Lying beside him in bed, I automatically flinched, and the slap glanced off the side of my face. I corrected my position instantly, back into the path should another one come. Because I deserved it, or so I thought.
The relationship hadn't started out like that, of course. Not when I arrived in Istanbul, independent, adventurous, fizzing with the excitement of learning a new city, a new culture, a new life. I'd lived in Thailand, Australia, the Czech Republic and Spain, but the buzz never wore off.
I was more than ready to be swept off my feet by the unselfconsciously romantic, mushily affectionate tour guide I'd met on a previous trip. He was so different from men of my own culture. He told me he was looking to be in love on our first date -- not necessarily that I was the one, but a man that was actually seeking commitment and called me all the time just to hear my voice? This was heady stuff.
I retained some of that independent spirit at first. I was making friends in my new city and, naturally, some of them were male. I went home when I felt like it at the end of the night, which wasn't usually that late, and didn't always think to call if I was busy doing my own thing. Once, after dinner with three other girls, I ended up stopping off for a drink with them before the 15-minute walk to my flat. He called me at about 11:30 and, realising I was still out, instructed me to be home by midnight. And rang me to check. He wasn't happy that I was still about 10 minutes from my door at 11:55.
The next day, he was cold -- a mood I was to become so used to that I could tune into it like a radio station from across the room. The Freeze Out. A punishing silence that communicates more than words ever could: “You have displeased me.”
It happens like this. Events are otherwise normal. Then, you transgress in some way -- perhaps minor, perhaps unnoticed by you. You become aware that responses from your loved one have vanished. A frosty atmosphere pervades. You attempt a couple of conversation starters or physical gestures to check it’s not just in your imagination. Responses to those are curt. This is definitely happening. Again.
In the beginning I shrugged it off as a different way of dealing with things that he would eventually get over. For a while, I fought hard to keep my male friends, but eventually, the fear of the withdrawal of affections meant I started rebelling in secret.
The rebellions were small, a drink here, a tea there. A big leap for clandestine freedom was a whole day at the beach with a French male friend. I hadn’t told my boyfriend I was going. He was working so, otherwise, I'd have melted in the 100° F city with nothing to do all day. When I was on the ferry back, he called and invited me to dinner with his customers who wanted to take him to a fancy restaurant. I said I was on the way home and needed an hour to get ready and meet them. During dinner, the family asked me something and I mentioned what I had been doing that day. He made a joke of it in front of them and I thought I’d got away with it.
This is another characteristic of the abusive partner -- behaving one way in public and another in private. On the way home, he remembered, literally mid-conversation, and the temperature of the evening plummeted. He now had on his side the fact I had lied about what I was doing.
In time, lying about where I was became so stressful that I couldn't enjoy myself in case someone saw me or I missed the last permitted ferry and wasn't home when I was supposed to be. It became easier just to avoid meeting friends altogether, especially male ones. Female friends whose partners let them be out in restaurants or bars late were a bad influence. Even with his male friends, I had to be careful. Mentioning one of their names twice in one afternoon was noted and queried. Chatting to one at a wedding while he was off dancing resulted in The Freeze Out for the rest of the night and on the way home.
Anyone in Turkey that I discussed this with was philosophical. A Turkish boyfriend was jealous, they said, but he really cared about you. For Turks, not being jealous is a sign you don't feel strongly enough. There was a lot to adapt to. He had a different idea of equality in a relationship. Our roles were equally important, but not equal. Men were men and women were women, and they took care of each other in different ways. I just needed to understand that I was safer from predatory men by following his advice.
After a year, my head was so turned around I, too, felt this ever-present danger and saw my insistent independence as a kind of insult to how much he did for me.
I was overlooking so much that it became easy to lump in all the other little things as cultural rather than indicators of his personality. His constant watching of my weight; the admonitions to "wear good" or put makeup on, but to cover up if I drew the attention of other men; the perfume he bought me then was annoyed if I didn't wear; telling me I had done nothing with my life so far, and he was my chance to make it count. (I had an MA I'd paid myself through, savings and had travelled and worked all over the place.)
My freedom came when he went away for 18 months for military service. I began to reclaim my old life, albeit one I'd only briefly experienced in Turkey. With the geographical distance and the lack of phone calls from the prison-like barracks, I slowly started going places with people and not having to explain. I was lying still, but mostly by omission.
It became a normal way to live. So normal that I cheated on him for the summer with someone who couldn't impose any rules on me because he wasn't my boyfriend. Someone I never would have been interested in before. I made plans to leave and I was confident that, at some point, I'd end my relationship and move on.
And then my boyfriend came back, and I fell back in love. I'd waited for him, he thought, and I'd proved myself. I was lovingly placed on the highest pedestal. Back in the cocoon, I was happy and I forgot about the summer fling.
And then he found out about it. Witnessing the trauma and pain I'd inflicted was hideous. He was physically affected by it and there was no doubt the suffering was real. Wheile he might have been going to relax a lot of the reins on my freedom, instead he tightened them.
I felt so guilty that I allowed the constant interrogations, the throwing out of any tainted clothes, the not going to certain parts of the city, the checking of my phone. I changed my email address so male friends from the past couldn't leave a time bomb with their name attached in my inbox. I cut everyone off on Facebook and deleted any posts that might anger him on the frequent occasions he went through my wall. I was so ashamed of what I had done that I couldn't bear to be around people, and I was so ashamed of the forgiveness-seeking mouse I'd become that I didn't want anyone to see what I was doing.
He, on the other hand was so shamed, he told everyone. Close family members I had to see all the time, all his friends, customers he was guiding for the day. He wore it like Joseph's technicolour dreamcoat and I was crushed under the weight of it.
When he got so angry that he started hitting me, I felt like it was what I deserved for everything I'd put him through. It escalated, as these things do. Once he pulled me off the bed by my hair and dragged me to another room where I'd be out of his sight. I locked myself in the other room and waited until he calmed down. Happily.
Yes, that's right, happily. Because after these moments, he was always mortified -- genuinely horrified at what he'd done, and I knew I had a guaranteed few days of my old, loving boyfriend back. The longest stretch was nine days. That time, I even dared hope we were back to normal. Normal -- you know, where he just got in a mood or told me what to wear. I could stand the violence much more than the icy moods. I even encouraged situations where cold anger would boil over as it was a relief, like lancing a boil.
You could ask why I put up with it. If I knew, I'd tell you because I still don't know. A better question would be when did I start putting up with it? The first time he criticized my weight? That would be the first time we slept together. The first time he went into a mood? That would be about two months in when I was panicking that I'd lost my wallet and said I thought I'd given it to him but it turned out just to be in the bottom of my bag. The truth is every one of those things I accepted led to what happened later. This is the insidious way violence starts in a relationship, no matter how obvious the warnings are in hindsight.
Women can't hear these stories enough -- not until we're all capable of spotting the warning signs and getting out before it goes too far.