Like the frog who is slowly boiled alive, some forms of coercion and control can be so insidious that victims don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late. Inspired by the SBS documentary on domestic violence, “See What You Made Me Do,” by Jess Hill, this three-part series of fictional stories looks at the emotional, psychological and financial impacts of violence against women.
Another COVID Break Up
My sister’s ride share driver said there have been a lot of relationship breakups during COVID. He said people sit in the back of his car and cry. Under the strain of financial hardship, enforced togetherness and the lack of circuit breakers usually provided by the outside world, many relationships have imploded. But my former husband says that his decision to end our marriage had nothing to do with lockdown. The fact that the pandemic was in full swing when he walked out on our family was just a coincidence.
Ironically, the early days of COVID were some of the happiest of my life. Work in my usual industry dried up, and so I replaced my 9 to 5 office job with writing full time. For the past two years, I had been working on a novel, which I had fitted in on evenings and weekends. But now, I was able to spend entire days doing what I loved.
Thinking that the lockdown would only last a couple of weeks, or a month at the most, I made the most of my writing time. When I was not writing, I spent time with the family and caught up on all the domestic chores that usually went by the wayside. I weeded the garden, emptied the ironing basket, and cooked homemade meals from scratch.
Then one night, my former husband plastered the utility bills on the fridge and announced that he was the only one earning an income. I have always been aware of the disparity in our incomes and so took on the lion’s share of the domestic work. I doubled down on my efforts in that department, keeping the house spotless, the ironing basket empty and dinner on the table every night at six.
But it was not enough.
I offered to draw down my superannuation to help get us through the next few months. A move that would disadvantage my already inadequate retirement savings. I did that and so was able to contribute to the household expenses. My husband suggested that I use some of my newly acquired largesse to update some things around the house. He suggested I replace my laptop, even though the one I had was working perfectly and he asked me to buy an over-priced TV unit. He had seen it on e-bay and said it would match our French Provincial coffee table. I did not really want to buy these items, but I went along with his suggestions to keep the peace.
Hoping my efforts had affrayed my husband’s resentment, I turned back to the novel. It would not be long before the pandemic blew over and I would be back at work, or so I believed.
With news reports of increased domestic violence and relationship breakdowns, I congratulated my family on how well we were handling the pandemic. Living in our rented McMansion, we were able to escape to our own private spaces and the technology that kept us entertained.
But then the crisis happened that tipped us over the edge. My husband called me from the bottle shop to tell me his car had been clamped and his license suspended. It was not the first time. My husband’s demerit points always ran high.
My son went to pick him up and I was upstairs in the spare bedroom I used for writing when they came home. The room overlooked the backyard and garage, and I kept watch for my husband to return. As I waited, I imagined him coming upstairs with an apology for his irresponsible behaviour but instead, I watched on as he unloaded box after box of wine from the boot of my son’s car and brought them into the house. After the last box was bought inside, still I waited upstairs but my husband did not make an appearance and so I went down.
As I trod down the stairs, I recalled the time shortly after my eldest son was born that my husband lost his license for drink driving. Unable to contain my fury at his risking our livelihood at a time when I needed his support the most, I had flown at him in a rage when he walked in the door. But over time, I came to realise that emotional displays were just as useless as trying to reason with him.
He did exactly as he pleased.
I walked into the kitchen where my husband was unpacking his wine bottles into the bar fridge. When he finally acknowledged me, it was not with the apology I had hope for, but with a tale of woe. The police had been unnecessarily heavy-handed, he was not aware that his license had been suspended, it was just bad timing that he had been there when the cops arrived.
I listened stony faced and said that he had brought it on himself.
The next few days passed in frosty silence and the following Saturday morning, when we sat in the underground car park of our local shopping centre, he told me that our marriage was over. He said that he was fed up with my lack of empathy and that he had found other accommodation. He was vague about his decision and when I asked if there was someone else, he would neither confirm nor deny, so I took that as a yes.
The next few months were a time of panic and turmoil for me and the boys. The boys asked if they were ever going to see their father again and although I assured them that they would, I really did not know if that was true.
My husband issued a three-month deadline before he would stop paying the rent on our home, and I knew I had to find other accommodation fast. But without a job or any savings, this was going to be impossible. The informal settlement my former spouse offered was completely inadequate but as a fifty-something woman with adult children and no assets, I am not eligible for legal aid. The private lawyers I spoke to were prohibitively expensive and so I had no choice but to accept his terms.
Unable to sleep or eat, I found myself in the doctor’s rooms in tears. He prescribed short-term sleeping tablets and gave me a referral to a free counsellor with a four-month waiting list.
While everyone in my family was distraught about my situation there was nothing they could do. My ex had abandoned myself and my sons to a future without a home and offered only meagre financial support.
But then COVID came to my rescue. I was eligible for Jobseeker payments, which gave me a regular income and I was able to access a second round of superannuation to help me secure a rental property. I was fortunate enough to find a job within weeks and the downturn in the rental market allowed me to find a property in a suitable area that was close to public transport. Thanks to the unusual conditions of COVID, I have been able to start my life again on my own terms and not those dictated by my former husband.
It has been an adjustment going from a sprawling two-story home to a two-bedroom unit. I crash around the tiny kitchen like a disoriented giant in Lilliput, as I negotiate the kettle, toaster and cutting board in the limited bench space. Similarly, I have traded the luxurious silver Mercedes with leather seats for public transport. It has taken me a while to work out how to synchronise the bus and train timetables, but now I have figured it out. A less glamourous mode of transport but at least I know my ticket is bought and paid for whereas we owed more on the Mercedes than what it was worth.
Like my former husband, I do not blame COVID for the end of our marriage, but I know that the time in lockdown gave us pause to consider our relationship and what we wanted out of life.
I chose to write and enjoy the company of my loved ones. My husband chose to leave.