Helga and Don 65 have been in a defacto relationship for 31 years.
My aunt and uncle got married in December last year.
My aunt Helga is 62, my uncle Don 65 and they'd been in a defacto relationship for 31 years and have one daughter together.
There's no doubt that their relationship trajectory is a unique one, but there were a lot of very good reasons for my aunt and uncle to wait 31 years to put a ring on it. Most of those reasons can be summed up with that overused Corinthians reading about "love is patient, love is kind" – because before she met my uncle, my aunt Helga was in an abusive relationship for 13 years and it took her another 31 to be comfortable with even the idea of marriage.
Don puts a ring on it on a very happy wedding day.
For starters, Helga's parents (my grandparents) weren't the best marriage role-models; my grandfather was a serial philanderer who, the story goes, left England for Australia to find work and then sent for the family – but once my grandmother arrived (with three children in tow) she discovered that he'd also moved his new girlfriend into their new house, and expected her to co-habitat.
My grandparents separated, but for a long time Helga blamed her mother for the marriage breakdown. She moved out of home at the age of 17 and started a serious relationship with a man who would threaten to kill if she ever left him, then harassed her for a year after she finally did, at the age of 30.
'It is very rare that the violence begins on the first date,' says Karen Willis, Executive Officer from the Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia (formerly NSW Rape Crisis Centre). 'For most of the early part of the relationship it is very intense, emotional and exclusive of others. Comments like "he really cares about me, he wants to know all about what I am doing" or "he likes to come shopping with me to buy clothes" or "he says it's you and me against the world". This can feel like a very special place and if that is how it stays and both are happy with that intensity, then all is very good.'
Even now, my aunt speaks of his charm and charisma when looking back at the destructive relationship that began when she was a teenager; 'He was a very good-looking guy. He was a little older, he had money and I couldn't believe he was interested in me.'
Karen Willis highlights the shift in abusive relationships; 'Unfortunately for some it becomes "I have to report to him everything I do and account for every minute of my day" or "I can only wear what he says." Any attempt to have any independence of thought or action is identified as evidence of lack of love or commitment. The gradual changes from the first statements to the second are usually accompanied by emotional blackmail, blame, anger and threats.'
Helga drifted away from her family as the relationship intensified, and his hold on her tightened – my grandmother thought this was due to the fact that Helga still harboured resentment towards her for the divorce, she had no idea of the real reason.
It wasn't until my grandfather got a phone call in the middle of the night, begging him to come pick her up, that the truth started to reveal itself. On that particular occasion Helga describes how her boyfriend; 'Went off his head. We were driving, and then he stopped and physically kicked me out of the car, on the side of the freeway. I don't remember what set him off, but I had to call my dad to come get me.' Even after the family learnt the truth of their relationship, Helga stayed with him – 'I was 18. I was scared to leave, I was scared about what he'd do to me. I was scared of what he'd do to my family. And I loved him.'
That was her life then – she describes it like; 'walking on a tightrope for thirteen years,' never knowing what would set him off.
'The shifting sands of emotional and psychological domestic violence ensure the person, usually the woman, lives her life trying to please him and in fear of the next outburst,' Willis says, 'She will often collude with him in the belief that it is her or the worlds fault – anyone or thing other than his responsibility.'
It wasn't until she was 30-years-old that she left and left for good … 'We'd been out to dinner with friends and then come back to where we were living, and he said something and I offended him – he was telling a story and I made some comment – so he got his gun and said he was going to shoot me. He kept me in the bedroom for four hours, with the loaded gun, threatening to kill me. Our roommates arrived home and talked him down, then I got in the car and left. I didn't take anything with me.'
She moved back in with her mother, but during that first year after she left him her ex would drive by the house and threaten her over the phone. He'd know if she met up with any male friends, because he'd call her asking to know where they lived. Eventually he gave up, got bored or moved on.
So, to say that Helga didn't grow up daydreaming about her wedding day is an understatement. Even after she met Don and they moved in together then had a child two years later, marriage was never discussed between them; 'never wanted it, never needed it,' is how Helga puts it.
In the end, the proposal was a surprise to everyone, especially Helga. Don popped the question at a family reunion – via a taped message he played in front of 50 or so gathered family members – before turning to Helga and getting down on bended-knee. 'She started talking about the idea of marriage about a year ago, when before she didn't even want to know about it,' Don says, 'So I knew she was changing her mind and then it just felt like the right time to have a party, so I asked the question.'
They held the ceremony in their backyard, surrounded by family and the friends they've had for decades, their grown daughter was ring-bearer.
Karen Willis acknowledges that those who've suffered from intimate Partner Violence will often have a long road to healing ahead of them; 'This grooming process entraps. It becomes very difficult to see outside of the daily fear and feeling or responsibility. Once safe, for some it can take years to rebuild a sense of self worth and ability to trust.' This was true for my aunt, who took 31 years to feel secure enough in her relationship with my uncle to marry him.
And for those like my uncle Don who's loved ones previously experienced intimate-partner violence, their patience and willingness to seek help is just as important to the healing process. 'For partners they can ring 1800RESPECT and counsellors will work with them to identify "specific to their situation" ways in which they can best support the person they care about - this accounted for 17% of our work last year,' says Willis, speaking of the professional telephone and online crisis and trauma counselling service which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I ask Helga if she waited so long to get married because of that tightrope she walked for 13 years; 'It's taken me this long to be sure, definitely. It was just – I don't think it's that important really. After what I'd been through, marriage didn't seem like anything to me. I thought it was more important to really love and trust the person, to have a friendship with them. That's better. Marriage doesn't really mean anything without all the other parts to back it up.'