She sat across me with a dejected look. “What have I done wrong?” she asked.
No one can fully understand the trauma and pain that survivors of domestic violence had to go through. Every single day is a dilemma, a psychological burden. This is the story of Desi.
Desi and Shawn had a whirlwind romance. They were married for five years. But most times, their relationship was rocky. It is not uncommon to find them in heated arguments over the smallest of issues. Occasionally, they ended up with Desi being slapped, kicked and tossed against the wall. “I’ve learnt to live with the bruises,” she told me. “We have a three-year-old daughter. I don’t want her to grow up without a father.”
This was the dilemma faced by Desi. She came from a broken family herself. Her mother had raised her and her three brothers singlehandedly after her father left them. Till now, she does not know how her father looked like. He left home when Desi was just six months old and never returned since. Desi does not want her own daughter to face the shame and anguish of being without a father.
Yet, the arguments and beatings had taken a toll on her. As she sat across me, I noticed how frail she was. She was only 28 but the daily psychological trauma she endured could be seen on her eye lines and sunken cheeks. Desi would often stare into oblivion.
“Maybe I deserved this,” she said. I tried to convince her that it was no fault of hers but she would often bring up that one fling she had when she was engaged to Shawn. Shawn would often bring up that incident during their arguments.
I do not know Shawn personally. But he and Desi were both from the same university at the same period when I was doing my postgraduate studies. Shawn struck me as someone quiet and gentle. But from Desi, I learnt that he too came from a broken family. In fact, Shawn was a victim of abuse by his own father when he was young. His father would often hit him with a clothes hanger, wooden cane, empty kettle – whatever he could get his hands on – to vent his anger. It was a miracle that Shawn managed to pull through school and entered a university. He would tell Desi how he felt “unloved”. His father would often say that he was “a mistake”. Desi would sympathise with him. That was how she eventually fell in love.
In our meetings, Desi would often dismiss Shawn’s violent episodes at home. “He is acting out the pain he had while growing up,” Desi would rationalise. Though Desi suffered from Shawn’s beatings, she would defend him still. Desi would casually dismiss my advice to report to the police and get a PPO. She thought that Shawn could be saved. She thought that she could save him.
But Desi eventually mustered the courage to leave him. The final straw was when Shawn hit their daughter. It dawned upon her that she would not want her own daughter to grow up broken like Shawn or her. That was when she texted me to meet me over coffee early this year. I remembered her first sentence to me: “I’m ready to move on.”
After that meeting, I accompanied her to the police station to lodge a report. I also gave her a number to call, a support line for women suffering from domestic violence. As a friend, that is the least I could do to help. She often lamented that her other friends would not want to hear her out because they were afraid of being drawn into a very personal affair. As a counsellor myself, I could understand how hard it is for people to want to get involved in marital disputes.
It is this hidden nature of family affairs that allowed domestic violence to go unnoticed. Often, victims of domestic violence would put on a smile and carried on life as if nothing had happened. It is important therefore for friends and family members to learn how to detect slight changes in behaviour and do a ‘check in’ by asking if everything is alright. If you notice emotional trauma or physical violence, inform them of the support lines.
More importantly, assure them that they are not alone. Unload their burden of self-blame. Instead of asking “What have I done wrong?”, help them to see that marital violence is never justifed and there are ways to right this wrong. It requires strength on their part and you can help by giving them the courage and encouragement that they need.
I am glad that Desi eventually saw this. She is much happier in her life now. Her daughter too.