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It’s a strange sensation, to be planning for your loved one’s death when they are still living. It’s a gruelling ordeal reserved for very few: the terminally and chronically ill, those battling addiction, and maybe cliff divers.
I am none of those things. And yet, I have readied my body for that earth-shattering moment. But I was not preparing for disease or illness or accident. I was preparing for my friend’s murder.
And she was too.
This preparation started when Laura* ended her relationship with her partner, Michael*. He didn’t take it well. Michael began to stalk and harass her both online and in-person. She was put in a refuge and given a security assessment that dispassionately rated her as ‘extremely high risk’ of ‘ex-partner homicide’.
We had a codeword that meant ‘I’m in danger, he’s here, call the police’. For her, it was days watching windows and nights with one eye open. There was the frenzy as she packed for a refuge and we gathered up the barrage of digital vitriol to ensure that in the event of her death, some small justice would be served.
There are many things wrong with this. A woman forced to leave her own home, afraid for her life, because she made the decision to end a relationship with a man she no longer wanted to be with. But there is another kind of injustice that neither of us were expected – and that was a wave of indifference that swept through our friend group. People we had known for years either told Laura they were sorry, but staying out of it, or cut contact with her altogether.
Although Laura lived, that injustice still stings both of us. So, with the help of the team at Future Women, here are six pieces of advice I wish I’d heard beforehand.
Helplines can be found here. In an emergency, always call 000.
‘One of the greatest gifts that you can give friends and family is to not be silent on things that concern you,’ says Relationships Australia New South Wales CEO, Elisabeth Shaw.
‘If you observe [a partner] is rude or cracks so-called jokes, take them quietly aside and say, “That looked quite hurtful. Does that happen a lot? Or was it just one of those funny moments? Because I didn’t really like how they spoke to you”.’
Michael would often berate and demean Laura if she asked him to pass her a condiment at the dinner table. The result? She never asked him to pass her anything. Still, I doubt I would have grasped the scale of her terror if she pulled me aside and told me he got angry when she asked him to hand over the salt and pepper.
Dr Hayley Boxall specialises in coercive control, and she says zooming out and asking about feelings is a better on-ramp than honing in on specific behaviours.
‘If they talk about feeling like they have a lack of autonomy, if they feel like they have an inability to make decisions for themselves, whether they feel claustrophobic within their relationships, then we kind of go, it sounds like you’re experiencing coercive control.’
I have learned since Laura’s escape that the time when a woman decides to leave a relationship is, statistically, the most dangerous. According to the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team, two out of three women killed by their current or former partner had separated in the last three months.
Looking up and offering solutions such as information about domestic violence services, refuges, financial and legal support could help your loved one better plan their escape. But don’t forget the myriad of emotional and practical considerations they are grappling with.
Abusive relationships are about power and control: one person dominates another. Often this will manifest in constant and brutal emotional abuse that strips away a person’s sense of belief in themselves and their abilities.
Reminding them of the reasons that you love them as a person, and the reasons you love spending time with them, is a valuable way to reassure them that they are someone outside of their abuse.
We often hear that a survivor will generally leave seven times before they escape for good. In my opinion, this is by far the most difficult part of supporting a loved one in an abusive relationship.
An antidote to the pain and frustration? Educate yourself on why victim-survivors return. I’d personally recommend starting with Our Watch, which has plenty of great and easy-to-understand resources.
Although I was not a direct victim of the abuse, it has impacted me. Even years later, returning to the scenes of certain incidents can be triggering for me. Laura and I have both had professional help to deal with our experiences. We’re now living happy, fulfilling lives free from abuse and violence.
We’ve earned it.
Future Women thanks Kim* for working with us to write this article. Listen to Laura*’s story in full here.
There’s No Place Like Home is a Future Women podcast putting survivors of violence at the centre of the story, in collaboration with CommBank, which is supporting long-term financial independence for victim-survivors through CommBank Next Chapter.
*Not their real names.
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