Verbal abuse, intimidation, and coercion bookended by strangulation

Woman with ponytail and back turned carrying a backpack hiking in a valley with a river and mountains in the background.
Stock photography has been used to protect Kath's privacy.

One woman’s 14-year story
By Kath*
*Kath has been a client of RISE for a few years. Her name and all names in the story have been changed to protect identities. Also, Kath's story may be triggering for some; please read with caution.

After being with my partner of 14 years I finally decided to end the relationship after he strangled me for the second time. The first time was at the beginning of our relationship. I didn’t think it was a major issue at the time, but then the rest of the years unfolded with verbal abuse and random acts of coercion and finally, 14 years later, he tried it again and so I finally left.

The early years
The first time John strangled me at a function with his family. He became angry with me and put his hands on my throat. He didn’t do it in front of everyone, he took me down a drive and strangled me out of sight.

We stayed that night in a motel with his parents, so I felt it hard to get out of the situation. My gut reaction was to get out of there, but being out of town and hours from home, I felt trapped. All of my instincts and morals told me this behaviour was wrong, but I didn’t know how to get out of the situation. I suppose I felt embarrassed. We had been together for less than a year and the more I thought things through that night and the next day, the more I worried I would be a failure if I left. And so it began.

What I didn’t know then, but would come to know over time, is that he had a pattern of putting on a show in front of other people, making everyone think he was completely normal and sometimes even heroic, while being completely different with me alone. But I didn’t see it that night, not yet.

Over the next few years the verbal and psychological abuse started in earnest. John didn’t take drugs and, even though he drank, he wasn’t abusive when he drank. None of this felt like ‘classic’ domestic violence to me, even at the few times I thought about it.

I gave him a nickname: Jekyll and Hyde. He had this angry switch that would flip in an instant. His violent reactions overwhelmed me. Quite often it was around being asked to do something he didn’t want to do. I’d ask him to do something with me or do a house chore or something else, and if he didn’t want to do it, I’d get super angry John.
In the years following we had a couple of kids, first Jodi then Chris. John would call me names in front of the kids. I was always the bad parent when things went wrong. For John, it was always someone else’s fault, or else it didn’t ever happen. John started to use our kids toward his ends the older they got and this really affected me.

The beginning of the end
Around Easter 2018, toward what was becoming the end of our relationship, John escalated quite a lot. Sitting outside talking, he asked me what I would like to do that day. I asked him if he would trim a large branch off a tree that was growing over the fence from a neighbour. It was dropping leaves into the kids’ sandpit. He got snarky with me and said I’d have to go and ask the neighbour first. This turned into an argument and so I decided that it wasn’t going to happen and I got on with my day.

Later that day he came at me, puffed up like a peacock, and he put his hand on my shoulder and pressed so hard he bruised me. He did it right in front of our daughter, which was awful. I had to admit that I was really scared of him in that moment. I controlled myself and did not retaliate because I didn’t like what he was doing to me. And I most certainly didn’t like the fact that my beautiful daughter saw what he was doing, right there in front of us.

When I confronted him that evening after the kids had gone to bed, I told him that he’d hurt me. But he denied doing anything. Then he punched a hole in the wall. This was a first and I couldn’t believe what was happening. John doesn’t like confrontation and anytime I confronted him – which I wasn’t shy about, I definitely would confront him at times – he denied everything and diverted blame.

Distance provides perspective
In the spring of that year, my father passed away. It was a stressful, emotional time for me and my mum and we were dealing with everything for many weeks after dad passed. So much happened during these weeks. Our relationship was not going well. I planned to get away with the kids and my mum. Out of the blue, John said to me “While your away you can think about how we are going to tell the kids that we are over!” This shocked me, I didn’t want our relationship to end like this.

His last-minute efforts to keep me, despite his spiteful words, became more persistent. He tried to alienate me from my friends, which didn’t work. He started secretly watching my Messenger account and reading all my messages, but I only discovered this after our separation several months later. The worst was when he tried to manipulate my mum and turn her against me.

When we came home from our holiday, I told him our relationship was over. This was my chance. He was reluctant but I started the process of separating. I had told my mum a few things while we were away, but not the whole story. So John decided he would go to my mum behind my back. He manipulated what happened to try to get her on his side. It worked for a short while, but eventually I talked to my mum and told her everything, so his efforts failed again.

The anger turns physical
It took time for us to really separate because John tried so many things to keep us together. Living together was getting really hard and we were not sleeping in the same bed. Everything came to a head on a Sunday when John strangled me for the second time. This time, I left.

We had actually had a nice day that day, all four of us. As the kids were going to bed, Chris told me his father smacked him on the bum. When I asked John, he lied. He tried to make out that our son was a liar. So I asked Chris to show me his bottom and sure enough there was a large red handprint.

Later that night Jodi wasn’t feeling well. As John and I were helping her, he got angry with me. I asked him to keep his voice down and he came at me while I was in the bathroom Jodi and shook me violently. After I got Jodi to bed, I asked John to speak in the kitchen.

This is when I saw a man I had never seen in my life before. His whole face and eyes changed. It was evil. He launched himself at me and went for my throat with both hands, I pressed back with my hand on his throat. He took one hand off and went to punch me in the face, it was so close but I begged for him to stop and something in him managed to stop. I thank the Lord every day for that as I strongly believe that if he had hit me and I had gone down that I don’t think he would have been able to stop himself. And who would the kids have then.

I have never been so scared in my life as I was then and for the hours ahead. I managed to convince him to go out and sleep in our caravan for the night. I had both kids in my bed with me that night. I went to bed with a knife under my pillow, I was terrified he would come back in for another go. In the morning I was making plans in my head how to get out of there.

The next morning John got into a car accident and he came home to sort out insurance. When I told him that he hurt me badly the night before, he denied doing anything. I told him exactly what he had done and he knew he had done it, but he kept denying it. I felt strong now and I told him that we wouldn’t be here when he got home form work later that night. I said we’d be at my mum’s and he was not welcome there unless invited.

For the first time Police get involved
I was terrified he would go to the school and get the kids. When I told the principal what happened, I was told they could not legally stop him from picking them up. I went to my work and told them what happened. They could tell I was in real distress and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I would have involved the police. I am grateful that they called them for me.

A police officer took my statement. I didn’t want to press charges and at the time I didn’t really know why. I received an automatic five-day restraining order and John was not able to have any contact with the three of us. In the end, I went with my gut and didn’t press charges. I didn’t want the kids to see what he had done to me. The police were supportive and encouraged me to move forward, but I said no. Instead, I packed up the kids and got out.

But John never stopped trying to get to me. He approached many of my friends and tried to tell them about my ‘behaviour,’ as if I was responsible for causing him to strangle me and deserving of his abuse. He was trying to alienate me again from my friends. It worked with one good friend, one I had relied on who had been there for me. It was clear his manipulative efforts were successful because she was different with me. She started questioning me and I could tell from what she said that he’d told her a bunch of lies and she believed them. This was extremely hurtful and something you don’t forget.

The thing about John is, and I had a sense of it from the very first violent incident where he strangled me at his family gathering, he and his family appear normal, but they are not normal. If you talk to John or any of his family in a casual way, they say one thing that sounds really good, but then they do something entirely different when you’re not around. I feel like I’ve been hoodwinked all this time. John would tell me so many things, and none of them would come to pass. His whole family is this way, I think there is something going on with the entire family because John’s not the only one who behaves violently. All of the siblings have similar issues but no one is willing to do anything about it. I know that one of my nieces was strangled by her father, but no one talks about it.

After I left the intimidation continued
Since I left in late 2018, the violence hasn’t stopped, it’s just changed. We live apart and share custody. To intimidate both me and the kids, he started using the dog to get to us. When the kids went to his house, the dog went with. One time he didn’t give the dog back when the kids came back to me, and this really upset them.

In 2019 we were both (separately) at a sporting event for the kids. When I went to leave, John blocked me in with his car so I couldn’t get out of the car park. Both kids were with me and witnessed it. After the incident with the dog, and now this, not to mention all of the abusive phone calls and text messages, I went to the Police and filed charges. I received a protection order. John’s behaviour was a form of psychological abuse.

A few months later, Jodi had an incident with John while she and Chris were staying with him on his custody days. He was intimidating her and chased her around his house. She was very upset and said she wanted to ring me to come get her, but John wouldn’t let her. After this continued for some time, he finally let her call me and she was incredibly upset. I didn’t realise at the time that I could go and get her, I thought John’s custody was a firm thing, so I didn’t pick her up. So, for the rest of the night he taunted her. She refused to go back to her Dad’s and stay overnight ever since.

John has insisted on involving our kids in his games, and so the charges from the Police also involved the kids. The incidents with the dog, the witnessing of the carpark incident, and more, for all of this the Police had to talk to the kids. One of them was able to be helpful but the other clammed up and was clearly distressed about siding with mum or dad. This was heartbreaking to watch. And then John was going to call the kids as witnesses, and I didn’t want them to have to go through that.

I agreed to have the charges from the kids against John dropped if he pleaded guilty to my charge in car blocking incident. So the charge of intimidation was put against him and he pleaded guilty a year later. Sentencing is still to happen but I hope things will be wrapped up in a few months.  

It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve reflected more on my relationship. I wanted to see John the way I wanted him to be. I pushed aside the psychological abuse. Then, when we had kids, I wanted to put the kids first, and did for all those years. But John didn’t change his life for our kids, he kept doing all the things he wanted to do. There were many red flags and I see them now.

Deep down I didn’t want to be a failure. I didn’t want to let my parents down and then I didn’t want to let the kids down. Eventually as the kids got older, the way we were living just wasn’t right. I really didn’t want to bring my kids up like that anymore.

During all of this time I hadn’t dealt with anyone in the family violence area. Women’s Refuge contacted me after the second strangling, but I didn’t follow through with anything. It was only by chance that I was at a social function and met someone who works at RISE (formerly SVS – Living Safe). We talked for awhile and she got me started with RISE.


Help from RISE and the sun shines brighter

Ever since I started with RISE, I’ve been seeing a clinician regularly. I participated for many weeks in a group session with half a dozen other women, and it was so helpful to hear that other people had been through the same thing as me, although each had their own individual experience.

I remember the first day I went to the course. There were nine of us there, plus two group facilitators and another lady studying. I felt like I was in an American movie, all sitting around in a circle waiting to introduce ourselves. I wanted to laugh, stand up, and say my name and that I was an alcoholic! I’m joking but that would have been heaps easier than pouring out my heart and telling my story. I thought I had been dealing with everything so well. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I shed a lot of tears in that room. If I hadn’t had that group of amazing women to catch up with for all of those weeks, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I want to thank them. They helped me heal. We became strong together. It’s a great day when you learn how to forgive yourself. You never asked for the bad things to happen to you, but it’s your chance now to turn them around, walk around with your head high, and smile because the sun does come back out and you shine bright.

RISE has been amazing support for my kids also. Both of them are still working with clinicians, and I’m so grateful. I can see the anxiety build up over time with Jodi and then she visits RISE and she comes home settled down. We all have a safety plan now and we talk openly about what we’re learning and how we put it into practice. I can see all three of us are recovering, slowly. Sentencing day is going to be a day of closure for me, I hope.

Thank you RISE for believing in me and guiding me to get my strength back and be the best person I can be and a good role model for my children.

If I could go back and give the 30-year old me some advice, it would sound something like this:

“Don’t settle for someone you know isn’t treating you right. The signs are there, you just have to learn how to read them. Trust in yourself and your gut. Your family are always going to be there for you, but you already know that don’t you!

You thought you were going to end up alone – that’s not true either. Look at the love you have surrounded yourself with.

Look deeper into your own soul. Trust yourself. Just because someone says they like mountain biking, walking up hills, and playing the games you say you do doesn’t mean they actually do. Watch them act on their words. As the saying goes, ‘actions speak louder than words.’

Enjoy yourself now, never give up. You’re in for some heavy lessons but you come out with two amazing children, a strong-as-hell mother, a brother who cares for you, and a father who was trying to help all along. They all have helped in so many ways. My father taught me how a real man behaves. And don’t forget the true healing friends that are in your life.”

RISE delivers services into Nelson, Motueka, Golden Bay, Marlborough, Kaikoura, and the West Coast.
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