On Nice Guys

When I met Ben, I just knew. I fell in love almost instantly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; he was charming, good looking, outgoing.

And most of all, he was nice. Every time I was introduced to a friend of his, they’d spend hours gushing about how nice he was, how nice it was that he’d found somebody. He was a good bloke, basically; solid, dependable, “a laugh”. And he was romantic, too – I got jewellery, notes, flowers. He made a fuss of my birthday; he charmed my parents. He wasn’t ostentatiously charismatic – he was outgoing, but quietly so. He never showed off. He was kind.

So how, eight months later, did I end up cowering on the floor of my flat as he smashed a bowl into my head?

When you think of someone who is violent to their partner – as Ben was to me on this and other occasions – you don’t think of someone as effortlessly charming as he was, as outwardly kind, as respectable. You think of someone moody or temperamental; someone more obviously unpredictable. But this doesn’t reflect the reality of a vast number of abusive relationships.

“Abusers manipulate their victims carefully and purposefully,” Sandra Horley, chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge, told me. “They switch readily between charm and rage like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. To an outsider, the perpetrator may appear to be the perfect, caring partner.”

Domestic abuse predominantly affects women – according to the Office for National Statistics, 28.3% of us have experienced it. It can include physical violence, but also encompasses sexual abuse, emotional abuse, harassment or stalking, online abuse and “coercive control”, which Women’s Aid define as “a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control”.

“What a lot of these men have in common is that they are invariably the last people anyone would suspect of abusing their partners,” Horley said. “They are the ‘nice guys from next door’ who are always willing to do a neighbour a favour: they’ll mend the plumbing, weed the garden, jump-start the car. They may be the men who seem to uphold strict moral standards, who are popular at parties or in the local pubs. Or they may be quiet, ‘steady’ chaps, the ones you can always rely on. They present a likeable face to the rest of the world. Charm obscures the abuser.”

This is never clearer than in the complete absolution of the numerous celebrities who have attacked their partners; Chris Brown, Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen… all more or less cleared in the court of public judgement, even once officially charged with attacks. Why? Because we like them. Because we don’t think of them as “abusers”. We think of them as charismatic or funny or talented or maybe even misunderstood; Charlie Sheen even, for a while, became a meme.

And when the recent (and as yet unsubstantiated) claims against Johnny Depp from wife Amber Heard hit the headlines, many of his fans were quick to defend him. He couldn’t possibly have done it, they said, because he just isn’t ‘the kind of man’ to attack a partner. His friend Paul Bettany tweeted that Depp was the “sweetest, kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever known”. This defence is less about facts or evidence and more about moral judgement, more about character traits and what those character traits might imply about his ability to hurt someone.

Charm doesn’t just obfuscate the impact of domestic abuse, either – it can also perpetuate it. Emotional abuse, which was criminalised in 2015, can be far more insidious than physical violence, but just as psychologically damaging. Horley told me that controlling behaviour can be “incredibly subtle” – things like possessiveness can appear caring to begin with, but later become more forceful, and in some cases violent.

The things that initially attracted me to Ben slowly, and without my noticing, turned into something more sinister. His pride at being with me curdled into terrifyingly dark jealousy; protectiveness turned into control, with friends he carefully warned me about literally banished from our lives. The gifts he gave me, which had once been simple gestures of affection, became transactional; if he gave me something, even if I hadn’t asked for it, he would expect sex and become violent if he didn’t get it.

But because he was so charming, I believed him when he told me it was all my fault. “I’m not like this with anyone else,” he’d tell me after a particularly vicious argument. “You’re the only person to bring it out in me.” He’d once bitten my face after I’d asked him to stop during sex and I remember lying there afterwards, asking myself what I’d done wrong. I scolded myself for saying no; I wondered how I could make amends in the morning.

It was a common pattern in our relationship – he’d be violent or aggressive or verbally abusive, yet I’d be the one who apologised. I’d be the one to send a regretful text the next day saying I loved him and hoped he still loved me too; I’d be the one to buy a make up present or cook dinner to paper over the cracks. I never stopped to question his assertion that it was all my fault – he was so nice, after all – it must have been me who was the problem.

Horley noted how important it is for women to realise they’re experiencing domestic violence without ever being physically abused. Many men, convinced of their own inherent niceness, never hit their partners – but they do abuse them psychologically or emotionally. “If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused,” she said. “The grinding impact of emotional abuse can chip away at a woman’s sense of self. She may gradually begin to believe her abuser when he tells her, day in, day out, that she is worthless, that nobody cares about her but him.”

Polly Neate, CEO for Women’s Aid, agreed.

“We live in a culture that romanticises the kind of behaviour that can be masking something much more sinister – ‘he loves me so much! He wants to be with me all the time! He wants to know where I am all the time!’ So that also has a very damaging impact on women,” Neate said.

And this stereotype often means that survivors “just do not realise what’s happening until too late”. Both Women’s Aid and Refuge encourage women to edicate themselves on different kinds of abuse; as Horley notes, it doesn’t always get physical. Both charities also have resources for women who are worried about their relationships, and have advice for women who are still in relationships with their abusers as well recent survivors. Refuge also urge people who are concerned about friends to get in touch with them in order to offer the best support.

I can’t say I’ve really experienced any closure from the relationship, although my romantic feelings faded a long time ago. It’s not that I’m not over my ex – far from it – but more that the psychological scars have continued to have an impact on all of my subsequent relationships. I often have nightmares about it, and I find it hard to trust partners; when I upset someone or we have a fight, there’s always a tiny part of me that expects them to be violent towards me, even if the person I’m with has shown no signs of emotional or physical abuse. And even years later, I still catch myself thinking that maybe he was right, and that maybe I really was the problem. I come across pictures of him and his current girlfriend on mutual friends’ feeds, and I wonder how he acts with her; it’s hard to imagine that the gritted-teeth, red-faced fury he turned on me could ever apply in what seems like a picture perfect relationship.

Then I remember the things I did to placate him, the sex I didn’t want but submitted to anyway, the desperate pleas for him to calm down. I look at my face and see a tiny purple scar on my cheek from where he bit down on it, I feel the tiny dent in my forehead where ceramic hit skull. It’s only then I remember that his appearance and his demeanor meant nothing; he wasn’t so nice, after all, and it definitely wasn’t my fault.