Break free from an emotionally abusive relationship

Image: 123RF/ sangoiri

With a focus on 16 days of activism, Priscilla Malinga tells us her story of how she broke free from an emotionally abusive relationship.

Divorce is emotionally draining, but for me it felt like coming out of prison after years and years of being locked up.  Billy* was a handsome, well-built guy in his 20s when I met him back in 2000. He was also very loving and would often buy me flowers and gifts and bring them to my work. But even though he had lots of charisma and potential, Billy had no real career. As an aspiring salesman, he made an income from selling security devices for different companies. At first he seemed to worship the ground I walked on, and we broke a lot of hearts when we got married after just months of dating.

A few weeks before our wedding day, we got some good news when my fiancé landed himself a good job at one of the big security companies. As a good wife I supported all his decisions and encouraged him to start his own company. Our lifestyle improved and we moved into a beautiful new house in the suburbs.  Billy had always been possessive and controlling, but I took this to be a sign of his love. After our marriage he became worse, even pushing me to quit my promising job as a human resources officer in a major security company.

My job involved day trips to different branches with the boss but my husband insinuated I was having an affair with him, and that he wanted to sleep with me. Jealousy clouded his judgment and he came to my workplace some days, standing at the window behind my desk so he could listen in on my phone conversations. This happened on numerous occasions and for no reason he would accuse me of flirting with other men.

Billy became so controlling that he started deciding who my friends should and shouldn’t be. He even forbade my male cousin, whom I’d grown up with, from coming near me as he was also suspected of having a sexual interest in me. Even though this displayed the signs of being in an abusive relationship, I overlooked them as just a pure display of affection.  My decision to quit my job made me very unhappy as I was now financially dependent on him.

Luckily for us, as his business grew and he earned his first tender, the life of battling to make ends meet became a thing of the past. At first as we discussed and shared everything, but as time went on he reminded me it was his money.  That was when I realized he was cheating on me with a businesswoman. It was the second time -- the first one was when we were still trying to find our feet, soon after our marriage.

At first we answered each other's cellphones but his behaviour suddenly changed. I got curious and, one day, when he was sleeping, I went through his phone messages. His cellphone had a pin code all of a sudden, but I managed to crack it. What I found there broke my heart in pieces. I retaliated by cheating back.

Deep down I knew that my marriage was over. He found out I was cheating and confronted the person I was having an affair with, ending his marriage. I blamed myself for this for a long time.

After my brief affair, we worked things out but the reconciliation was short-lived. Being cheated on is painful. The pain is real and deep. After cheating, the marriage changes, whether we choose to accept it or not. The trust, the passion and excitement go. He became more suspicious of everything. He confiscated my cellphone and people had to call me on his.

The final straw came when one day he locked me and my six-year-old daughter from a previous relationship in the house, taking the keys and cellphone with him. He left us stranded with no food and disappeared for weekend. I remember one day, waking up to my daughter’s desperate sounds as she searched for money to buy bread. It was that moment that brought me to my senses.

I hated who I had become. Hearing my daughter say, “Mom, we were never short of food before you were married,” upset me terribly but ironically, gave me the strength to walk away. Nothing in this world could have done more to jolt me into reality. It was enough to make me finally get help. Through our lounge window facing the gate, I spotted a lady who was parked nearby. I called her over and asked to use her phone. I called my brother, who learnt of my problems for the first time.

The problem for most black people is that when we get married, we get a lecture from the elders of the family about how sacred our marriage should be, and that as a wife it is your responsibility to keep your marriage together. Disclosing marital problems, especially to family members, is taboo, as they would hold this against you even if the two of you had mended your differences.

I had decided though that it was finally time for me to leave. My daughter had been right: I had lost myself in this marriage. I had no money, no job and no friends. Not even my relatives could come through for me.

Sometimes the idea of being married overshadows the reality of what it really means to be married. I realised that when I got married I had been in love with the idea of having a committed matrimonial relationship and stability. I believe most women marry for these reasons.

When you are about to leave your marriage, so many things race through your mind, causing you to doubt your decision. But I felt I needed to escape the trap. Looking back, I was lucky we had not had children of our own. But I still felt like a failure, I worried a lot about what people were going to say. 

I didn’t even have the strength to tell my family that I had decided to leave as it would have subjected me to emotionally draining family meetings. When you get married as a black person, the whole family gets involved. Getting divorced involves the same. I left my beautiful house while my husband was at work, with nothing but the clothes on my back, a few belongings I acquired before we got married and the wedding gifts from my friends and family. I went to stay with a friend who lived with her family in a shack behind her grandmother’s house because I feared for my life and thought it was a place he wouldn’t think to look for me. 

I was scared and cried most of the time but going back was never an option. I struggled and lived on the kindness of friends for a while. For some people in my community, I became a laughing stock and a gossip topic. I was called a “return soldier” among other things -- a term used to name a woman whose marriage has failed. It affected my daughter too.

Divorce is emotionally draining, but for me it felt like coming out of prison after years and years of being locked up. I felt confused about where to start to get my life back on track -- it is not for the faint-hearted or the timid. 

It is not just the heartache you have to deal with but also criticism and mockery from the same people who celebrated your wedding with you. It’s the questions you don’t want to answer, like what went wrong? Where is your husband? Why couldn’t/didn’t you work it out?

It confuses me how people view you as a failure when you walk away from something that doesn’t serve you anymore. I don’t view divorce as a failure -- I view it as the most powerful step one can take in an unhappy marriage, true strength. It’s very liberating. It’s OK to leave and start afresh. I did it and lived to tell the tale -- and I have found love again.

*Not his real name

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