This weekend journalist Anna Moore wrote a feature for The Times, “She’s alpha at work but she’s bullied in the home”, in which she quotes me about my experiences of clients involved in such relationships. The client is a high achiever but is still bullied at home by a dominant spouse, whose aggression can be verbal or physical or both.
This is a very sensitive and difficult area for any family lawyer. Abuse is a common reason for the breakdown of a marriage. In such cases, both spouses may be happy and successful in public, but in private, living secret miserable lives: one the abuser, the other the abused. As Anna Moore points out, the abused spouse may also be the more successful of the two.
One spouse’s aggression, verbal and/or physical, causes serious erosion of self-confidence in the less dominant spouse. Over time the aggressor will become increasingly aggressive and abusive as his control increases over the weaker spouse. She is less likely to resist and fight back. She has less ability to fight as hard or for as long. It becomes a power game in which the aggressive spouse will always be stronger. (Please note that although the aggressor is male in this example, the aggressor is not necessarily a “he”. At least a third of victims are male.)
Constant abuse makes it very difficult to leave a marriage. Sometimes the abused spouse believes it to be impossible, because she is trapped in a vicious downward spiral. The less self-confident she becomes, the lower her self-esteem, the harder it is to make the decision to leave.
She may try to rationalise the decision: she is staying for the sake of the children. Or she fears he will fight her over the children – and she has no strength or appetite for the fight. But is it healthy for children to be living in an abusive relationship? Are they not likely to repeat this behaviour themselves, if that is the example set by their parents?
I find that women in this situation are usually very sensitive. They prefer to avoid any conflict and can’t cope with naked aggression at close quarters, whether verbal or emotional. The aggressor spouse may not be perceived in public as aggressive. He or she may be popular, the life and soul of the party, because the other side of that character is so carefully hidden.
In my experience, if the weaker spouse does manage to consult a lawyer, it is likely to be because her friend or relative has almost forced her to come out of concern for her wellbeing. It is then by no means certain she will proceed. The decision may prove too difficult even though, objectively, it makes sense.
As lawyers, part of our job in such a situation is to recognise it, to assist the client in alleviation of her signs of depression and to help with the restoration of her self-confidence and self-esteem. We may recommend to counselling or perhaps to her GP, who may prescribe a short course of non-addictive antidepressants to restore her mood.
If instructed, at first we will need to keep boosting the client in a positive way, helping her to come to terms with the need to make her own decisions about her private life with confidence – rather than believing she still has to have decisions made for her by a controlling spouse.
Within a relatively short period we will see changes. The client will begin to overcome her fears, start to think for herself, make her own decisions about her future and, eventually, give us instructions with increased confidence. Her health will noticeably improve, her appearance also. If she has lost or gained weight, it will return to normal. She will not only see her spouse for what he truly is, she will also be able to resist him and finally accept that the relationship is completely over.
She’s alpha at work but she’s bullied at home
High-achieving women are being abused by their partners but failing to get help, say experts. Anna Moore reports.
I have a friend, a contemporary, let’s call her Bea, whose career has rocketed ahead of mine and into another stratosphere. She’s an executive — and at work people kowtow to her, say what she wants to hear and laugh at her jokes, regardless of whether or not they’re funny.
At home, though, the picture is different. Bea commands no respect when she walks through her door. Her husband, who fits his own freelance career around their son’s school hours, is more often than not in a bad mood. This can mean that he will ignore Bea and remain upstairs in his office for the entire evening — that’s the preferable option. On other days he will greet Bea with a cutting comment, usually about her appearance: her clothes, her hair, her make-up, her weight. But Bea can handle that and file away any hurt feelings. Occasionally, though, he’ll fly at her.
“It could be that I’m late home,” says Bea, 42. “Or that Ocado had turned up in the middle of the day and I’d forgotten to say that it was coming. Once I hadn’t taken a letter he’d left for me to post on the way to work. He’ll have sulked and sulked and my key in the door is his cue to explode.” Over the past few years her raging husband has broken bowls, dented a door, blocked Bea’s path, pinned her against a wall and thrown items directly at her head (a clock, a bin, a phone.) We all know that most domestic violence remains hidden. It’s estimated that less than 40 per cent is reported to police. A shocking one client in three raises domestic abuse as an issue during Relate sessions. Often it’s not the kind that produces black eyes and a broken nose; it might be bullying, cruelty, gripping too hard while shouting too loud.
But it is not as if these women have no options and no place to go. Bea could pack her bags tomorrow, walk into a fully furnished penthouse and start divorce proceedings. Instead she brushes the behaviour away, excuses it. (Those who know a little of what goes on are used to hearing her dismiss it as sulks and tantrums, infantilising her husband and minimising any trauma.) So how can someone so successful in her working life, who is used to managing difficult people and making unpopular decisions, tolerate such blatant abuse at home?
The leading divorce lawyer and family law blogger Marilyn Stowe isn’t surprised. In fact, she has seen it many times. “These highly successful women who are independently wealthy come into my office and some have been putting on a bit of a façade for a very long time,” she says. “They have been in denial, pretending that everything is fine, when actually they’ve been worn down slowly but surely. When you start digging, you discover a very nasty relationship.” Continue reading at thetimes.co.uk»