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Maybe I just have particularly miserable friends, but I’m starting to think that people who have uncomplicated, happy family Christmases might be in the minority. For every person who’s told me they had a really lovely time (bear in mind that 50% of these people will be lying through their teeth), there are another two saying things like “well, I survived” or “at least it’s over with for another year.”

For me, the Christmas and New Year period means spending more time alone than I would usually. This is in complete contrast to the way my life was when I was still in an abusive relationship. My partner didn’t want me to have any time alone where I might reflect on the way I felt or the way things were between us, so she crowded me and filled up my time as much as she could. She was constantly there – at home, she made sure I was never in on my own, she undermined my confidence to the point that I never socialised without her, and when I was at work she would email and text me constantly to make sure that I had as little independence as possible. She would deliberately refuse to make plans in advance or change her mind at the last minute to ensure that I couldn’t ever know when she was going to be in or out and when I might get some time to myself.  On the very rare occasions when I got to be by myself, I would cherish the time greatly but often spend it lying around on the sofa, exhausted by all the energy I was putting into pleasing her and trying to avoid making her angry. I was also expected to be sexually available at all times, and would get accused of being frigid, selfish or secretly straight if I tried to say no to her, so even over my own body I had no privacy and never knew when I might be raped.

When I first escaped from the relationship, I suddenly found myself with as much time alone as I wanted. I could go out when I liked. I could talk to whoever I liked. The inside of my head was no longer filled with her opinions, her needs, her constant analysis of my inadequacies.

It was horrible. I had no idea what to do with myself. The support worker at Women’s Aid said: “You don’t know who you are.” I didn’t know what I enjoyed doing or what I was good at, I hadn’t been allowed hobbies or friends of my own, I didn’t know what sort of person I was or what my personality traits were. All of these things had been defined for me and decided for me and now the whole framework that my life had been built on was gone. On top of that, having some time to myself for the first time in years brought all my repressed feelings of worthlessness and self-disgust to the surface.

I’m still working on all these things now. Learning to like myself, to enjoy my own company, not to feel that I would be happier or more complete if I had spent the festive season with my former partner still beside me. I’m not trying to become ‘normal’ or to achieve the perfect family Christmas that doesn’t exist outside of John Lewis adverts. I’m not trying to go back to who I was before, I’m trying to go forward. Sometimes it’s scary and lonely and hard, but I’ve chosen to be alone and free rather than to stay trapped with my abuser. I trust myself to survive. I’m still not sure who I am or where I’m going, but I know what I’ve come from and I’m not going back.


Survivors are really good at minimising the abuse we’ve experienced. We don’t talk to our family or friends about the abuse for a lot of reasons, but one is because we don’t want to bother them. We don’t use helplines, refuges and support groups because we don’t want to take up their precious time when they could be helping a ‘real’ survivor. When we do use the support services we need, we have ‘imposter syndrome’ and worry that they’re going to be cross when they realise we aren’t a serious-enough case to deserve their support.

Most survivors could come up with at least 10 different endings to the sentence “My abuse wasn’t as serious because….”

“… it was only emotional abuse”

“…she didn’t actually hit me, just pushed around a few times and tried to strangle me once”

“…the relationship only lasted 6 months, some women are abused for years”

“…she only raped me a few times, it’s not like it was every night”

“…abuse from another woman isn’t as serious”

“…I have a good job so I could have afforded to leave”

“… she only made me have oral sex so it’s not like it was real rape”

Who is this fictional ‘real victim’ we’re all comparing ourselves to? The woman who was viciously beaten and raped every single day for 50 years by her 7-foot husband in front of their children? The one who deserves all the support and compassion and help? I don’t think we need to go out and find her. We already know what she’ll say: “My abuse wasn’t as serious, because…”

This is another example of how we internalise abuser bullshit. Look at all the quotes above – they’re straight out of an abuser’s mouth. “It’s not like I hit you or anything.” “You’re lucky, a man would never settle for just oral sex*.” “It was just a little shove.” “It’s not like I’m expecting sex* every single night, but you haven’t given me any for a month now and I’m sick of waiting.”

It’s time to stop listening to the abuser’s voice inside our own heads. Lets listen instead to our own feelings. Are we hurt? Do we feel unhappy, alone, used? Does the abuse feel serious? Do we need someone to talk to? No-one else, especially not our abuser, gets to tell us whether or not our feelings are valid or important. Each of us is a unique individual with a different experience, a different story, a different way of coping with what we’ve been through. None of these should be minimised or dismissed and none are more or less important. We are all important. We deserve to have our voices listened to, our needs met, we deserve to feel happy and loved and we don’t have to justify that – not even to ourselves.


*Rape of course gets redefined by the abuser as ‘sex’ to make it seem normal

When I first came out of my abusive relationship I was full of self-blame, taking all the responsibility on myself and giving none to my abuser. If what had been happening was sexual abuse, how come I didn’t say no? Did that mean I wanted it? Was there something about me that needed to be dominated and kept under control?

The way we understand ‘saying no’ just doesn’t work with sexual violence. When someone has more power than you, either physically or through emotional or financial manipulation, looking her in the eye and saying “No” is a complete waste of time. She will ignore it, or respect it at the time and then be angry with you the next day for being ‘frigid’, or demand that you have sex with her a few days later in a way that’s even more painful and humiliating in order to teach you that you shouldn’t have said ‘no’ in the first place.

Looking back, I can see that actually I said ‘no’ to her all the time. She just chose to ignore or dismiss all the different ways I told her that I was not enjoying what she was doing to me. Here’s just a few of the things I did and said that mean no:

  • Washing straight after sex means no
  • Avoiding sex means no
  • Moving her hand away when she tries to grope me means no
  • looking unhappy during sex means no
  • never initiating sex means no
  • “I’m tired” means no
  • “I’m busy” means no
  • “Hurry up and get in over with” means no
  • avoiding eye contact all the way through means no

We can be a lot less forgiving of ourselves than we are of our abuser. If my girlfriend leapt off the bed without making eye contact and went off to the bathroom to wash the minute we’d finished having sex, I would be really worried. I’d want to talk to her, to know if I’d done something wrong. My abuser just ranted at me: “I don’t like it when you go and wash your hands, it’s as if you don’t enjoy it. You do enjoy it, DON’T YOU?”

We have to stop blaming ourselves and buying into their excuses and hold them to the same basic moral standards we hold ourselves to. If you place your hand on your girlfriend’s arse and she gently moves it away, would you (a) get the message (b) keep molesting her until she gives in while ranting endlessly about what a frigid selfish bitch she is? If you answered (a), Congratulations! You are not a rapist. We would never dream of doing option (b) to our partner, so she had no right whatsoever to do it to us.

When we are in relationships with so little control, so little self-esteem, so little independence, still we find tiny little ways to resist. Always somewhere some little part of us kept saying no, kept resisting, even when it could only do that in the tiniest most secret ways. Whatever abuse we’ve been through, there is something strong inside all of us that our abuser could never destroy, and that is what gives us hope and makes us survivors.

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