I’ve talked about my marriage and my husband a lot since he died 16 months ago. My tongue loosened, the words came rushing out of my mouth and hit the air, exploding my truth, our truth, all around me. So many words. And so much feedback since from people who recognised their relationship in mine. Who left a long time ago, or who were still in that space.
So why keep talking about it? Because I have the privilege of surviving an abusive marriage that I never left. Because it’s taboo to talk about it. Because I am pākeha, and that’s even more taboo. Because people assume domestic violence looks like one thing, when in fact it looks like many things.
If Ian’s death makes any sense to me, it is in finding myself again. Who I was, who I can be, without someone trying to force me into their idea of what that should look like. And he had a very firm idea about that.
We spent almost 30 years of me pushing back as hard as I could against his trying to make me into his “perfect wife”, his perfect life partner. But he was immoveable. At the beginning, it was about tending to his every need and wish, and then getting annoyed if I tried. Because I usually fucked it up. At the end, it was just leaving him be to drink himself to death. If only I hadn’t railed against him. If only I hadn’t nagged him to stop drinking. If only if only if only. I was never going to be enough.
I was prompted to tell this story with pictures. Because perhaps that way more people will understand.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The beginning, of course, was not our wedding day, but it will do. The beginning was full of things that shouldn’t ever happen in the beginning of a relationship. He asked me to marry him soon after we met, he told me when I’d move in with him, I had to live with two of his friends until then, and then he told me when we’d get married. I’ll be sharing that photo that speaks a thousand words at the end of this post.
And still I married him. I loved him very much. I even bought a wedding magazine. I was a feminist. People told me I needed taking down a peg or two. My father, when asked for my hand in marriage, told him: “good, now maybe you can control her”. My mother says it was in jest. Ian took it as a challenge, I’m sure.
So here we are. The happy couple. Except I wasn’t, very. He’d been drinking vodka with his friend Gee the morning of the wedding. My parents didn’t like him, but they could see I was happy, and this is what I wanted. I waited for my father to give a speech. “Kai’s up” he said. At the time, I thought it was because he was just a very direct person, but I see now that he had nothing else to say. I asked him, and he told me: as long as you’re happy. But he could see what was coming.
This is taken at a party up north where I was on the door. He was a very heavy drinker in those days. I didn’t like his friends – they were heavy drinkers, I wasn’t a drinker at all. They smoked a lot of marijuana. They hung out with some pretty heavy dudes. He called me a straight. It was meant as an insult. In this photo, he’s pressing down with the heel of his hands. I remember the pressure. I can feel his hands, still. At the time, I thought it was reassuring. But it was oppressive.
Here we are, many years later, at a family lunch (my family) after my Dad died. He’s been dead for 15 years. He really really didn’t like Ian. He could see he was breaking me. He said to me once: hold your ground. I’ve never told anybody that because I’m only just coming to see what he meant. I tried, Dad. I really tried.
By this time the worst of the abuse had stopped, to a large extent. Listen to me minimising, still. Hard habit to break.
He had had leukemia which should have killed him but didn’t. And because it didn’t, I was grateful. He always said he would did at 60. And he did. But the time in between was no better than the time before it. He still got very drunk, he still slammed my clusterfuckedness in my face. Nothing was ever right. Everything was my fault. He threatened suicide many times. He still told me he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. And then the wind would blow in a certain direction and he would say: I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you never listen to me otherwise. And I would promise to change. I would twist and turn and realise it was useless, that nothing I ever did was good enough.
Me and my old man. I loved him. What can I say? We’d survived so much. I used it as an excuse, I made the best of it. This was the getting iller stage which lasted a few years before his death. I was working full time, teaching. He would ring, wherever I was, and need something, anything, and expect me to come running, and I would. The alcohol was eating his liver and it was addling his brain, but I was still accused of having a terrible memory. He had a lot of tantrums about how little priority I gave him, and it confused me so much. Couldn’t he see? Oh he could see alright, but it was never enough. Never. Enough. My mother could never understand it. He couldn’t find a bottle opener and I’d race home. Ah, yes. Power and control. Coercive control. I was trapped in a web.
And then I started the Aunties. It was a bone of contention, because it was something else that took me away from him. He raged a lot about how I was his very last priority. I felt guilty, so guilty. He got very drunk one night, and asked me to choose. Him or The Aunties. I couldn’t do that. I asked him not to make me. I told him, in a spurt of power, that he wouldn’t like the answer. He withdrew. We sold the house, he kicked against it. I left my job, he asked where the money was coming from as if we hadn’t enough to live on for a couple of years. He did that constantly. Nagged me about the money. Told me the Board were taking the piss out of me. “What if they’re just making you work for nothing?” he would say. Digging digging digging at the foundations of this new me, this me who believed in herself. By this time, he hardly left the house and his mobility was decreasing. He’d insisted we buy a house with stairs. I loved the house we bought, and it had stairs, but I watched him increasingly worried as he laboured so slowly up them each day, several times a day. And I bore the brunt of his increased isolation. I went out more, I was busier, my job was fulfilling. Sometimes he would take me in his arms and tell me how proud he was of me, and sometimes, he would tell me I was neglecting him. He would tell me that it would be better if we sold the house and he could go and live in the bush with Ruby (our dog) and drink himself to death. But I knew he wouldn’t survive without me, and I liked that I knew where he was most of the time. “Everything would be better if you just let me do what I want to do!” he would say. He meant: drink. I knew he was killing himself. I knew it, and he”d locked me into it with him. He’d told me many times how he intended to kill himself, and pressed me to help him do it. I always said no.
In the end, I didn’t have to help him, and he didn’t commit suicide. He drank himself to death. He wasn’t what you’d know as a drunk, but any alcohol at all was destroying what little was left of his liver. He’d wanted me to leave him alone to drink, but I couldn’t. I was fighting too hard to keep my love alive, for him to just once listen to me. Apparently even if he had stopped drinking in those last two years, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had very little time to process his dying. Maybe a week. And still, the coercive control. Because of his liver disease, he was mostly deeply asleep and slipping into unconsciousness. He rallied a couple of days before he died – apparently that’s what happens. I asked him what he wanted me to do about his dying and he was adamant he wanted to die at home. I knew he wouldn’t die at home, that we didn’t have that much time. But he’d told me to jump, and I asked him how high. Within two hours of him telling me, I’d arranged it all. The bed, the care workers. Everything was set. And to most people, that would indicate how loving I was to respect his last wishes. But it wasn’t that. At the time I knew it for what it was.
And that’s the end of our love story, really. Except it’s not. Because the ending should have been way back at the beginning.
The picture that speaks a thousand words.
If you recognise any aspects of my relationship in your own, if you can look at this wheel of power and control and see yourself in that, I urge you to sit with that. Think about what that means. And then think about what you’re going to do about it. Make a safety – exit – plan. You can ring any refuge organisation and they’ll help you to do that. I can help you to do that.
You can ring me – 02752281155
Or you can ring any of these numbers, go to these websites, if you think there’s shit you need to deal with. You’re sick of it. You’ve had enough. You have power, you’ve just been convinced you don’t have any. They’re wrong, you’re right. Trust your gut. And go with my love.
- Women’s Refuge crisis(link is external) line | 0800 733 843 – 24 hours |
- Family violence information line(link is external) | 0800 456 450 |
- Shine National Helpline(link is external) | 0508 744 633 – 9am to 11pm |
- Shakti – for migrant and refugee women | 0800 742 584 – 24 hours |
- National network of stopping violence(link is external) | 03 391 0048 |
- Elder Abuse Helpline | 0800 32 668 65 – 24 hours |
- Gandhi Nivas(link is external) – supporting men to be free from violence | 0800 426 344 |
- Hey Bro helpline(link is external) – supporting men to be free from violence | 0800 HeyBro (439 276) |
- Hohou te rongo kahukura – outing violence(link is external) – building rainbow communities free from violence |
- You, me, us(link is external) – promoting healthy queer, trans and takatäpui relationships |
- Sensitive Claims ACC(link is external) | 0800 735 566 |