A Singapore mother shares her heartbreaking story about family violence with The New Paper, so others in the same situation won’t suffer as she did.
She was 24 when she married the man she wanted to spend her life with.
But two years into their marriage, he was no longer the man she fell in love with.
Instead, he had become her biggest critic, finding fault in her cooking, her housekeeping, her dressing, her family…
Everything she did was wrong, and he made sure she knew about it by insulting her, often with vulgarities.
“I felt I deserved his scolding”
Lisa (not her real name), who was then working as a software programmer, thought about leaving her husband, a lab technician. But she then became pregnant and decided to stay on for the sake of her child.
Before long, she had given birth to three daughters and was “emotionally blackmailed” by her husband to stop working and look after the family.
Lisa, who is now 55, felt trapped but also helpless. She no longer had anyone to turn to because her husband, who had anger issues, had forced her to cut ties with family and friends.
“I tried my best to please him and care for the children, but he continued putting me down, accusing me of being a bad mother, among other things.
“I had lost all confidence in myself by then, so I just accepted everything he hurled at me,” she said.
Verbal abuse is just as bad
It was only towards the end of their 21-year-marriage that she decided to apply for a personal protection order (PPO) out of fear for her and her daughters’ safety.
As part of the process, she had to talk to a counsellor, who explained that her husband’s verbal abuse is as bad as any other type of abuse.
Experts contacted by TNP agree that verbal abuse can be as dangerous as physical abuse, and perhaps more so because they are often unreported or undetected.
But they hope that recent proposed changes to the Protection from Harassment Act will make it easier for victims like Lisa to seek help.
With the proposal to reduce the burden of proof, it would certainly make it easier for her to get a PPO.
When she applied for a PPO in 2011, she had to endure months of waiting and procedure because she found it hard to provide physical evidence of the abuse.
Her daughter, who was in her teens, even wrote to the court to say she had witnessed the emotional abuse of her mother and it had upset her and her sisters.
“Verbal abuse can be much worse than physical because the scars are invisible. She has attempted suicide before because of our father’s abusive ways. Nobody would want to go through any of this,” she wrote.
Attempted suicide and a new life, finally
Recalling her suicide attempt when she was 35, Lisa told TNP: “I felt so desperate. There was nowhere and no one I could call. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
“One day after I dropped my daughters off at school, I went home and tried to kill myself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol. I just wanted it all to end.”
All she remembers after that is waking up on a sofa. She thinks her husband might have found her and called for help.
Even though they were no longer on speaking terms, she tried to ask him about it, but he never acknowledged the incident.
Recalling the only time he was violent towards her and the girls, she said: “When he got angry, he would throw and break things.
After a two-year battle, Lisa finally got her divorce. Eight years on, she still has emotional scars but reminds herself to focus on the positive.
“People who know my ex-husband only outside our home used to tell me that he is such a nice man.”
Legal changes that will help victims
Verbal abuse can be as dangerous as physical abuse, with victims being driven to self-harm by the torment, said experts.
But the impending changes to the Protection from Harassment Act will make it easier for victims to get a protection order against their abusers.
Changes will include a new Protection from Harassment Court so victims need not shuttle between courts. Also, the forms and processes will be simplified and burden of proof reduced, which will help victims of emotional abuse (like Lisa), who find it hard to provide proof of the abuse.
Crucially, relief will also be granted more quickly.
Psychologist Carol Balhetchet said: “It is a great idea to make such processes more efficient and effective.
She added that victims of psychological and emotional abuse can feel guilty and embarrassed, or believe they deserved the abuse.
But making it easier for them to seek protection may encourage them to speak up.
She said: “Physical hurt is bad enough, but it is the emotional and psychological trauma that will haunt the victims for a long time.”
Family therapist Evonne Lek said victims often face challenges in seeking legal recourse and can face doubts among their friends and loved ones.
Frequently, they also doubt themselves and question their experiences.
She added that since verbal abuse leaves no visible scar, victims are often unable to provide sufficient evidence to the court.
Ms Lek said: “It eats away at their self-esteem, and eventually, they believe the abusers and become convinced they are worthless.”
Dr Balhetchet said many victims who do not seek help end up hurting themselves by drinking or smoking, or seeking a sense of community in dangerous places or gangs.
She said: “The pain is so deep. They lose self-worth and unconsciously start to hate and harm themselves.”
Ms Ashley Chua, programme executive at Aware’s Women’s Care Centre, said that more than half of its 593 calls regarding abuse last year involved verbal or psychological abuse.
She added that some victims might not see verbal abuse as “real” abuse.
Dr Balhetchet said such abuse can create a vicious cycle: “When children witness such behaviour and think that is how they can get their way, they might emulate this behaviour.”
Whom to call if you are verbally abused by your spouse
Aware Women’s Helpline: 1800-777-5555, 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday
Sexual Assault Care Centre: 6779-0282, 10am to 10pm, Monday to Friday, or via WhatsApp 9781-4101
Aware also offers counselling, a free legal clinic and a befriender service on aware.org.sg.
“It is hard enough to be a victim and having to prove that you are a victim is a double blow.”
A version of this article first appeared in The New Paper.