When love becomes abuse

Any woman can get stuck in an abusive relationship. Here’s how to ensure you don’t become one of them.

When love becomes abuse

Last year, the entire country watched as Simon Gittany was found guilty of the murder of his fiancée Lisa Harnum, 31, by throwing her off the balcony of their luxury Sydney apartment in July 2011. The murder itself was shocking, but revelations throughout the trial that demonstrated Gittany’s controlling behaviour were appalling.

Gittany spent months monitoring Harnum through texts and emails, and even had CCTV cameras installed in their apartment. He often got jealous and put her down. He told Harnum not to wear short skirts and sent her text messages instructing her not to look at any other guys, “because your eyes should only gaze on me, the one.”

 L: Simon Gittany at his trial. R: Lisa Harnum, victim of emotional abuse that culminated in her murder.
L: Simon Gittany at his trial. R: Lisa Harnum, victim of emotional abuse that culminated in her murder.

While, in hindsight, these are all tell-tale signs of an extremely abusive relationship, it’s unclear when Harnum realised his behaviour was not simply that of an overprotective boyfriend.

This type of abuse sadly isn’t rare: a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics discovered a quarter of young women had been subjected to emotional abuse from a partner. But according to Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, it’s very likely more have experienced it but not identified it as abuse because it doesn’t fit the “domestic violence stereotype” of a husband hitting his wife.

In reality, partner abuse doesn’t have to be physical violence – it’s any behavioural pattern aiming to control or dominate a woman, she explains. Often the non-physical aspects of this are the most damaging, says Dr Laurie MacKinnon, a family therapist.

“Many of my clients report that once you survive the physical wounds, the worst part is the emotional abuse; feelings of self-hatred, that you’re ugly, and all the terrible demeaning things the person said that you’ve internalised,” says Dr MacKinnon.

So how do you know your partner has crossed the line between infatuated and controlling?

Most abusive behaviour will be extremely subtle at the beginning, but Dr MacKinnon explains you should be wary if your partner frequently speaks to you in a disrespectful manner, talks down to you, criticises you, tells you you’re overreacting or makes you feel down about yourself.

Similarly, if he’s constantly jealous and gets upset when you do things he doesn’t like or limits where you can go, who you can see and who you can talk to, it’s highly likely it’s abuse. And over time this behaviour will likely leave you feeling as though you deserve to be treated in this way – which is never the case.

According to Nina Funnell, an anti-violence advocate and co-author of newly released book Loveability: an Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships, all of these behaviours are, unfortunately, extremely common for women in their teenage years and early twenties, but often mistaken for a passionate love.

“It’s a blurred line; if a guy always wants to pick you up from work, is that considerate – or him needing to know where you are all the time?” she says.

“When you look at something like Twilight or even Romeo and Juliet, often what is depicted as romantic is high drama, sex and violence being merged together; even stalking and obsessive behaviours are idealised. There’s a cultural confusion around healthy, respectful relationships.”

But regardless of however you interpret your boyfriend’s behaviour, the real test of an abusive relationship is how you feel. If you’re scared of your partner, isolated from your friends, feel like you’re constantly tiptoeing around on eggshells or depressed, then you need to speak to your friends, family or a counsellor about it.

And most importantly, you need to get out – now. These signs are all strong indicators that the behaviour will continue to become more extreme, McCormack says, and the worst thing you can do is take your relationship to a more serious level by living together or getting engaged.

“Statistics show that most women experience their first partner violence incidence while they’re pregnant, as the more comfortable a guy gets with you, the worse his behaviour will become,” says McCormack. “I see many women who say they tried everything to make him happy, but the behaviour just got more extreme,” she says.

It sounds so easy, but leaving an abusive partner never is. Harnum was killed when she tried to escape, having earlier called her Canada-based mother in distress, begging, “Mummy, please come and get me.”

The abuser might cry and tell you everything will change if you take him back, explains McCormack. But this is just another tactic. “You need to remember that you deserve better.”

And as hurtful as it might be for you to hear, his behaviour has nothing at all to do with how much he loves you – he will treat every girl he dates like this until he finds one who will put up with it, says Dr MacKinnon. You don’t want that to be you.

To make the break-up easier, Dr MacKinnon recommends you recruit a friend or family member who’s good at listening to help you develop a plan.

“You need to make sure you have temporary protection and somewhere to stay, so that you’re supported when you break up with him. If you’re really too scared [to do anything], you could speak to a counsellor.”

When it comes to actually doing the deed, have an exit plan and don’t make threats or enter into a fight – this isn’t a discussion about trying to mend the relationship. If you live with your partner, it’s also smart to move a few things that you need in advance, as an abusive boyfriend may try to control your belongings, or use them to lure you back, says Dr MacKinnon.

Remember, it doesn’t matter how extreme or subtle the situation. Funnell insists that the greatest protection you have against an abusive partner is your family and friends – although it can be embarrassing to open up about what’s been going on, so it’s important not to cut yourself off. Emotional abuse has become such a common problem in our society because, just like in the case of Lisa Harnum, people often are not aware of it until it’s too late.

“Your early relationships lay the groundwork for later experiences in your life. It’s so important to know the warning signs and get out while you still can,” says Funnell.

Once you’re free of his control – and you can be free of it – the healing can begin, she adds. “As hard as it is at the beginning, one day you’ll look back and realise how much better your life can be.”

What to do if your friend is in a toxic relationship...

Watch out for any potential warnings. “You may notice your friend is upset a lot, is becoming isolated, and tries to make excuses for her boyfriend’s jealous or angry behaviour,” says Dr MacKinnon.

Don’t judge, just be there for her. Even if she goes back to the guy a few times, don’t push her away. Offer support in whatever form she’ll accept it, and remind her that she’s deserving of happiness.

Don’t accept abusive behaviour if it happens in front of you. If you see a friend putting his girlfriend down, tell him it’s not appropriate. “One of the precursors to a society in which violence against women flourishes is seeing emotional abuse and doing nothing,” says McCormack.

Where to go for help

If you’re in immediate danger, call the police straight away by dialling 000.

For confidential help and referral, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Young people needing help can call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.