“The ceremony at Slot Zeist, the delicious lunch at the Amstel Hotel, the boat trip through Amsterdam’s canals and the lovely people who were present. Yes, my wedding day seemed perfect. But most of all I remember the fear and the doubts. As I uttered the words ‘yes, I want’, I knew full well that our fairytale wedding looked very different behind the front door.
Violence and emotional abuse never occur directly in a relationship. It sneaks in. When I met Youhan, he seemed like an attentive, sweet man. After living in America for ten years, I expected to return to the life I knew in my early thirties, but of course life hadn’t stood still here. My group of friends had continued without me, moved and had relationships. I felt alone in the Netherlands and in Youhan I found a man who understood me.
Youhan took me on vacations to exotic places and showered me with expensive gifts. I wasn’t necessarily waiting for a Cartier watch. But if he wanted to give it to me, I thought, then he must love me very much. I now know that my image of what love is, was distorted by my childhood. My mother abused me psychologically and my parents had a bad marriage. If Youhan called me thirty times when I was with a friend, I took it as proof that he was crazy about me.
Yet it also scared me, sometimes. He could get mad if I accidentally looked at another man on the street. But feeling fear for the one you love was not strange to me, given my youth. In addition, after each tantrum, there was another sweet period. Then he would regret, he would cry and I would receive declarations of love and gifts. Sometimes I thought it was because of his own childhood, which he told sad stories about, but much more often I was convinced that this was love.
When Youhan suggested getting married, I said yes. I hoped that I could prove that he didn’t have to be jealous, that I was worth loving. But in the months leading up to the wedding, Youhan sometimes stayed out for evenings, without saying where he was. Then I was waiting for the hundredth time with cold food. If I said anything about it, we got into a big fight. Then he yelled and scolded me. A few weeks before the wedding, I told my brother about those quarrels. “Es, get away from him while you still can,” he said. I knew he was right. But I was already in too deep. “It’s too late,” I said. ‘The wedding invitations have already been designed.’
Youhan’s behavior went from bad to worse. I once bought him socks. They were on sale. When he got home he became furious because he thought I had spent too much money. “How do you get it?” he yelled at me. Trembling, I ran to the bathroom, but I wasn’t fast enough to lock the door. Youhan grabbed me roughly and twisted my arm behind my back. “You’ll never do that, never again,” he hissed in my ear. The next day I had his fingers in my arms.
When he tearfully apologized the next day after incidents like this, promised me never to do it again, and fantasized about a blissful future together, the line between fear and love became eerily thin again. So thin, we decided to have a baby. But when I got pregnant, nothing changed. We argued about anything and everything and he regularly grabbed me roughly.
I was so ashamed of the situation that I dared not tell anyone how things really went at home. Neither did my brother, so we never returned to our conversation just before the wedding. Sometimes I told my father about the fights I had, but maybe I wasn’t honest about everything, to protect him. So those around me hardly realized how bad things were going at our home.
The baby sensed all the stress and became an over-alert, restless child who cried a lot. Tense, I tried to rock her to rest so she wouldn’t get on Youhan’s nerves. What if he jumped out of his skin and took out his frustrations not only on me, but also on our child?
That fear was the last straw. After three years, I decided to choose my daughter’s safety. The day before I left Youhan, we had a big fight and he had fallen down the stairs drunk. The walls of the stairwell were smeared with blood. It was almost symbolic, an omen of what awaited me if I stayed. “I’m not safe here,” I kept repeating in my head. In silence I packed my things and left with my daughter to my father.
I felt like a loser. Me, who has worked and lived all over the world, who had always been independent, was now terrified in my father’s attic, crying in shock among the baby gear. What a nightmare. But I also felt relief. Youhan couldn’t make me any more. I saw him one last time, to exchange the last items. He was resigned, barely said anything to me. Then he left with the Noorderzon. I feel sad for my daughter. You have a father walking around in this world but he doesn’t look after you, that saddens me. But I now understand that Youhan’s problems also have their causes. After the divorce I went to therapy and I was able to rebuild my life, but the marks that this relationship left behind are permanent. My daughter has developed a reactive attachment disorder from this horrible start, which is making her emotionally difficult in her life. I am now teaching other parents and professionals how to recognize this diagnosis and how to best deal with it. I felt very stupid that I fell for Youhan. I was ashamed of my family. Now I know it’s not my fault I stayed in an abusive relationship for too long. I want to help others break through the shame.”
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Reactive attachment disorder is a mental illness. The condition develops in the first six years of life. Children who suffer from this disorder fail to bond appropriately emotionally with their parents or others who care for them. The cause can be neglect (affective, emotional or deprived of basic physical needs) or abuse (mental or physical), but can also arise if the child is not given sufficient opportunity to form emotional bonds, for example if they regularly have other caregivers.
Esther offers training courses and books to better recognize and understand early childhood trauma and attachment problems.