I made a vow of ‘till death do us part’
For the next four months, Sandra lived in harmony with her former husband. He did not have any outburst nor display any alarming aggression, and so she dismissed the first incident as a one-off. She continued working, drawing an income much higher than what her ex was commanding. With her earning power, she could easily contribute a monthly sum of money to the household, a figure she says was hard on her ex to match.
The peace she knew was short lived. She was in the kitchen when her ex, unprovoked, came up from behind, grabbed her left ear and twisted it. Only when she combed her hair did she realise her hair was blotched with red. She sought medical attention on the sly, not risking even the slightest chance her ex would get a whiff of her indiscretion. At the behest of her general practitioner, who told her she might have need for a medical report, she went to a hospital. Sitting there in the waiting room, she was awash in shame. ‘No woman wants to be beaten up. For women trapped in a domestic violence situation, we feel as if we’re the only persons in the whole world going through this. I felt ashamed because I failed to work things out. I felt ashamed that other women could manage their relationships and conflicts well and I couldn’t. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t a good wife.’
This time the abuse could not be so easily remedied with an over-the-counter pill: the soft bones in her ear had fractured. The doctor who attended to her recognised it was domestic violence and gave her a piece of advice: she had to leave her ex-husband. But faith had in her deep roots, and was stronger than reason. She held on to an expression in the bible — Matthew 19:6: ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ Not only was she afraid of defying God’s will, she also did not see divorce as an option, as she did not see it in the marriages of her parents or her aunt and uncle. ‘In my family, there’s faithfulness and solidarity. We stick together, and we don’t leave each other in times of adversity.’
To work on her marriage, Sandra left the company and the gruelling schedule imposed on her. ‘I was travelling extensively. I was working late nights. Our schedules just didn’t match up for us to spend quality time together.’ Starting afresh as a freelancer, she took on small-scale projects. Her home became her office.
Though he was a gifted speaker, offstage Sandra’s ex was, by his own admission, not an effective communicator when it came to personal relationships. When he did speak his mind, he did not elucidate what he intended in his heart. ‘He expected me to know by intuition what he wanted. When he wanted intimacy, he expected me to know he wanted intimacy without telling me.’ He also carved her in the image of his own mother as a dutiful wife, and this expectation was one she simply could not live up to. ‘His mother was a full-time mother who devoted herself to the family. She cooked, ironed the clothes and cleaned the house. I couldn’t be like her. I had to work and contribute to the family. My line of work was chaotic: often I had to rush off to job sites to put out fires. And if I didn’t do a good job, I’d lose my client. I work on a referral basis, so all my projects are important to me.’ When Sandra failed to live up to these expectations, her ex, instead of speaking his mind, bottled up his feelings.
But negative feelings are crippling and they need an outlet, or else they will erupt at some point like a dormant volcano. Alcohol, as Sandra soon discovered, was the trigger that would undam her ex’s festering frustration. Kicking, punching, spitting, pushing, hurling of chairs — there was no predicting what erratic outburst Sandra would have to endure. The only constant was that her ex only turned violent whenever he drank. He would come home tipsy; the alcohol in his hands presaged another round of beatings. ‘What people misunderstand is that I was not exactly his punching bag. He only turned abusive whenever he’s intoxicated. He just had to finish the entire pack of beer.’ He would hector her with a choice of expletives. The physical and verbal attacks were like turbulent waves crashing into a monolith, eroding bits of her self-worth each time. He would also make a habit of throwing away her resource books on interior design or destroying her presentation materials. ‘I had to secure my work whenever he came home and keep it hidden. For him, as long as it was out of sight, it was out of mind.’ The approach of Friday and Saturday nights would unmoor Sandra, and increase her anxiety. As a teacher who didn’t have to work over the weekends, those were his designated drinking days. ‘I knew I was safe on Sundays.’
So severe were the abuses that Sandra had to call in the police to help defuse the tension on multiple occasions. And each and every time, all they could do was that. After taking down their statements, the officers would urge her to file a Personal Protection Order (PPO); in the absence of which, they could not make an arrest. ‘I refused to do it. I had no intention of exposing this embarrassing life to our common friends and our families. I held on to the faith that we could work things out.’
Despite having suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and knowing everything he was capable of, Sandra started a family with him, giving birth to her daughter in 2006. That was not a decision she made lightly. ‘His family urged us to start our own family. I agreed to do so only after he had made a commitment to quit drinking and smoking and clean up his act.’ Besides, Sandra says her ex-husband was not wholly a bad seed. He was an avuncular fellow, respected by the youths whom he led in spiritual bible readings and motivational sessions. They would often pray together, even after his episodes of abuse. ‘When you get a box with bad fruits, you don’t throw away the entire box. You salvage the good ones and discard the bad.’
Read: By 19, Jennifer Heng Already Had Two Abortions. This Is Her Story of Secret Shame, Self-forgiveness and Triumph.