There are no slaps and kicks – but it’s a relationship that hurts like hell. Your man explodes over petty issues, and lets fly with insults and vulgarities. One phone call from him turns your girls’ night out into a testy affair – you have to report your whereabouts and he gets furious when you say you can’t
meet him.

A prisoner of love? Perhaps – but there’s no hint of affection. Instead, you’re bound by invisible chains of fear. These are all signs of emotional abuse, a problem that’s on the rise. Last year, the Association of Women for Research and Education (Aware) received 98 calls from women seeking help for it, up from 64 in 2012. These cases made up around 20 per cent of Aware’s abuse and violence cases
in 2013.

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“We got 148 calls from women suffering from physical abuse … but I can tell you that almost all of these involved some element of emotional violence too,” says Sheena Kanwar, manager of Aware’s support services. “Physical violence is often the tip of the iceberg. It’s often supported by a mass of emotional abuse.”

The awful truth is no one knows how many more women are quietly suffering. Experts agree that emotional abuse tends to be under-reported. “I’ve met many wives who think, ‘It’s just a scolding; at least he didn’t hit me,’” says Seah Kheng Yeow, head of family development and community relations at Pave, a family violence specialist centre. A 2012 survey by Aware found that while 84 per cent of Singaporeans can identify physical abuse, only 59 per cent can recognise the signs of
emotional abuse.

For this story, we spoke to four women who have suffered from emotional abuse. All initially kept silent about what they were going through, thinking it was “their fault” for angering their partners. Most believed (wrongly) that their boyfriends or husbands would change.

When asked why she never told anyone about her ex-fiance’s abusive nature, Ashley*, 29, an entrepreneur, says: “I was ashamed. I didn’t want to seek help from an organisation. I was young and felt I shouldn’t have to go through this.”

Throughout their one-year relationship, Bob* insisted that Ashley consult him on all decisions. He would order: “Come meet me now”, and she’d have to drop her plans. “If I didn’t, he accused me of cheating on him and called me a slut,” she says. He also raged at her over the slightest things. “Once, he offered to pick me up after work. I was a few minutes late because I’d left my handphone in my office and had to go back to get it. By the time I took the lift down, Bob was already there, glowering. “He shouted at me in the middle of the crowded lobby, asking how I dared to be so late and forgetful. Everyone was staring at us,” says Ashley, who kept silent, afraid to provoke Bob.

Though she broke up with Bob some months later, she regrets losing friendships with her close girl pals. Unaware of Bob’s possessive nature, they’d assumed she was a poor friend for constantly ditching their girlie meet-ups. She’s since told them what she had gone through and is trying to win them back. “My advice? Don’t be afraid to speak up about the abuse,” she says.

The worst thing you can do is to ignore the abuse or hope it goes away. It won’t, and it can traumatise those around you, including your children.

“I had a client whose husband of 10 years terrorised her and their teenage son,” says Tan Siew Kim, a divorce lawyer at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing. “He would break things, screaming: ‘One day, I’m going to kill both of you.’” The 40-something homemaker only filed for divorce after she discovered her son’s suicidal journal entries. “The problem with emotional abuse is that, if left unchecked, it can lead to physical violence and even murder,” says Kheng Yeow. “Seek help as early as possible.”

Jane*, 35, knows first-hand how insults and scoldings can swiftly lead to blows, having endured nine years with an abusive husband. “Hank* was unemployed and always asked me for money to go partying. When I refused, he would break mirrors and slam doors,” says the administrator. He would also threaten her, saying: “Don’t make me slap you.” “I used to cry myself to sleep, thinking it was my fault for angering him,” says Jane.

Six months into their marriage, the violence turned physical. Hank started slapping and shoving Jane, even breaking her finger once. In their fourth year of marriage, he lifted and flung her out of the window of their seventh-storey flat during a fight. “I landed on the ledge and managed to crawl back in. I was pregnant at the time and miscarried,” she recalls.

Yet she didn’t make a police report and continued staying with him, believing that divorce was shameful. She also feared that people would judge her for not trying to save her marriage. The final straw came when a drunk Hank visited Jane’s parents’ home one night. “He woke my parents up at 3am and told them that our family was rubbish,” she says. This spurred her to finally divorce him.

Yet, Jane continues to bear the scars of her traumatic experience. She reveals: “Even now, a part of me wonders if I could have saved the marriage – could I have spoken to Hank in a nicer way? Been less rude? But then I snap out of it. No one deserves what I went through.”

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“I got together with Larry* in 2009, after a string of bad relationships. I was craving affection and wanted to prove I could hold on to a man. I guess my low self-esteem made me a perfect target for Larry’s manipulative ways. He constantly dictated how a ‘good woman’ should behave. We rarely went out – instead, he came to my house every other day, expecting me to cook for him. If I didn’t, he gave me the silent treatment or accused me of neglecting him.

He also demanded sex at least twice a day. We got into huge fights whenever I wasn’t in the mood. He often guilt-tripped me, saying: ‘What kind of girlfriend expects her boyfriend to masturbate?’ He hinted that if I didn’t please him, he would find other girls to ‘play with’ before dumping them. ‘If you hurt me, I have to hurt someone else,’ he’d say. It was all so tiring that I often just gave in.

He justified his actions by saying that good women submitted to their partners. ‘My mum always agreed to have sex with my dad. It’s a wife’s duty,’ he said. Once, he declared, ‘Wives are like whores for their men.’ I became pregnant in our second year of courtship and was terrified. His response: ‘It was your fault for seducing me.’ He refused to pay for the abortion, or even accompany me to
the clinic.

Scarily enough, Larry convinced me that all this was normal in a relationship. When I wondered how my brother could treat his girlfriend with kindness, he jeered: ‘Your brother is a wimp. We have a more mature relationship.’ He also insisted that love was about accepting his flaws.

Oddly, the last straw came when I had a dream that we had broken up. In my dream, I felt overjoyed. But when I woke up, reality crashed. I was still trapped. I immediately called him and demanded a break-up. He agreed reluctantly, but not without a parting shot: ‘Fine, I wanted to split up too.’

I used to believe that the only way I could get Larry’s love was to submit to him. But now I wish I’d called him out much earlier.” – Holly*, 27, editor

“I knew I was out of love by the second year of my relationship with John*. I had realised how toxic the relationship was. Yet, fear locked me in for a year longer – I believed John was dangerous and would harm me if I dared leave. When our families met to discuss our engagement in our third year together, I was so cowed that I didn’t protest. I simply prayed: ‘If this is my fate, please protect me from John.’

I had already glimpsed his temper within the first few months of dating. He would call me on numerous occasions, raving about something trivial – how he had been offended by a passing remark my friend had made about my ex-boyfriend, or how I hadn’t been at home on a day he’d dropped by to surprise me. ‘I did something nice for you. Why weren’t you there?’ he had screamed.

Once, we were at his uncle’s funeral, and John became furious when he saw me talking to a friend, claiming I was not respecting his family. He told me to leave. As I left, he ran after me, yelling obscenities. I ignored the stares and hastily hopped into a cab. I never imagined I could walk out of the relationship safely.

John would slip threats into our conversations. Once, he said casually: ‘If you leave me, I’ll throw acid in your face.’ I became so scared of him that I would get heart palpitations whenever he called.

A few weeks after my engagement, my mother told me: ‘Do not let John rule your life.’ She had suspected something was wrong after overhearing the numerous tearful phone conversations I’d been having with John. Her words were like the key out of the prison I had been in. I broke down and told her everything. She was shocked but assured me that my family would stand behind me.

They did. My father called John to announce that the engagement was over. When John arrived at our house, demanding to see me, I stood my ground. Every day after that, he called me, trying to persuade me to change my mind. He begged, shouted, and even threatened suicide. I never wavered. After a month, he gave up.

Thanks to my family’s support, walking out on John turned out to be the easiest thing I’ve ever done. If you ever fear someone who is supposed to love you, listen to your gut. Walk away.”
– Mary*, 40, lawyer

Call a helpline: These organisations are trained to handle family violence cases, and can help you understand your options.

  • Aware: 1800-774-5935
  • Pave: 6555-0390
  • Trans Safe Centre: 6449-9088
  • Care Corner Project Start: 6476-1482

Make a police report: “Do this if he is stalking or threatening you,” says divorce lawyer Tan Siew Kim. Save evidence of the abuse, like threatening e-mails and messages.

Get a Personal Protection Order (PPO): This is an option for married women. A PPO means your husband can be fined and/or imprisoned if he uses violence against you, which includes threatening or harassing you. Apply for one at a family violence specialist centre, or at the Family and Juvenile Court (6435-5077).

*Names have been changed.

This story was first published in Her World magazine July 2014 issue.