But if Sandra had any glimmer of hope her ex would turn over a new leaf or at least rein in his abuse with the arrival of a baby, it was very quickly extinguished. Once, he pushed her while she was pregnant. Another incident took place just a few weeks after her daughter was born. Half drunk, her ex pinned her down and wrestled with her — all while her daughter was lying on the edge of the bed just one foot away from them. A sudden recoil from either of them could have been catastrophic. ‘A baby’s neck is very fragile. Had anything happened during the scuffle, she could have fallen and broken her neck and become crippled for life. He had no regard for his own daughter’s safety. That was the first point of realisation I had about leaving him — for the sake of my daughter, I had to. But I wasn’t ready.’ Sandra also stayed in the marriage because of the misguided belief that a daughter needs to know her father.
The clockwork pattern of abuse changed when her ex quit his teaching job — a job he came to loathe — and went to work at a reputable Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ firm helmed by a close friend. ‘We had just welcomed a baby. It was an uncertain time. That he couldn’t hold out for another year or so, and stay on the job to continue bringing in the income; for him to just switch to another job at this critical time, I thought it was highly irresponsible.’ Her ex’s new flexible working hours gave him the freedom to imbibe any time of the day, and so his irrational outbursts followed no schedule. One late night, he took her head and slammed it right into the bedframe. ‘I had a momentary blackout. When I came to, I couldn’t see anything. I got out of the house because I thought I needed urgent medical attention, to check that nothing was broken or that my eyesight was not damaged. He chased after me, barricaded the lift and didn’t allow me to seek medical attention.’
The dynamics of the relationship had also changed. As Sandra decided to become a full-time mother to put the well-being of her daughter before her own needs and ambitions, she became financially dependent on him. He was the sole breadwinner, providing a roof over their heads. He had the greater earning power. Very soon, Sandra’s savings dried up. ‘Six months after the birth of my daughter, he started pushing me to begin work again. It was difficult having to juggle between work and mothering a child.’
Abuse manifests in many forms, not just physical or verbal. ‘Depriving us of our primary needs was one of his ways of exerting control. When I woke up at one in the morning to work, he would switch off the light in the living room, which was where I usually did my work. His thinking was “I’ve already provided for the house; you should be grateful by not wasting electricity and adding extra costs to the utility bills for your work.” Once, he got drunk around six in the evening, and took away my daughter’s dinner that I had bought for her.’ Another time, after an accident, he took the family car to a workshop and claimed thousands of dollars from Sandra. It was only much later, when she checked the receipt, that she realised the bill came up to only seven hundred dollars. ‘I asked him why he did that. In reply, he said: “Well, you were prepared to fork out that much money.”’
Sandra’s daughter was often the collateral damage after each fracas. The first time he tried something she was only nine months old. ‘He confined her in her room, and all I could do was stand helplessly by the door and listen for any clues that he was beating her. My daughter was crying, and he just kept shouting, telling her to shut up. Only when she became silent did he let her out of the room.’ Over time, because of this conditioning, Sandra says in the presence of her father, her daughter no longer quailed when she was afraid. She learnt that crying only exacerbated matters, and so she learnt to suffer in silence. ‘It is a natural response for children to cry when they are frightened. Imagine that terror her father has weaponised, to be able to get her to suppress that instinct and get her to submit to his will.’
To protect her daughter, Sandra would breastfeed her and soothe her to sleep by nine o’clock, hoping with some luck and not a peep from her daughter her ex would ignore them whenever he came home drunk — out of sight, out of mind. On Friday nights, after church sessions, she would sit by the swimming pool till past midnight and wait till her ex had passed out from his drunkenness before sneaking back home. The two would also sleep on the floor, on a mattress laid next to the bed her ex slept in. ‘I didn’t feel safe letting my daughter co-sleep with him, as he had a habit of rolling over her in his sleep. Once, while asleep, he unknowingly put his leg on her and I nudged it using my feet to free my daughter. A few minutes later, he struck my ankle with his feet in full retaliation.’
Of her ex-husband’s violent behaviour, Sandra had had conversations with her daughter. ‘Since she was young, I taught her that hitting is wrong. I didn’t want her to think her father’s behaviour was one to model after, lest she went around beating other kids in school whenever she was unhappy with something. She never asked why I let my ex hit me.’
Sex is an integral part of any healthy marriage. But oscillating between constant fear and anxiety, Sandra was not up for it and would reject her ex’s advances. ‘The same hands that beat me are the same hands that now want to touch me. The same hands that punched me, slapped me, pushed me and broke my ears are now the ones that want to pleasure me.’ The highest level of intimacy is the culmination of the physical act, mutual trust and a deep connection. We had none of that. We were frigid.’ Her rejections in turn soured the relationship, and added to his anger. ‘I remember thinking: “What else do you want from me? Isn’t it enough that you beat me?”’ All the times she acquiesced to his demands, Sandra says she felt like she was being raped.