A piece in today’s Times:
This week Alix Skeel, 22, told how he suffered four years of mental abuse and nine months of violence at the hands of his girlfriend, Jordan Worth. The fine art graduate stabbed him with a knife, scalded him with boiling water and prevented him from seeing his friends and family. Worth, also 22, has been jailed for seven and a half years. Here, one man explains what happened to him when his wife turned violent, and why leaving is so hard.
We’re sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, watching Come Home, the BBC drama about an estranged couple fighting over their children. At one point my wife cries out, turns away and covers her ears. “I can’t bear it. It’s too violent. Turn the sound off — tell me when it’s over.” It’s not the first time she has objected to on-screen violence. The irony would make me laugh if it weren’t so awkward. Because Emily sometimes hits me.
The first time was in 2015. We were discussing DIY when she attacked me. Earlier in the day she’d said we didn’t have time to paint the kitchen. Once I had, she said I should have done a third coat. Exasperated, I replied that I’d never be able to make her happy. And that’s when she flipped. It started with screaming and sobbing. And then she punched me. On the arm, against the body, trying to connect with anything, including my face. I backed away into the bathroom and before I knew it she had my head and was trying to smash it into the basin.
Emily was no longer Emily, the woman I knew and loved. She was not reachable. I don’t remember what happened next, but I managed to get her out of the bathroom. I locked the door and waited for her to calm down while she continued to howl and scream insults. Later I discovered that she’d bruised her hand punching me, whereas I was physically unharmed. We talked late into the night and eventually made up.
I’d seen her explosions of anger before: shouting, shoving, calling me everything under the sun with a look that could kill. Everyone has a temper, I thought. Hers is just a little worse. Even after the punches I didn’t see it as domestic violence. And I wasn’t a victim. How could I be? I am 6ft 2in, whereas she is 5ft 6in. I weigh 14 stone to her 9. I could overpower her if I really wanted to. And normally Emily was soft, loving and gentle. She loved nature, appreciated beauty — she worked in the arts — and most of the time was a thoughtful, ethereal soul. We met in our early thirties and two years on had eloped to a village in Italy. It was idyllic at first. But as the seasons began to repeat themselves, there was a subtle shift. Rural escapism turned to isolation, and the togetherness became claustrophobic.
Those first punches were a turning point, but at the time I didn’t see it that way. When you love someone, you see them go too far and forgive them. You give them the benefit of the doubt, you believe you can work it out. We’ll fix it, you think.
We are back in the UK now with our two-year-old boy, Will. We love him very much. Yet the violence that day in Italy wasn’t a one-off, but the beginning of something toxic. For me it haunts everything about our relationship, so much so that I now associate life in an Umbrian hilltop village not with serenity, but violence. I say “for me” because Emily doesn’t see it like this. For her there is no violence. When I use the v-word, she laughs. It is a “come on, pull yourself together” laugh. Her refrain is: “I’ve never hit you; I’ve pummelled you a couple of times.”
The closest she comes to admitting she might have a problem is to say she’s less articulate than me. As if somehow I’m hurting her with words and she has a right to respond with fists or by throwing things at my face. She says that I provoke her, that no one else has made her this angry, that I use “emotional violence”.
Sometimes I’ve wondered if she’s right. Perhaps it is me. I can be uncompromising. And, anyway, is she actually violent? She has probably hit me hard only on four or five occasions. And surely my superior size and strength means that I am not truly threatened?
In practice, it’s not that easy to stop. I can’t hit a woman. And to tackle her to the ground would enrage her — at these moments she is like a woman possessed who could pull a door off its hinges, pick up a knife or smash something into my head. She would never hurt Will, but she has hit me while he’s in the room. The best course of action then is to try to take the heat out of the encounter, to withdraw and lock the door. In the narrative of being a man this counted as stoicism at first, but as the violence kept cropping up, trying to defuse the situation felt more like impotence. We had a baby together. I couldn’t just walk out. I was trapped.
Being hit by a male partner must be terrifying for a woman. For me, being hit by my wife wasn’t so much scary as lonely. It’s not about physical pain, it’s about the person you are closest to wanting to harm you, crossing a line, going beyond the bounds of normal behaviour. Four or five bouts over a couple of years doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s backed up by incidents of screaming, grabbing and throwing, so that over time there is a sense that it could kick off at any moment. The effect on our mutual trust is like dropping a heavy clay pot on to a stone floor so that it shatters into hundreds of pieces. They can be gathered up and reassembled, but they are jagged shards that never quite fit together again.
The sense of allowing someone to hit you is deeply troubling. It makes you doubt yourself. An anger builds up at not being able to hit back — your superior strength counts for nothing. I have become ashamed. I don’t know whether it is of being hit by her, or that I chose someone like her to live my life with. The shame makes me shy away from being with her socially. Even on my own I tend to avoid people I know.
Everything came to a head when social services, then the police, got involved. Last summer, at a low point of our relationship, I’d asked for NHS “talking therapy”. In the phone assessment I mentioned Emily’s violence. A month or two later the police got in touch saying they wanted to interview her under caution for assault. There were also hints that they saw it as a safeguarding issue. This was even though Emily has always been an exemplary, loving mother — something I had made clear to the therapist.
This was one of the most depressing, Kafkaesque chapters in the whole story: how the authorities took my desperate need for emotional support and turned it into a police matter. Emily was livid at what she saw as my betrayal. And we both feared we might be deemed unfit parents. It took all my energy, powers of persuasion and threats of going to the relevant ombudsmen for the authorities to back down.
Apart from that, I told no one. First, because I was confused — was this really serious and should I be making so much of it? Second, because it was embarrassing to talk about, not just for me, but for the other person as well. And finally, because once I’d told friends what Emily was really like there was no coming back — they’d always associate her with domestic violence. But talking, however difficult, is essential if you are to cope. I’ve now told two close friends and have seen an NHS counsellor who has helped me to realise just how angry I am.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that 716,000 men were victims of domestic abuse — not necessarily violent — in the year to March 2016. It’s hard to trust statistics on a subject as taboo as this, but what seems clear is it’s happening a lot more than we like to admit. Society is grappling with gender fluidity and waking up to the scale of men sexually harassing women. But the idea that women might be beating up male partners is not something we know how to approach. There’s still a whiff of sexist comedy — the inadequate, henpecked husband under the thumb of a battle-axe who wears the trousers. I’m still shocked that I’ve been hit in my own home, but nowadays perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that women can be attackers as well as victims.
Emily says she loves me and wants me to stay. “Can I have a kiss?” she’ll ask, hours after a row. I still care about her and would like her to get help, but I no longer respect her and doubt I can love her again. Leaving would mean walking out on Will and those cosy evenings we still sometimes have as a family: feeding him in the high chair, bathtime, a story and a cuddle goodnight. So there are no good outcomes here. But after a long time feeling confused and angry, I’m beginning to come to terms with the shame that was hollowing me out.
Names have been changed
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