She left an abusive marriage for the sake of her children

A domestic abuse survivor explains why she had to leave

For Caroline*, it was the damaging effects of her husband’s domestic abuse on the children that finally drove her to separate after 16 years of marriage.

While attending their local Baptist church, he liked to be seen as the perfect husband and father, but behind closed doors it was a different story, she says.

“It was like I was captured, there was no escape, I couldn’t get out.”

All the put-downs and yelling, the shaming and aggressive controlling that escalated over the years kept her three children in a state of near-panic that affected their emotional and physical health.

Her elder daughter, now 15, was always sick and had constant pain in her joints; the younger daughter, 11, was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and her seven-year-old son had asthma and eczema, which she now realises was a result of their being in a constant fight or flight response.

“There’s a lot of guilt and a lot of shame that I carried in coming out,” she says.

“We felt like we were walking on eggshells all the time; we just didn’t know when he was going to explode.”

“When you experience those things, it automatically becomes normal for us and, unfortunately, the kids only knew that as normal; and I knew I had to do something as a mum to teach my children, so my girls didn’t grow up expecting that that’s how they’re supposed to be treated and my son that he’s not to treat women that way.”

For a long time, Caroline was confused about whether her husband’s behaviour constituted abuse or not because he didn’t hit her or punch her but just ground down her self-esteem.

“He would get up and vacuum on a Saturday morning – even though the house was already cleaned prior anyway – but he would just get up and start vacuuming and then he’d say to me with a very raised voice – ‘I shouldn’t have to be doing this on my day off – you’re the one that’s home all day, every day,’” she tells Eternity.

“It was just the way that he felt he could get power over me; he would also go in and shove things out of the cupboard and yell at me to come and pick it all up and clean it all up.

“It was the shouting, the put-downs, calling me ‘useless, stupid, a depression case, dumb, you make dumb decisions’ or he’d treat me like a child in saying things like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have to be your babysitting service’ – as in, he would have to babysit me.

“He would often say: ‘just as the Bible says, the woman must submit to the husband.’”

“Also, he would swear a lot; he would take my debit card and credit card away from me when he didn’t get his own way. I was too scared to spend too much money on myself or the kids because he’d be right on to it – and he would also call it his money. ‘Go out and spend my money,’ he would say, even though we had the joint account and we both worked.”

As a Christian, Caroline’s husband had another weapon at his disposal – the Bible’s teaching on male headship.

“He would often say: ‘just as the Bible says, the woman must submit to the husband’ – and he would say that ‘divorce is from Satan and you shouldn’t ever divorce your husband.’ So, it was like I was captured, there was no escape, I couldn’t get out.”

His emotional abuse extended to the children – telling them “that they’re useless and they’re stupid” and getting very angry when he wanted them to help him.

“If something went wrong it was always their fault or my fault; nothing was ever his fault. We felt like we were walking on eggshells all the time; we just didn’t know when he was going to explode.”

With Caroline working at night at a supermarket, the children did not feel safe being at home with their father.

“He was causing grief for the kids, smacking them, and made my eldest daughter kneel on a bed of rice and hold her hands on her head for an hour. Just horrible things. The kids used to hide in the toilet when they heard his car come in the driveway and wait for him to walk upstairs to see if he was angry or not.”

“I knew I had to leave, it was not knowing how to do it that was really hard …”

As Caroline tried to come to terms with why her husband was treating her so badly, she would pray for God to help him, to open his eyes to what he was doing.

“And actually, in the end he opened my eyes to what it was that was happening to me, so it’s made me make a move and do what’s right for myself and the children,” she says.

“I spoke to a lady from church, a close friend of mine, and she helped me very much, helped me go see a Christian counsellor; from the counsellor I went to the doctor, and from there I went to the police and to their domestic violence advocacy group, and it snowballed from there.”

Convinced she had to leave, she opened up a new bank account, got a new phone and set herself up to move while her husband was away.

“I knew I had to leave, it was not knowing how to do it that was really hard, but I was lucky – I had a window of two weeks where my husband went away with my eldest on a school trip,” she says.

On his return to the school, in the presence of the principal and deputy principal, Caroline told her husband she was leaving, that the police were aware of the situation and she would contact him in a few weeks and then walked away.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she confesses.

After being interviewed by Family and Community Services and going to court, the husband was found to be causing harm to the children through psychological and emotional abuse and denied access to them.

“My daughters don’t want to see him but my son still does because he doesn’t really understand, but it has affected his behaviour a lot because he has been tormenting my mother’s dog. One minute he’ll be patting the dog – ‘oh, you’re so cute’ – the next minute he’ll turn on it, hitting it, kicking it and punching it and that’s the way he’s showing [the effects].”

Caroline has also found a Baptist Care course on domestic violence very helpful and is grateful for the support of her church and their understanding that both the victim and the perpetrator need help.

“I felt very supported and my children feel very supported there – they love going to church, so it’s wonderful.”

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Several resources to assist churches tackle domestic violence and abuse within their communities are being launched around this day. Read more about those resources here. 

If you or someone you know needs help please call the Domestic Violence hotline on 1800 737 732 (1800 RESPECT) or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If it’s an emergency dial 000.

* Not her real name