A 360-degree look at the domestic violence cycle


Cosima Marriner

"It got to the point where I was so down that I wanted to commit suicide."

"It got to the point where I was so down that I wanted to commit suicide." Photo: Stocksy

Samantha (not her real name), 34-year-old mother of three

"Leaving was the hardest thing and the best thing I ever did. We'd been together for four years and married for two. In the beginning it was a bit physical, just a bit of push and shove. He grabbed me really hard whenever we had an argument. Then I got pregnant and I felt trapped.

We would argue over little things, then he'd get angry and walk out and go to the pub. He'd come home drunk and I'd be sleeping on the couch and he'd grab me and try to push me back to bed. He kept threatening: 'You don't know what I'm capable of, don't push me.'

I did leave him once when my son was eight months old because I feared for my life and the life of my child. I went back because I loved my partner. When you love someone you think they're going to change. You think, 'Maybe I should have been nicer to him. Maybe I'm being insensitive. We've got a son.'


Very, very few people understood.

To this day a lot of friends can't imagine he'd be violent in any way. I had one friend saying, 'I'm not afraid of him so why should you be?' Some abusive men can be so charming in public, but behind closed doors it's a different story.

He'd say it was my fault we were having these arguments, it was my fault he was so stressed out. I felt worthless, like I wasn't good enough.

It got to the point where I was so down that I wanted to commit suicide.

People don't take the verbal and emotional abuse seriously because they can't see it like the physical stuff. It leaves you paralysed. I felt like I couldn't breathe. I was in bed for a month, I couldn't care for my kids.

One day I just packed up and left. I had no money. I stayed with friends for a while and then I ended up in a refuge.

I'm not quite sure where I got the strength to leave. I think it was my children. I felt I was a disappointment to them and I thought I owed them more than this. I didn't want them to grow up thinking this is acceptable.

It's been a horrific journey. I'm still going through counselling, I'm on antidepressants. It's going to take a really long time to get over this."

Jerry Retford, 46-year-old divorced father of two

"My marriage was the first time I had ever used violence. Within months of my wife and I getting together, the bar for what was considered reasonable behaviour started to drop. There was physical struggle, wrestling, holding, constraining. Throwing stuff that was in my hand at the time was fairly commonplace.

I was like a five-year-old boy in a 35-year-old man's body. I would throw tantrums. The only time I hit her was the very last time we were together; it was our biggest fight.

Our eldest boy Sam used to scream and shout and be terrified [when we fought]. Then, after a while, he'd go quietly up to his room, close the door and sit and read a book. He'd remove himself from the violence.

That reached whatever speck of humanity I had left inside me. I realised I didn't want my kids growing up with this around them.

I bailed on my marriage and my two sons. They're in England with their mother now. Every day is tough but they're happy and that's all that matters.

It took another five or six years, and another relationship, to get to the point where there was enough change and I was solid. I attended a six-month course at Relationships Australia for two years because it was so good.

It was a really shameful experience acknowledging what I'd done. What I got really clearly was that I'm actually making a choice to shout and swear and use violence. Therapy taught me there is so much [more] going on with me than just anger. I saw how much potential I had, what I had lost compared to what I could become.

I was a gentle sensitive soul growing up. I was bullied at school, I suffered depression and used drugs and alcohol. My father left when I was seven and I didn't see him again until I was 35.

None of these are to blame. I chose to use violence and to not stop earlier. I call it the black hole of the soul, this massive hole of rage and anger that a lot of guys have inside them. Anger is the one [emotion] guys get in touch with so much earlier than vulnerability, fear, isolation.

I can't undo what I've done in the past. But if I can stop one guy going down the road I did [by speaking out], that is what matters. I want to remodel healthy relationship behaviour for men who've chosen violence.

I regret that I couldn't give my kids a loving, happy family environment.

I regret bailing the way I did. I will always remember the look on my kids' faces when I left home for the last time.

I regret every moment my kids witnessed violence at home. It would have been terrifying and very sad.

A lot of haters out there don't think people can change. I will forever be a monster [in their eyes] because of the behaviour that happened 10 years ago. I'm just so grateful to have come out the other side. I will never go back."

Sarah (not her real name)

"Often when women come to us they can be completely overwhelmed with the guilt and the stress of actually leaving. All their emotional energy has gone into managing their partner's behaviour. They've had no head space to process anything in a rational way.

If they're at the point of choosing to leave, that's an insight into how serious it is. The statistic that often gets quoted is that a woman has to leave seven times before she leaves for good. It's very difficult if somebody is undermining you.

Most women have tried to make things work. They say, 'He really wants me to come back, things are going to be different. If I do this and this, he'll be happy' – when actually it's a bottomless pit to keep this person happy. No matter what she does, it's never enough. It's more about power and control.

There is a lack of understanding of the complexity of domestic violence. Abuse can be physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, social. It spans a lot of areas of a person's life.

From the outside people think, 'Why didn't she leave?' Shame and guilt stops people from leaving; they feel they've done something wrong because they haven't got a healthy relationship."

Senior constable Brian Johnson, Police Domestic and Family Violence Liaison Officer, Mt Druitt, Sydney

"At Mt Druitt we have the highest rate of domestic violence in NSW, with over 4000 incidents reported every year. They range from verbal arguments to serious assaults, and alcohol is a factor in three-quarters of cases reported to us.

You get a seasonal spike from November to February. There is a lot more alcohol consumption, there are more financial pressures, there are large family groups in small houses and it's 40 degrees. It's like lighting a match.

The vast majority of cases are women being assaulted; we also have a noticeable amount of children being assaulted. Occasionally you have quite violent women assaulting their male partner. The child assaults are the ones that knock you around the most.

Professionally, the biggest difficulty I have is securing successful prosecutions. The vast majority of domestic violence happens behind closed doors; it's very much 'he said/she said', there are no independent witnesses. It takes victims a long time to break away from the abusive cycle. Sometimes we go round to these people two, three, four times. We find that by the time we get involved, the offender has got absolute control over the victim.

A lot of victims have low self-esteem, they have this belief that 'this is my lot in life, there is not much else I can do'. We see women move from one abusive partner to the next; they break the shackles of one relationship only to start up another dysfunctional relationship.

There is nothing pleasant about dealing with families collapsing when there is violence in the house."

Jane Culver, former NSW Deputy Chief Magistrate

"In this job we get to see the best and worst of humanity. There are victims out there who are nothing short of heroic in their way of dealing with things. They can be so strong, and protective of their children. Equally, we see the worst of human behaviour, often cowardly, vicious, nasty behaviour.

It's absolutely shocking that human beings do some of these despicable things to other human beings. When it's a child victim, that is the hardest to fathom.

It's frustrating when we don't have the ability to see the proper prosecution of very serious and quite strong allegations. A significant number of complainants do not turn up to court, which makes it very hard for a prosecution to succeed. They may be fearful, or even worse, under threat or coercion. They may be terrified of going to court and reliving the experience.

We see the breadth of domestic violence day in, day out. We are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, dealing with it once it has allegedly occurred, but the maximum sentence we can give for one offence is two years. If a complainant does turn up to court, they can often feel empowered to know that someone is aware of what they're suffering.

Typically, if someone is found guilty of domestic violence, the court ensures an AVO (Apprehended Violence Order) is in place, which gives longer protection to the victim and also puts the offender on the police radar.

A certain proportion of victims continue their relationship with the perpetrator, even if we send the perpetrator to jail."

Susan Geraghty, chair of the Men's Behaviour Change Network

"The men in our group are all at different stages of realising the impact of their behaviour. There's a lot of blaming, justifying and excusing. It's a long, slow process of peeling back the defence mechanisms. Our focus is on getting them to recognise the smokescreens they use to trick themselves into not taking responsibility for their violence.

There is definitely a percentage of men who had neglectful fathers, absent fathers or violent fathers. There is a very fine line between recognising and validating some of that trauma and teaching them that every moment, every day, they have a choice about the behaviour they demonstrate. These men sit with a lot of shame.

The vast majority stop the physical violence when they come to group, but not all the other tactics stop. It's going to take more than three weeks of coming to a men's group to stop.

Every week the men have to identify the violence and abuse they used during the week, or the times they could have used violence but didn't. We also phone their partners every week to check on their safety and the safety of their children. It is as much about working with women as it is with men.

Separation is the time of greatest risk of violence. A successful outcome of the Men's Behaviour Change Network can be if he or she leaves the domestic relationship without violence. That's an effective outcome. We teach men that there are consequences for the behaviour used. One consequence is that your family doesn't survive." 

November 25 is White Ribbon Day, the International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women.

- This story was first published on Sunday Life