sonia can relate to her, saying that those who have not been abused are oblivious
And that’s why I found myself
empathising with pop star Rihanna this week when she admitted still
having feelings for her ex, Chris Brown, who was found guilty of
assaulting her during an argument three years ago.
told Oprah Winfrey that Brown was ‘the love of my life’ — sparking
anger from domestic violence charities who say she is sending out the
message to her young fans that violence in relationships is acceptable.
this occasion, I feel the need to defend Rihanna and, believe me, as a
mother of a teenage daughter there are many things I abhor about the
provocative star. But being honest about her feelings for a man she was
in love with is not one of them.
easy for those who have not been abused to be judgmental about those
who feel almost a compulsive need to return to their abusers. Oblivious
to the complex dynamics involved, they assume the answer is simple —
that if a person is abusive, you leave them and never return.
He was charming, at first: Sonia, pictured around the time of the violence, said her partner was charming, as many abusers are
But it’s not that simple, as I found out.
I met Tim in the early Nineties when I was 28-year-old music journalist living in West London and he a 32-year-old musician.
met at a mutual friend’s barbecue and I was immediately attracted to
the mischievous glint in his eye and his dry sense of humour.
He was fantastically charming — as, I’ve learned since, so many abusers are — and complimented me endlessly about my appearance and knowledge of music. He was also chivalrous, re-filling my drink, getting me food from the barbecue and opening doors for me. I was instantly smitten.
When we discovered we lived 15 minutes apart, we thought it was fate and arranged to meet the following day. For the next three years we were barely apart.
But we shared more than just a love of music. We both came from ‘dysfunctional backgrounds’ as modern psychological parlance would put it.
My father, Donald, left our family
home in 1967, when I was three, and I never saw him again. My mother,
Elizabeth, died of an inherited kidney disease when I was 11 and I was
left in the care of my three older siblings and their partners.
teenage years were a nightmare. I was a mess of obsessive compulsive
disorder and bulimia nervosa and had attempted two overdoses by the age
of 13. At 18, I left our Gloucestershire village and moved to London. I
wanted to start again and leave the misery of my childhood far, far
Tim, also, had
experienced a shaky start in life. His father left his mother while she
was pregnant with him and he was primarily raised by his maternal
grandmother and her physically abusive husband.
Our backgrounds made fertile ground for the unstable and destructive relationship that followed.
would call it a textbook case of two people being caught in a seemingly
inescapable cycle of rejection and abuse. When you’re knee-deep in it,
like I was, you feel you’re in a nightmare that will never have an end.
Most violence in relationships starts
subtly. A criticism here, a sarcastic comment there. Nothing tangible.
Just a feeling in the pit of your stomach something isn’t right.
'It is a form of madness to return to an abusive partner. But I did'
certainly did with Tim. He began chipping away at my self-esteem in the
early weeks of our relationship, describing my best friend as ‘a bad
influence’ and witheringly dismissing my job as ‘not exactly saving
lives, is it’.
But it was only after three months, that I learned his true nature.
One evening we were discussing me going to New York for a week for work. He wasn’t happy about it.
He said he would miss me and I thought that was sweet, but he became increasingly agitated.
muttered something about ‘partners playing away when they go away’. I
laughed it off — I’d fallen in love with him, so the notion of flirting
with other men couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Then he called me a ‘tart’, saying I led men on and was the type ‘to dump on them’.
with the insults, I grabbed my coat and left his second-floor flat. He
ran after me, calling me one vulgar expletive after another while trying
to push me down each step. I desperately clung to the bannister,
terrified I would fall.
On the first-floor landing, he
grabbed my shoulders and slammed me against the wall. I screamed with
pain and, shocked at what had unfolded, he released his grip and sank to
the floor, sobbing.
numb and fell on the floor beside him, also in tears. That evening he
cried in my arms about his childhood and how he was scared I would leave
him. I vowed I never would. After all, his not being able to exist
without me made me feel needed and loved.
he promised nothing like this would ever happen again, I believed him.
But, as anyone with any understanding of relationship violence will tell
you, these things do happen again. And usually the violence becomes far
That was certainly true of my relationship — the attacks became increasingly ferocious.
Starts subtly: For Sonia, pictured with daughter Shaye, the violence in her relationship started slowly as 'a feeling in the pit of your stomach something isn't right' with little criticisms and sarcastic comments
worst came one Christmas when Tim lost his temper because I wanted to
see my best friend for a night out, and he held a carving knife to my
throat. Then, just as before, he crashed into a mess of tears and
recriminations and promises that he would seek help. He never did.
why did I stay Well, I was deeply insecure and troubled and
misguidedly felt that I was the only one who could rescue him from his
own troubles. I didn’t want to abandon him like his parents had. I felt
it was somehow my job to make his world a happier place. Also, like many
women, I focused on the positive things, just as Rihanna does now when
she refers to the flowers, moonlight serenades and shared meals with
For me, I clung to the times Tim told me
I was the most beautiful woman in the world and how ‘blessed’ he felt
having me in his life.
For three years, I struggled to know
if ours was a relationship worth saving, even leaving him a dozen times.
But each time I was lured back by his pleas for forgiveness and
promises that this time ‘things really would be different’.
They never were.
I snapped. One morning we had an argument about, of all things, the
fact we’d run out of loo rolls. He chased me around the flat, held me
against a wall yelling that I was ‘worthless’ and that I made him so
angry he ‘could kill’ me.
It was finally the shock I needed.
Later that day, when he was at work, I packed up my belongings and moved
in with my best friend.
following weeks he kept calling, pleading and sobbing for me to return,
and I nearly capitulated because I missed him so much. I also have to
confess I missed the drama and the highs and lows such an intense
relationship gave me. I had come to believe his mantra that I was
worthless. That he was the only man who would ever want me.
'He cried in my arms about his childhood and how he was scared I would leave him. I vowed I never would'
You may scoff at my confession, but I believe vulnerable women often choose men who make them even more vulnerable. These women can come from any background and can feel utterly worthless regardless of intelligence, status or wealth.
Ending a relationship with anyone — even a man who has hurt you over and over again — can require a will of iron, particularly if you fell in love with the ‘good’ side of him.
‘Ending a destructive relationship can be a difficult and painful process,’ agrees psychologist Clare Meads. ‘People are neither all good or all bad and after you have invested energy and emotion into a relationship it can be difficult to let it go.
‘Some people return to negative relationships because they feel it’s “better the devil you know” but it never is.’
Thankfully, I held firm. My best friend was supportive — she’d been telling me for months Tim was bad for me and she didn’t even know the extent of the abuse: I’d been too ashamed to tell anyone.
I never returned, despite still loving him. Even three years later, when I was in a decent relationship, I harboured feelings for him.
The truth is, despite all the simplistic solutions that people apply to relationships that dissolve into domestic violence, they are hellishly complex. Feelings for someone do not dissipate the moment you decide to leave someone. My bond with Tim was too great to end the moment I walked out of the door.
So it is that I can relate to Rihanna as she refers wistfully to Chris Brown. She loved him, maybe she still does. As she said in her interview: ‘It was embarrassing, humiliating, hurtful . . . I lost my best friend.’
And that — however bad the friend has behaved — is not something you can recover from overnight.
Note: Some names have been changed