Caitlin*, from Norfolk,was 18 when she started a relationship with a 30-year-old man whom she described as ‘everything I wanted’.
Within a few months the couple got married and she took on the role of stepmother to his two children.
Caitlin became increasingly concerned about his aggression towards the children, then towards her.
“Soon after we got married it was a slippery slope,” she said. “It started with name calling and belittling. The emotional and verbal sides were the worst, they cut deeper than anything else.
“He had told me that everyone in his life had left him, so I felt sorry for him and didn’t want to be the same as them.
“I never stood up to him. He was a lot bigger than me physically and mentally. He would say things that would take the wind out of me. I would make excuses for him, like he was tired or he’d had a bad day.”
Her husband’s intimidatory behaviour included her not being able to make a phone call without him or having her own money, and the aggression escalated to sexual and physical abuse.
“He would hit me, he would strip my clothes off, he would spit on me. He made me feel worthless and empty. I started doubting myself about things he said I’d said, which would make me think I was going crazy. Once you start doubting yourself you don’t trust other people either, but you believe that what he is saying must be the truth.”
Caitlin endured the abuse for six years until it almost reached a tragic end.
“He strangled me in front of the children. I thought I was going to die that night. All I remember was waking up on the floor and deciding that was enough.”
She took a rare opportunity to take her husband’s phone and call her family to come and take her away. “It was hard. Leaving the children was hard. Even to this day I feel extremely guilty.”
Caitlin said no one ever asked her directly whether she was being abused, although some people had said things indirectly. “If I had been asked the question, I don’t know what I would have said, but if you don’t ask, you’re never going to know. By keeping quiet it went on for longer.
“I deceived my family quite badly - I felt ashamed because I didn’t want to admit that the person who I had begged my mum and dad to accept as the person I had married was abusing me.”
Caitlin has since moved on with her life and is now in a stable, happy relationship, but it has taken years for her to come to terms with her experiences.
To anyone who worries that someone they know may be suffering abuse, she says: “If there’s violence you have to call 999. For someone to leave, it has to be in their own time when they have the strength. Leave that doorway open for when they are ready to talk, be patient. They have to leave when they are ready and when it is safe.”
Her advice to anyone enduring abuse is clear: “You need to believe it’s not your fault. When it’s safe to do so, phone a helpline or speak to a friend or family member you can trust. I didn’t think I was strong enough to seek help or speak up but actually I was. Once we are being held and supported by people it’s an open road.”
Caitlin has written a book about her experiences called ‘Love Didn’t Hurt You – Know the Signs of Domestic Abuse’.
*Not her real name