Was I Complicit in the Abuse That I Suffered?

Examining the uncomfortable questions.


Matilda Fairholm

3 years ago | 11 min read

One of the many challenges of writing about your own experiences of domestic abuse is the flack that you cop in the comments. Of course there is always the option of ignoring them.

The problem with that that for some of us, me included, the primary purpose in writing about our experiences is not to make money, but to impact lives.

And to impact lives you need to engage with people.

That’s why I write. I write because when I was trapped in the prison that is domestic abuse, I honestly believed that there was not one person out there that that would have been able to relate to my story, who would have believed me.

I was wrong, and that was a devastating reality to come to terms with.

In March I wrote this story about coercive control, a barely understood but insidious part of the fabric of abusive relationships.

Interestingly I wrote this story in four hours in an airport on my way home from a holiday with my now husband. Our flight was delayed and this story had been percolating for some time.

I think a few days of palm trees and sunshine gave me the strength I needed to go there.

I’m glad I did. Of all the stories I have written, this is the one that truly landed where I wanted it to. It told not only my own story, but that of many other survivors. I know because they left private notes, connected with me on-line and sent me emails.

The story I wrote was also their story.

A story of insidious mental control, of domestic imprisonment and of life destroying abuse, but without overt physical violence.

I say overt because like me, these women had been threatened with fists that never landed and had watched plates smashed and doors ripped off hinges with rage. Like me these women had been raped by the man who had promised to love and protect them.

As hard as that story was to write, I now know that it was worth it.

But there is a downside.

Any woman who writes about domestic violence is going to cop comments from men who seek to minimize our trauma and question our motives in sharing our experiences.

Like this:

Concept Creep anyone? So the formula of feminism is alive and well after all. The state needs to completely absolve women of all responsibility for their own voluntary decisions while holding men accountable for them instead.

It’s always ironic that the same independent woman crowd always requires the state to interfere on their behalf. My favorite part is where belief that physical abuse is the main type of abuse is considered “flawed”. No, what’s flawed is the idea that any behavior women don’t like is abuse and any attempt to call attention that women engage in that same behavior is dismissed as sexism against women.

I engaged, I shouldn’t have. There is no point. I’ll learn eventually, maybe.

I did however receive one comment that was different from all the rest. I have crossed paths with

Nicole Chardenet in the comments before, and admit to having my feathers somewhat ruffled by what I interpreted as as victim blaming.

When she resurfaced I decided that I needed to look a little deeper into her views and see where she is really coming from.

This is the comment she left on my recent piece:

While I agree with pretty much most of your article about the need to protect domestic abuse victims better, I’m left with the nagging feeling that you stepped willingly down a staircase of abuse steps — you, an educated woman who could be financially independent.

What bothers me about stories like these is the complicity of the victims, a very raw wound no one likes to touch but you can’t heal or prepare for a better world without it. When women permit abuse — of themselves, or others, without challenging it — we perpetuate that patriarchal system of misogyny and entitlement. (My personal fantasy: What would the world be like if women refused to have sex with abusive men?) What I’d like to understand is why women allow this to happen.

What I’d find especially helpful is an article on what *you* learned about *yourself* and what *you* would do differently if you met another man like your ex. Information about what *you* would do differently would be extremely helpful to other women to better identify how we can patch our own vulnerabilities and strengthen our psychological weaknesses.

To be honest, Nicole asks some very important questions. Sure there are many gaps in her knowledge of my story, but she is right about one thing. We can keep talking as much as we like about the insidiousness of abuse and the culpability of abusers but that in itself won’t change anything.

It’s time to turn our minds to what will.

We already know why women don’t leave.

Asking why a woman who is trapped in an abusive relationship doesn’t just leave is like amputating someone’s legs and berating them for not running away from a bear.

The question reeks of ignorance.

We know women don’t leave because over time their thoughts have become distorted, the trauma of being controlled having taken it’s toll on their self-worth. We know they are frightened of what their partner will do, to them or to loved ones, if they escape.

Some have been so isolated for so long that they lack a safe harbor to run to or believe, as I did, that they simply will not survive on their own. Others are restricted by a lack of finances, or truly believe that they can love the abuse out of the man that they care about.

Every situation has its own unique complexities. For me the truth is that I had lost all connection with who I was, I was an empty shell of a woman with no self-worth. After more than two decades I saw no existence outside of the relationship, he had eroded everything that I was. I was terrified of my husband and what he might do if I escaped his control.

I believed I would lose my child if I left him, and tragically I was right.

But did I walk down a ‘staircase of abuse’?

I remain convinced that there is nothing to be gained by asking variations of the question ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ and to do so is nothing more than rampant victim blaming.

However I agree with Nicole on at least one point. It is not enough to shine a light on the behavior of abusive men, we need to equip young women and girls to be alert to the warning signs, to have the courage to remain single, to never compromise and to avoid walking blindly into abusive relationships.

Because looking back I now accept that whilst I disagree with Nicole that I am implicated in my own entrapment, I perhaps was complicit in ignoring the warning signs during a time when I still had a chance to get away, and instead buried my head in the sand while the jail walls and bars were constructed around me.

How did that happen?

I diminished my own value.

Like many victim survivors, I did not truly understand that I had been a victim of severe domestic abuse until after I escaped and started counselling. When I was told I argued, I repeated the words “but he never hit me” so many times I sounded like a cracked record.

By the time I escaped I was an empty shell with no understanding of who I was or what mattered to me. With the help of a therapist who specialized in PTSD I came to understand why I was such a confused mess.

My whole sense of identity had been eroded and discarded by my abuser. To him, my sense of self was a hindrance to his domination over my life, something he saw as a threat that needed to be destroyed.

Years later I’m still putting back together the shattered fragments he left behind.

But I have come to understand that my self-esteem was abnormally low before I met him. I was raised by a mother who was nothing like Nicole’s. Mine has suffered from mental health issues all her adult life. Rather than imparting self-esteem and solid standards into me during my important teenage years she made me feel like I was the parent.

My mother was constantly on edge, and by proxy, so was I. I could not wait to move out of the home but had no confidence that I could make it on my own. I was desperate for someone to love me, yet I didn’t believe that I was worthy of love.

All I knew was that I was sick of living under my mother’s conditions, navigating her triggers, avoiding her anxious meltdowns. I was desperate for someone to take me away.

Compounding this difficult relationship was the relentless bullying that I endured through high school. I believe that high school bullying sets you up to accept more of the same in your adult relationships.

By the time I left home at 20 to move in with my future husband, I was already an expert at walking on eggshells.

And because of my lack of real world experience and my desire to get on with my adult life, I failed to recognize the signs that I was seriously in trouble.

And therein lies the problem with pointing the accusatory finger at victims. How do you escape when you don’t even know you are imprisoned?

My lack of relationship experience.

I have been married to my now husband for almost five years. We have the type of relationship that I didn’t know existed. We are true companions, friends and lovers. We laugh constantly, cry occasionally and have each others back no matter what.

He is gentle with my scars, scars a man like him is incapable of causing. He is by far my favorite human.

I tell you this because now that I have experienced a relationship that is truly based on mutual respect, I believe that I would be safe from falling into another abusive relationship if I was ever single again. My second marriage has created a very high bar, that simply didn’t exist before.

I have noticed a thread that runs through many survivor’s stories, where the abusive relationship is the victim’s first serious relationship or is one in a pattern of abusive relationships.

One of the protections against future potential abusers, is the education that comes from relationships with healthy men whether that be intimate partners, or our relationships with friends, fathers and brothers.

Looking back I realize that I had no idea how to discern a healthy man from an undercover misogynist.

But even more importantly I think women need to teach younger women that a man is not the solution to their problems, and that there is no shame in singleness. On this point I’m one hundred percent with Nicole. I will take up my pom poms and cheer her along on her crusade to encourage women to just flatly refuse to have sex with abusive men.

Imagine if that actually happened.

Victim critics miss the point.

I still disagree with many of Nicole’s views, but I stand with her on the issue of the necessity of teaching true female empowerment. Our girls and young women must learn to recognize the red flags flown by men that are likely abusers in disguise.

However I still sense that she is unfairly critical of victims.

She says:

I’ve spent a lifetime not being abused by men. I’ve been harassed, and subjected to misogyny and double standards and all the other female crap, but I’ve never been whacked around by a partner, never been seriously sexually assaulted, never dealt with any remarkable psychological or emotional abuse.

Leaving aside my intrigue as to what constitutes a ‘non-serious sexual assault’, the reality is that Nicole has never endured anything remotely close to what I wrote about.

She credits her remarkable mother for this. In this post she tells the story of how she taught her not to ever stay with a man that hit her.

“Never put up with a man who hits you,” my mother instructed as soon as my hormones bubbled like shaken ginger ale. “If he hits you once, that’s it, he’s over. Don’t let him apologize and swear it’ll never happen again.

He’ll give you gifts or take you out to dinner and tell you how much he loves you. He’ll shower you with crap and treat you great for a while, until you’re over it, and then it happens again. It ALWAYS happens again. ALWAYS.”

Nicole makes no secret that she is a critic of feminism. I have no issue with that per se, but I do take issue with the tunnel-visioned focus on physical assaults that seems to come from commentators that criticize the feminist position on domestic abuse.

Nicole’s mother taught her to never give a man that hit her a second chance. It’s good advice, but how would that have have helped me? My ex never hit me, not once.

I think this is the reason so many abusive men do not hit. They have learnt that they do not need to. The constant fear of violence that they have installed in their victim is more than sufficient to keep her trapped.

The long-term solution.

The Australian Government has recently launched a new initiative to combat violence against women. The campaign ‘unmute yourself’ seeks to encourage people to speak up rather than look the other way when witnessing disrespect.

There has been a big shift in our country in a relatively short time. It’s no longer acceptable to accuse your son of ‘playing like a girl’ or telling your daughter that a boy is mean to her ‘because he likes you’.

The hope is that the young boys and girls who are in primary school now will grow up into a world where respect is expected and received by men and women.

Education of the younger generations is I believe, the long-term solution. I believe that the frequency of domestic abuse will reduce with coming generations.

I sincerely hope I’m right.

In the meantime.

But for now I still encourage victims to tell their stories. Doing so is unlikely to impact abusers but it may help the scales to fall from the eyes of another woman who is trapped in a prison disguised as a home.

If one woman comes to understand that she is being abused, and takes the first brave steps towards freedom, then it is worth it.

That’s what keeps me going.


Created by

Matilda Fairholm

Matilda is a writer from Australia. Find more of her work at







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