Dr Feelgood is Dr Sally Cockburn
about Dr Sally 1

Mrs X

Yesterday morning I saw the images of Nigella Lawson and the alleged abuse from her husband.

It got me thinking about how people still have a picture in their mind of the sort of woman who is victim to such things. The deliciously gorgeous and successful Nigella wouldn’t be the first image to spring to mind.

I recall a Mrs X in her 50s. I was a brand spanking new doctor in my mid 20s. She came to see me for a routine check to see that the plaster cast put on her arm last night in the Emergency Deparment had been fitted correctly.

It was a nice practice in a nice suburb. She was well dressed and impeccably coiffed. She had a broken arm. How had it happened, I asked.

She rattled off her response: “I fell down the stairs”.

I looked up and caught her piercing eyes. She was checking to see if I was safe. “Actually the truth is my husband did it.”

I asked her if it had happened before. She acknowledged that it had. I asked why she hadn’t reported it. She said he was a public figure and no one would believe her, besides, it was embarrassing.

I discussed the case with my boss at lunch time. He knew her as she was a regular attender. He said: “Oh, Mrs X? You know she’s Mr X’s, the [insert high profile position here ], wife. Don’t worry about her. She’s neurotic.”

Her story is indelibly printed on my memory and I wish I could find her and apologise for not following her up. I believe her.

Since then, I have not only come across stay at home wives of “well respected men” who have been abused, but also high profile, successful, respected women who have been abused by their partners.

In those days, and sadly sometimes still, victims of intimate partner abuse are often thought of as being from certain socio-economic or cultural backgrounds or as having shrinking, vulnerable personalities.

But worse, many victims hold these stereotypes in their own heads and they don’t seek help because they feel they don’t fit the usual picture and are ashamed.

Ashamed as they drive their nice car to the doctors to discuss their stress; ashamed as they sit pondering behind their CEO desk. How could someone with their educational background and high powered job could find themselves in a relationship where the partner that used to make them laugh now makes them cry themselves to sleep?

How can they admit this is happening to them?

It’s hard to really know what the stats are, because high profile women aren’t going to want to go there as its embarrassing and “might impact” their career. They fear being portrayed as weak.

Let’s face it if you are a high-profile woman – maybe a lawyer, doctor, CEO, politician – you’re probably going to just tell yourself to get on with it, and more that, blame yourself for being so pathetic as to be in such a position.

You may find yourself staring at your qualifications thinking: “Hang on, I can’t be as stupid as he tells me – they gave me this degree/invited me on their board. Tough it out, girl.”

No! Get help, girl!

I know you’re probably thinking: why don’t these strong women just leave? That’s where the common thread is – chronic abuse from a partner doesn’t have to be physical to have a devastating effect.

Constant put-downs erode confidence and women in these situations are constantly dealing with the incongruity of: He’s my partner. He tells me he loves me, he knows me best. If he’s telling me I am hopeless maybe it’s true… (Note: you can probably substitute “she” here as it isn’t just a straight issue.)

Don’t assume that a woman with an expensive car, and a powerful job isn’t going home to a destructive relationship. By day she is lauded, by night told she’s nothing.

Imagine what that does to her head?

I hear about this so often and have pondered why it happens. I have my own theories. I think it has roots in basic pack animal mentality: There is a leader – the alpha male – these women are attracted to. The alpha male is also attracted to the successful, articulate woman.

At the beginning she enjoys having someone stronger than herself to be with and he is fascinated. Then as the relationship settles in and the veneer wears off, like the bull elephant who is challenged by the upcoming male, he starts to see her strength as a threat to this leadership position, his masculinity.

When she wins domestic or political debates he feels emasculated. He turns to his armoury – he knows where she lives.

The very buttons he used to push to make her feel good can now be used in reverse – to erode her confidence and put her back in her place. I’m not saying this is necessarily something he does consciously. I am also not saying she didn’t contribute in some small way.

Maybe she used to be more willing – a doting ‘yes’ person – but as the years went on she got sick of pumping up his tyres and now she uses the same debating techniques she uses at work. Maybe, just maybe, she was pushing his buttons a bit, too. Either way it’s really not healthy.

Why is it that people who love each other often end up being the most destructive force on each other? If only, when things went wrong, we could just shake hands and say ‘thanks for the good times’ rather than ripping the humanity out of each other .

I hope Nigella Lawson gets the support she needs. I hope you do, too.

Surprising as it may sound, social media – especially Twitter – can be somewhere we can build support.

(c) Dr Sally Cockburn 2013

first published June 17 2013 at  THE HOOPLA