Learning to Care for Yourself After Domestic Abuse

Despite what you have been coerced into believing, you matter.


Matilda Fairholm

3 years ago | 7 min read

I’ve been free from my abuser for a little over six years. Since escaping I have been in and out of counseling, read numerous books, prayed for healing, and gradually some semblance of a human being is arising from the ashes.

That’s no easy task when you have no recollection of who you were before the abuse began.

I spent 24 years with my first husband, a deeply insecure man whose hatred of women would not become evident until he had me well and truly trapped. A man who would demean, control, and isolate me for more than two decades. A man who would coerce me sexually, deprive me of sleep, and terrorize me by breaking things, kicking walls, and raising his fist towards me.

A man who would do all of this but never hit me, not once.

It’s hard to call it domestic violence.

Despite being told by my counselor, doctor, and those who had observed my relationship for many years, it took me a long time to accept that I had been a victim of domestic violence. The absence of broken bones and bruises added to the confusion.

I am convinced this is why so many abusers don’t hit. They have worked out that it is unnecessary to achieve their objective. As long as the victim lives in constant fear of violence, that is sufficient to keep her trapped. It’s much safer for the perpetrator to not hit her, because the risk with hitting is not only the potential for criminal consequences but that his greatest fear will become a reality.

His fear that she will have a moment of clarity, see him for the pathetic abuser that he is, and take steps to change her life.

So in many cases, like mine, he doesn’t hit. Sadly, in some situations where the coercive control is so extreme, the first physical assault will be a homicide, and it will be as she is trying to leave, or after she has left. That’s when humiliated fury kicks in, the self-inflicted shame that the abuser feels because he was unable to maintain control.

So he takes control again, in the most awful of ways.

Men murder women, because women dare to say no to ongoing abuse.

Escaping is only the beginning.

A few weeks after I escaped I was sitting in my rented flat, surrounded by boxes and new furniture. I was fortunate in that I had been able to maintain my career, despite the abuse, and had the capacity to earn my own money.

I could afford to rent a flat and buy what I needed. Many women do not have that freedom.

Sitting on my lounge-room floor, surrounded by shopping bags and newly delivered furniture, I was both excited and terrified. It was liberating to make my own decisions, but I had forgotten how. I didn’t know what my preferences were, what books or movies I liked, what music I wanted to listen to, now that I was in a position to decide.

I had no idea who I was.

I was like a child, excited yet scared and alone in an adult world. I found the simplest of decisions incredibly difficult.

It would be years before I would truly understand why.

The main agenda of the abuser is to deprive you of your autonomy.

I understand why a survivor says that she wishes he had just hit her. This isn’t masochism, it’s confusion. It’s a desperate cry for something to make sense. If he hits her, she knows what that is. She can name it, and if she has the courage, she can tell someone about it who will identify that it is unacceptable, and hopefully help her get away.

Not so with coercive control. By its nature, it is insidious, gradual, and disorientating. She can’t make sense of it, because it makes no sense.

How do you seek help about something that makes no sense?

So she is sucked into a vortex where he reigns supreme. His rules, his interests, his needs, his everything. She is well and truly trapped.

Eventually, her world is gone, and his has taken up residence. Because he is so insecure, he needs to control her life as well as his own. He needs her wants and needs to be identical to his. Over time he molds her to understand that it is futile to disagree with him, so she stops doing so. Eventually, her independence and uniqueness become distant memories.

She becomes hyper-vigilant, constantly walks on eggshells, and thinks through every word before she speaks it or decision before she makes it, lest she trigger his wrath.

This is what it is like to live as a coercively controlled woman.

Hyper-vigilance is exhausting, and it doesn't end when you leave.

I remember having breakfast alone on my balcony a few weeks after I moved into my new place. I sat there sipping my coffee, staring over the harbor. I experienced an unfamiliar feeling.

I was relaxed.

It didn’t last. Six years have passed since I escaped, and feeling truly relaxed is still a rare feeling. It’s Sunday afternoon as I write this. It’s winter, but warm inside, I have a candle burning and I’m sipping a cup of tea that my now husband brought in to me. Life is good, but I still find it very hard to relax.

Because I have almost forgotten how.

Entrenched perceptions of selfishness.

One of the strange things about abusers is their ability to turn the tables and blame their victims. By the time I left my first husband I was a hollowed out, empty shell of a woman who had no idea what she thought about anything. I had become completely subordinate to him, yet at least once a day he told me I was selfish. He became enraged if I did anything for myself, so I didn’t.

While he convinced me that I was the selfish one, he stood by and watched me sacrifice my dreams, ideas, and mental health, and almost my life itself. Regardless of how much of my humanity I sacrificed on the altar of his self-obsession, it was never enough for him.

I now realize that I wasn’t selfish at all, quite the opposite. I selflessly preferred his needs, as unreasonable as they were, to my own. But unlike a healthy relationship, where you each put the other first and you both get what you need, all he did was take.

Controlling me was like oxygen for him, there’s no wonder my tank was below empty.

Perceived selfishness is a barrier to healing.

My now-husband is retired, and we have no children living at home. It’s just us. I earn the money, he does everything else. As a lawyer with my own practice, I work long hours, at least ten hours most days, and a few more on the weekend.

I’m often exhausted from the stress and long hours, yet I struggle to invest in my own self-care.

Six years after leaving my abuser, I still feel lazy and indulgent if I have a long bath at the end of the day, or let my husband clean up after dinner while I write or work on my knitting.

Why is that?

I struggle because my abuser intentionally programmed out of me anything that was not entirely focused on his service, on meeting his needs. As a consequence, I struggle to see the value in spending time on myself.

Ironically it was my abuser’s own selfishness that trained me to perceive self-care of any description as selfishness.

How do we turn it around?

It isn’t easy, but it can be done. It comes down to being discerning about what narratives you allow to take a foothold in your thinking.

When the accusatory voice starts playing in my head, which is often, I examine the voice and identify who it is coming from.

And it’s pretty obvious where these narratives originate. They come from the programming that took place while I was trapped.

So I have a choice. I can let the narrative that was planted by my abuser continue to flourish, despite the fact that he is no longer part of my life, or I can refuse to allow him to continue to rob me.

I am slowly learning to challenge negative narratives. Maybe you need to as well?

Ask if the narrative is true?

Every human being has intrinsic value. My Christian beliefs teach that every human being is created in the image of God. We all have value. Abusers work hard to make us believe that we don’t, that our value is tied up in the relationship.

That is a lie.

The truth is that you are valuable by virtue of the fact that you exist. Accepting this, and understanding that my abuser saw no value in me as a unique individual, other than as an extension of himself, is what helped me to turn the corner.

I still tend to justify my existence and my needs.

But I’m getting better. I find that asking why I feel this way or that, why I’m questioning my own needs is helpful.

I’m learning that questioning the narrative that self-care = selfishness is an important step to freedom.

Freedom from the prison of domestic abuse and coercive control.

The work isn’t easy, but it is worth it.

Because you are worth it.


Created by

Matilda Fairholm

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







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