Through the experiences of some SA women a new book suggests that abuse is rife across all levels of society. Therapist Sue Hickey shares practical advice for women experiencing emotional abuse. (John McCann)

Bullies destroy their wives’ lives

Sue Hickey and Philippa Sklaar
A new book tells the stories of middle- and upper-class SA women, suggesting intimate partner abuse is pervasive across the country.

Abuse is rife across all levels of South African society. Therapist Sue Hickey and Philippa Sklaar, a survivor of abusive relationships, recently published a book – When Loving Him Hurts – in which the stories of middle- and upper-class South African women who are emotionally abused by their partners are told. This is an edited extract.

The therapist

My name is Sue Hickey and I have been a therapist in private practice for over 25 years. I started my practice in my late 20s and many of my clients were women who were desperately unhappy in their marriages and had husbands who were unwilling to attend marriage counselling.

Some husbands claimed to be too busy and others simply denied their contribution to their wife’s unhappiness in any way.

Some of those women claimed they were suffering from depression or anxiety. All suffered from a lack of self-confidence and many believed that they were the reason for the unhappiness in their marriage.

[This book contains] the combined insights of a therapist, a survivor and the women who offered up their stories to be retold to those who needed to hear them.

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me. We all probably remember this childhood rhyme, but clearly it is a long, long way from being the truth.

Emotional abuse is more difficult to diagnose and, almost without exception, the women who have consulted with me have not “diagnosed” their relationships as abusive.

They have usually blamed themselves for the problem. Often they believe they suffer from depression, anxiety and self-esteem issues, but seldom see those as a consequence of an abusive relationship.

The pattern of abuse is so uniform that it is shocking and we will give you a checklist, which we call the bully barometer, to mark.

At its very core, an emotionally abusive relationship is about controlling the other partner consistently and relentlessly.

The best way to do so is to damage their self-esteem and destroy their support network.

Asanda’s story

My husband is a wealthy man. I am not wealthy. Every day he tells me or shows me that he is rich and I am a pauper.

People come to my house and they think I am lucky but it’s a huge lie. I feel like I live in a lunatic asylum. I love the garden – it’s the only place I feel at peace and I work really hard at making it beautiful.

One day he came home early and found me working in the garden in my gardening clothes and went mad. He says that should someone turn up I will be seen looking like that and so I am to garden in decent clothes or not at all. No one turns up at our house because he is so rude to everyone.

Anyway, the point is that when he feels like it he tells me I am not allowed to put on the irrigation because he isn’t paying the water bills anymore.

It is as though he waits for me to get excited about the garden and then declares that I can’t water it. I sit on a bench under the tree and watch the garden die and feel like dying myself.

My sister gets angry with me and tells me to just put it on and he won’t even notice but he does. He checks. Although he has a really important job I think he waits all day just to come home and feel if the soil is dry enough. I’m scared to just put it on. What is wrong with me?

Lara’s story

Sue asked me to read a book after I had been in counselling with her for a while.

I had it in my handbag, covered in brown paper so that no one would know what I was reading. I read my marriage.

Everything I was struggling with was in that book. It was so painful to me that I opened the car window and threw it into the Emmarentia Dam while I was driving over the bridge.

I stopped going to counselling for months after that because I was too embarrassed to tell her that I had hurled her book out of the car window.

More importantly, I was a strong, professional woman and the thought that I was in an abusive marriage was more painful than I was up for. I hated those words. I hated that thought.

Denial is like cheap booze – it serves its purpose for the night, but in the morning what was true before the drink is still true but harder to face.

The bully barometer

This is a useful checklist to evaluate whether or not your relationship qualifies as abusive.

If you say yes to 12 or more of the items in this list, your relationship qualifies as abusive.

  • Does he criticise you constantly and no matter how hard you try to please him it isn’t good enough?
  • Does he constantly blame you for all his problems or anything that goes wrong for him?
  • Does he ridicule you when you are alone or in public, even if that ridicule is hidden in humour?
  • Does he refuse to discuss problems, accuse you of being unstable or making things up if you try to force the conversation?
  • Does he undermine your opinions and your feelings and undervalue your achievements?
  • Does he constantly criticise your friends and try to prevent you from seeing them?
  • Have you given up important activities such as hobbies or sports or people to please him?
  • Does he flirt with your friends or tell you how much better they are than you to make you feel insecure and unwilling to see them?
  • Does he constantly criticise your family and try to prevent you from having contact with them?
  • Does he constantly accuse you of flirting or having inappropriate contact with other men?
  • Does he manipulate you with money by withholding it or making you spend your money on him?
  • Does he constantly demand sex when you are unwilling and accuse you of not loving him if you do not have sex with him?
  • Does he try to force you to do sexual acts that you are uncomfortable with?
  • Does he withhold sex to punish you for making him angry?
  • Does he threaten to leave you if you displease him?
  • Does he have affairs with other women?

Read this list again and again. It is a very painful realisation to find yourself in an abusive relationship and one that you would prefer to deny than acknowledge.

If you continue to deny it you will never find ways to deal with it.

It is an accurate diagnosis and the result will be a helpful treatment.

When Loving Him Hurts was published earlier this year by MF Books Joburg, a subsidiary of Jacana Media

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