Why DO women stay with controlling men Sally Howard – who was terrorised by a bullying lover like Justin Lee Collins' ex – thinks she knows why
21:59 GMT, 14 October 2012
07:26 GMT, 15 October 2012
Sally Howard embarked on an emotionally abusive relationship ten years ago
What makes women stay in abusive relationships You may well have asked yourself the same question over the past few weeks as the Justin Lee Collins drama played out in court.
The TV comedian was accused of harassing his ex-girlfriend Anna Larke, a 38-year-old former public relations worker.
During the trial she described the ‘terrifying campaign of domestic abuse’ he subjected her to: taunts about her weight; calling her a ‘dog’; pushing her in front of a moving car and making death threats against her.
The fact that Anna went through a terrible ordeal is not in doubt — but just why did she stay with him for seven months
But, then, why does any woman stay — and, indeed, why did I
Ten years ago I embarked upon an emotionally abusive relationship that in the two years it lasted wrecked my self-confidence, reignited a teenage eating disorder and wiped away my smile.
I only got out when it turned physical and I found myself being dragged down a backstreet by my hair for the crime of dressing ‘too sexy’.
I remember that night vividly. My fiance had chosen the knee-length floral skirt and red T-shirt I was wearing. Earlier that evening he’d even made me parade around our apartment in them to check that he approved.
Later, when he screamed abuse at me, I just froze. Then I found myself, as I had done countless times before, muttering pleas such as ‘Don’t say that, darling,’ in a vain bid to placate him.
It was at this moment when I had been reduced to simpering and pleading with a man I could never please, I understood that what I was experiencing was abuse.
My self-esteem was at rock-bottom. I was no longer the happy, self-confident woman I’d been barely two years before. I was too fragile to challenge him. And, until that point, too fragile to leave.
Relate psychologist Paula Hall says this pattern is common in abusive relationships. ‘It’s often a perfect storm,’ she says.
‘A woman’s self-confidence is dented. She feels embarrassed, so doesn’t reach out to friends; or perhaps her abusive partner has undermined their relationship with their support network, so there’s no one to say: “This isn’t normal.” ’
When I met my abusive partner I was 26, a giddy young writer with a commission to write a city guide to Barcelona. He was a local photographer I’d been teamed with: 33, with chocolate-brown eyes and tousled hair. I fell for him on the spot.
Looking back, I was ripe for the picking. When I left cold, grey England, I’d also left behind an even colder, greyer relationship. My live-in boyfriend was unemployed, and spent his days moaning about the world from the comfort of the sofa.
I spent my days as a breadwinner — and my nights picking up his underpants from the bedroom floor. No wonder sexy, successful and highly strung Roberto swept me off my feet.
That first night with him was magical — we drank red wine while he whirled me around his city, then we went back to his charming apartment, tucked away in the medieval quarter.
Justin Lee Collins was accused of harassing his ex-girlfriend Anna Larke, a 38-year-old former public relations worker
When I got back to the UK two days later, I finished with my boyfriend.
For a few heady months, life with Roberto was perfect. Our relationship began with a flurry of glamorous weekend breaks, when he’d shower me with expensive gifts — a laptop and emerald earrings he’d had adapted from an antique ring. He also arranged cosy candlelit meals on the beach when I visited him. He couldn’t do enough to woo me.
But now I can see that hints of Roberto’s controlling behaviour were there from the start. And when he was visiting me in London, they became undeniable.
Somewhere between the airport and my flat on his first trip, Roberto decided that I was in love with the friend he’d brought along — his balding, monkish best pal Pablo.
As soon as Roberto and I were alone together, he hissed: ‘You’re making eyes at him!’ I thought he was joking. How could he imagine I’d look twice at meek Pablo, his dear friend It completely threw me.
The passion in the early stages can be
your worst enemy. You’ve already fallen for them so when the abuse
starts, you’ll say of your dysfunctional partner: “Well, I love
That evening, things got stranger when Roberto accused me of cooking a soup that was spicy because that was how Pablo liked it. I told him he was being ridiculous, but he worked himself into a fury that I’d later see again and again. Eventually it subsided but it left me shaken.
Clinical psychologist Anita Abrams says: ‘Abusive relationships often begin when one partner establishes an unequal power balance.
‘The passion in the early stages can be your worst enemy. You’ve already fallen for them so when the abuse starts, you’ll say of your dysfunctional partner: “Well, I love him/her.” Very quickly the dynamic of the relationship becomes that they wield power, and you submit.’
In my case, Roberto became obsessed with the details of my sex life before we met. An preoccupation with former lovers is something Collins also displayed — Larke said he made her write down all her previous sexual encounters.
Anita says: ‘It’s normal to be interested in your partner’s sexual past. What’s unhealthy — not to mention impossible — is an attempt to control a partner’s sexual past.’
After eight months, Roberto proposed to me. Looking back, it’s incredible that I accepted. Incredible, too, that I agreed to move to Barcelona — where his control over me would be total.
He would be on home turf, and I would be isolated from my friends and family. But I was already in too deep to refuse.
During the trial she described the 'terrifying campaign of domestic abuse' he subjected her to
Once we were living together, Roberto monitored everything I said and did. He counted the cigarettes I smoked and the cups of coffee I drank every day, taunting me about my bad habits.
With my consent, he shifted my website and email address over to his server. I only found out two years later that it allowed him to pore over every single email I sent and received.
He forged emails to my friends from my address, insulting them. He compiled a list of my ‘good’ and ‘bad’ friends and banned me from talking to anyone I didn’t know when we were out together.
He controlled my trips out of the flat and would fly into a rage if I didn’t return within what he thought was a reasonable time. I was treading on eggshells, not knowing how to please him.
My appearance wasn’t free of his scrutiny, either. Roberto would take pictures of me naked and criticise them. ‘Your thighs are too fat’ or ‘Look at your cellulite,’ he’d tell me.
‘Controlling people don’t give an inch.
So for the relationship to continue, the abused partner often becomes
complicit in the abuse'
Anita says: ‘Controlling people don’t give an inch. So for the relationship to continue, the abused partner often becomes complicit in the abuse.
‘They will blame themselves, thinking: “It’s my fault, I press his buttons.” They may believe they should be suffering for love.’
I have to admit that part of me enjoyed the sexual jealously — it made me feel like a prize worth protecting.
Roberto would often serenade me loudly from the balcony of his flat as I returned from the shops.
This was what I told my friends back home about. I remained tight-lipped about his jealous rages.
Plus, the sad fact was his behaviour had simply become normal. I no longer flinched at his outbursts — it was just another hot-headed outpouring to coax him out of.
Then he would apologise, be caring and give me a compliment about the way I’d done my hair that day. I was unwilling to climb off the emotional roller-coaster.
Now I know I was far from alone in staying silent. According to a report by Relate this year, 24 per cent of women in an abusive relationship have never spoken to anyone about their experiences.
It's normal to be interested in your partner's sexual past. What's unhealthy- not to mention impossible- is an attempt to control a partner's sexual past (posed by models)
And often it takes experience to know when to get out of an abusive relationship.
Says Paula Hall: ‘A younger woman in an abusive relationship may quite reasonably ask herself: is this what relationships are’
By the time I came to my senses, I’d been changed from an upbeat career girl to a miserable, self-hating sap. The anorexia I’d suffered as a teen had resurfaced, and I’d lost 1 st. My periods had stopped. I couldn’t sleep. I was trapped in a spiral of plummeting self-confidence.
But when the abuse became physical, I finally woke up and saw my relationship for what it was: a malicious emotional power-grab.
Roberto wanted to reduce me to a point of total dependence.
Like Anna Larke, I ultimately had to turn to the law after the relationship ended.
I was starting to rebuild my life without him when Roberto retaliated by stalking me on the internet.
He hacked my friends’ email accounts and wrote slogans on some digital naked pictures he’d taken of me, then forwarded them to my work contacts.
But as my confidence slowly came back, I felt angry instead of being upset.
I shut down the email accounts he had access to and reported him to the Interpol Computer Crimes Unit. They issued him with a warning, and eventually his stalking stopped.
Today I can spot situations that mirror mine everywhere. I see women with controlling boyfriends at supermarket tills, being told that they are stupid for the way they are packing the shopping bags.
I see them in bars being menacingly told to cover up their cleavage. My heart goes out to them all. I think to myself: ‘Get the hell out!’
Sometimes, I’m even brave enough to say it.
Roberto’s name has been changed.