Research in UK and US suggests that the prevalence of domestic abuse in lesbian and gay relationships is about the same as experienced by heterosexual women. Data also demonstrates that domestic abuse affects lesbian and gay individuals in the same way as any other group at risk, causing harm and injuries far beyond the physical, often leaving survivors traumatised and with diminished self-image, low confidence and misplaced guilt. Survivor stories also frequently illustrate how self-loathing can manifest itself in passive and active self-destructive behaviour ‘disabling’ survivors to act on their situation, leave the abuser and seek help.
Lisa (33) and Emma (26) are a lesbian couple, both survivors of intimate partnership abuse. We met for the first time in 2014, whilst I was researching barriers in accessing services for LGBT survivors of domestic abuse. Their contribution to the project was crucial in building my own understanding of some of the specifics of LGBT domestic abuse particularly in relation to seeking help and reporting practices.
It took us seven months to meet again and as we are warming up for another interview, I can tell they’ve changed, as individuals and as a couple since I saw the last. When I ask them about that, they pause to think and one of them says: ‘Yeah, you’re right, I think we’re not so broken anymore.’
I: Thank you very much to both for responding to this call. Can you say a bit more about why this was important for you?
Emma: We both saw a post on Broken Rainbow’s facebook page and then read the press on your website. You also e-mailed us additional info so we thought it might be a good thing to become a part of this greater story around intimate partnership violence that we both experienced in our previous relationships.
Lisa: Yeah, we’re both still struggling with some aspects of what we went through, so the chance to contribute but also remain anonymous at the same time was a great factor in our decision to respond positively.
I: Yes, I can understand that and can assure you can share as much or as little as you want in this interview.
Lisa: As you know this is still quite fresh for both.
Emma: Yes, we’ve been together for about a year, but only fully opened up about previous partners just before we met you. I think we were about six months into the relationship.
I: Could you share what finally triggered the conversation around abusive relationships, which is an experience you both share?
Lisa: It was my therapist that suggested it really. I was quite open about this new relationship and I wanted it to work. At the same time I was aware I still didn’t digest fully what I was going through with my ex and was really scared at the prospects of how it might affect my new relationship. I mean, I knew I wanted to bring it in, but just wasn’t sure when and how. I didn’t want to scare Emma away. I was also conscious of the fact we have mutual acquaintances and it was likely Emma might meet my ex at one point and things might get complicated. So I got home one day from work, called her on the phone and just blurted it all out.
How did you deal with the realisation that you both had experience of abuse in past relationships?
Lisa: I think we didn’t really made a big deal out of it, right?
Emma: No. Not really. Honestly, I don’t remember feeling surprised. I just wanted to know what was going on with you. I was so focused on what you were telling me, I do remember thinking ‘wow, this is so similar to what I had been feeling.’ I remember feeling relieved, thinking I’m not alone in this. There was also a sense of, I don’t know, I guess, I felt grateful to have found someone who will understand and believe my own experiences to be true.
Lisa: Yeah. I think, what is interesting, really, after we both opened up and started talking about it, this will sound worn out, but with such common ground, once the issue out there, it starts losing its grip over you. It is really great to know you don’t always need to justify or explain or actions, that particularly feels really liberating.
Lisa, you mentioned it was important Emma believed you. In the past, have you sought help and were dismissed?
Lisa: Yeah, I guess you could say so, especially with family and friends. My ex-partner, well, she was definitely a charmer, she is very feminine looking and I am more of a tomboy, so on the outside it seemed like I am the tough one, you know, like I am the one setting the rules and deciding about everything in the relationship. She was a huge flirt and would also occasionally cheat on me. When I confronted her about it she was remorseful but at the same time never forgot to remind me I should be lucky she came back home, to me. She commented on my weight regularly and called me ‘her fatty’, for her it was out of affection. Also she was very jealous and I was rarely allowed to go out with my friends. If I’ve made plans without her, she’d fake illness, so I’d cancel and stay with her. Interestingly, in public she was always complimenting me, telling my friends and family how great I was and how lucky she is to have me. She even told my parents, we were planning to get married and adopt children, which was a complete lie. So when I finally left, yeah, I was struggling with what I should say to those close to me? How will I convince them that this person they like so much is actually so wrong. What evidence do I have to prove that she is emotionally abusive? To top it all, after I left her, she started a rumour I was diagnosed with a depression and that’s why I left. I have lost a couple of friends over her and it took me a while to explain and convince my family that I had good reasons for leaving. Ironically, we’ve now been apart for two years and last I heard she’s still in touch with my some of my cousins.
What was the turning point for you, where you felt strong enough to leave?
Lisa: She physically came after me once. By that point we had moved in together and she got upset over a gossip that someone fancied me. I wasn’t even aware of it, so when she confronted me, I was completely taken aback. She called me a slut and hit me a couple of times. I left that evening.
Emma: But you were thinking of leaving her even before, didn’t you?
Lisa: Yeah I was. But she managed to completely wreck my self-image. I honestly thought by the point, when she told me we were moving in together, yeah, I was told, I wasn’t asked, I was worthless and no one will ever want me. That’s why I went along with it. I didn’t want to end up alone.
When you finally left, did you seek help with any of specialized service?
Lisa: Well, immediately after I left I needed a place to stay, so I was put up by an acquaintance who didn’t know us as a couple. At that point I found it really hard to talk with my friends. It was easier to talk to complete strangers. I was lucky I had a job that was paying well, so I wasn’t struggling financially, but yeah, I had to sort out a lot of things at one go then. Eventually I got in touch with you guys [Broken Rainbow UK] and had a short chat with one of your helpline staff. It helped, I think, to clarify that what I was experiencing really was abuse and I wasn’t just being fussy or oversensitive. But looking back, at first I was so busy with re-establishing my life, I didn’t really pay attention to what I needed emotionally. I asked for a transfer with work and moved out of town. I practically started from scratch, on so many levels. It was only recently, I started coming to terms with what really happened and what it could mean for me and the relationship with Emma.
I: Emma, you mentioned you’re in therapy currently, how long did it take you to seek help after you ended the relationship?
Emma: Yeah, I’ve been in on and off therapy for about two years now. I don’t particularly want to go into details about my abuse but, yeah it took me a while, I don’t remember really how long, probably five months or more before I talked to my GP about it. He saw bruising and asked questions. I told him some bits and pieces, and eventually he referred me to a specialized therapist. As my abuse was physical and she was also self-harming, I considered contacting the police, but couldn’t imagine actually going through with it. So I didn’t. I did a lot of online reading trying to understand the signs and symptoms. I also have a good friend who is a social worker and a counsellor. So I guess, I had and still have a lot of support.
I: How is this new relationship helping you in overcoming the consequences of your past relationship?
Emma: In contrast to Lisa I had a lot of support from family and friends and was never really alone in coming to terms with it. I guess the only hesitation was how to share what had happened. I wanted to let her know how it might still affect me, so she will understand me better, this aspect was and is really important for me. Maybe I never will completely deal with it all. But knowing I can talk about it as much as I want and that doesn’t scare her away, yeah that’s a really good thing.
Lisa: Being in a relationship with Emma forced me to go back to what happened and deal with it on an emotional level. Talking about the communication I had with my ex and then our own fears and expectations, but also supporting each other in this process, really helped rebuild my own self-worth. I learned to trust that Emma will not hurt me. At first I just wanted to push it away really, but it felt dishonest, like I was hiding something. So when she opened up, that was a great push for me too, to re-evaluate my own stance towards partnerships and relationships and this was also the point when I became more vocal about what I had been through with my friends.
I: Thank you both for responding to our call and sharing your story and experience. Any last thoughts or insights you would like to share for this interview?
Lisa: Well, I guess I’m still surprised there is still so much silence around this issue. It almost feels like gay and lesbian relationships are beyond perfect, like we don’t have problems. I mean, either no one is talking about it or when they do, violence is not seen as something that’s not right. I just recently overheard a conversation between two gay guys in a bar, where one was bragging about smacking their boyfriend around every so often and they all just laughed. One of them then commented something along the lines of, yeah it comes with the territory. That really hit me. Partnership abuse shouldn’t be taken lightly, relationships should be something good and positive and not hurt!
Interview was conducted in April 2015 by Jasna Magić [Broken Rainbow UK]. It has been published with consent and approval of both respondents for the purpose of Bleeding Love research project. ‘Emma’ and ‘Lisa’ are nicknames chosen by the respondents themselves.