After years of living with his combustible temper, Melbourne couple David and Monica Nugent reveal how their relationship survived domestic violence.
With mounting anger, I punched my partner Monica’s number into my mobile phone. I’d been seething since she insisted on going to a family barbecue that afternoon, even though I’d told her I didn’t want her to. When she answered the call, I exploded: “You have to come home, I need the car,” I shouted.
Calmly she told me I could use the other car. “I want your car!” I yelled. “You need to let me have that fucking car. If you don’t come home with it right now, I’m going to come over there and smash it.”
There was a click as Monica hung up. Furious, I jumped in our other car and sped over to her uncle’s place, adrenaline pumping through my body. Her car was parked in the driveway. “I’ve had enough,” I thought grimly, picking up a piece of steel pipe I had in my car, and swinging it into the windscreen. I heard the glass shatter, then Monica screaming my name. I looked up to see her standing outside the house, surrounded by her frightened family. When I saw their faces, white with shock, it was as if I had suddenly woken up to the horror of what I’d done.
Until then I’d managed to confine my anger to the home I shared with Monica and her two children, 10-year-old Matthew and Natalie, eight. For 18 months, I had tormented them with my irrational bouts of rage, forcing them to bend to my will. Now, my behavior was out in the open. Appalled, I got back in my car and went to my dad’s. That night, Monica phoned me and issued an ultimatum: “We can’t live like this anymore. You either have to get help or the kids and I have to leave.” I knew that that I had to take action – or risk losing everything I held dear.
My life had been dominated by violence since childhood. My father had a short fuse, and expressed his frustration through physical intimidation. If he didn’t like a dress my mother was wearing, he’d rip it off her; if dinner wasn’t ready when he arrived home, he’d flip the table over so everything smashed. The police were regular visitors; after one attack, my mother lay helpless on the floor, blood pouring from her head, leaving her with hearing damage. Afterwards, she’d sit and cry, promising me we would leave. But never did.
Looking back, it was hardly surprising I couldn’t deal with my emotions. When I met Monica, I was in my early 20s and struggling to come to terms with the collapse of my first marriage. I found her easy to talk to. We used to meet during my lunch hour for a chat, but it wasn’t until we’d been friends for 18 months that I realized the person I was searching for was right in front of me.
Soon after, we decided to move in together. I loved her children dearly, but almost immediately I started to impose on them my own ideas about discipline – the ones I’d learnt from my dad. When I was a child, for example, he insisted I park my bike neatly against the wall, whereas they threw theirs down in the driveway, even after I told them not to. My reaction was intense: on one occasion I picked up the bikes and hurled them in the bin. Sometimes, I’d pin Matthew against the wall while I yelled at him; once, I banged down my fist so hard on the table that I smashed his glasses.
If one of the kids was sitting in my armchair when I arrived home from work, I’d regard it as an affront to my position as head of the household and fly into a rage, slamming the doors so hard they’d come off their hinges. If they were slow to clear their dinner plates, I’d smash them into the sink. I could see the children were constantly edgy – I’d only have to shoot them a look and they’d struggle to stay in the same room as me.
Without realizing it, I was subjecting Matthew and Natalie to the pain and fear I had experienced as a child, perpetuating the cycle of violence. Monica tried to make me see that my behaviour was unreasonable, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. My response was to drive off and disappear, sometimes for days. Deep down I felt insecure, but I wasn’t conditioned to talk about my feelings; instead, I sought to exercise power and control. I constantly wondered whether Monica was going to cheat on me, and I caught myself sounding like my father, always needing to know where she was.
The day after I smashed up the car, Monica gave me the number for Relationships Australia and I enrolled in a men’s behavioural change program. It was hard. “I don’t belong there,” I told Monica. A lot of the men were extremely violent, and had abused their kids sexually and physically. But I learnt a lot: how easy it is to lose control, and about the many different forms of abuse.
At the end of the program, I realized I could use my experience to help other men break the cycle, so I signed up for a post-graduate diploma in counseling and human services at La Trobe University – the only place that seemed to see I had something to offer society. I wanted to start my own counseling practice. Now, I see 32 men each week.
My counseling is lightly unorthodox, in that I undertake a lot of role-play: I get angry, smash chairs, slam doors. I am to leave the men as shaken as they leave their partners. I teach them the difference between feeling and thinking; that they choose to be violent and this isn’t just about physical violence – it’s about emotional, financial and social control.
Monica and I have been together 17 years. Our relationship is solid, but I know she remembers the things I did as if it were yesterday, which leaves me feeling sad. When Matthew, now 25, and his partner had their first child, we talked about how I’d behaved towards him. “There must have been times when you though I was a real bastard, when I must have made you feel really scared,” I said to him. “There were,” he replied, “but I’ve put that behind me. I love you so much now. You’ve been a wonderful father to me.”
If I could say anything to women who are in a violent relationship, it’s this: you need to say, “This is not acceptable.” If you ignore the violence or make excuses for it, it gets worse. And if your partner doesn’t want to get help, then you have to conclude that he doesn’t feel your relationship is worth working for.
I met David trough my aunt Liza, who worked in a milk bar he owned with his wife and mother. Liza told me how they argued and that his wife was about to leave.
“They’re the most dysfunctional family I’ve ever seen,” she remarked. At the time I was working as a volunteer social worker. “Do you think you could help David’s wife?” asked Liza. “She needs to find another place to live.” I did help her, but I also found myself helping David. Things had turned ugly and he had tried to take his own life. After weeks in hospital believing he had nothing left to live for, he begun opening up to me, and the story of his dysfunctional life began to unfold.
Despite his background, I could tell that beneath the hurt was a good man. He could display great warmth and had a lovely sense of humour; one night he came to our house for a few glasses of wine and ended up sleeping on the sofa. He never really left after that. Before long, though, I was seeing signs of the anger my aunt had warned me about, but I found myself making excuses for David, blaming tiredness or problems with his ex-wife. While I could explain away his anger towards me, there was no way I could tolerate his behaviour towards my children. On one occasion, shortly after he’d moved in with us, I remember him slapping the kids’ knees when they were mucking around in the car. His aggression horrified me.
“I’m sorry, it’s just what my dad did,” David admitted later. “What’s normal to you isn’t normal to us,” I replied.
The lesson didn’t sink it. Some time afterwards, we were having dinner when one of the children took the last piece of meat without asking. David erupted. “How can you be so rude!” he yelled, smashing his plate and storming out of the house. Gradually his rages became more frequent, and they started to affect the way we behaved. One night, I remember sharing a bottle of wine on the deck with a girlfriend, chatting quietly, when David stormed out of bed, shouting, “Do you mind keeping you voices down!”
My friend was shocked. “It’s only anger,” I told myself. “I know he loves me. I’m not one of those battered housewives. David doesn’t hit me.” But in some ways, it would have been easier if he had because I could have explained a bruise.
Dealing with David’s anger was difficult, but his passive aggression was harder. He’d attempted suicide once and I was terrified he’d do it again. “This is emotional blackmail. You are punishing me and I haven’t done anything wrong,” I’d tell him. But when he wasn’t gripped by anger, David was a happy, courteous man. I didn’t know what to do.
I also worried about how his behaviour was affecting the kids. As soon as his car pulled into the driveway, they’d hide in their bedrooms. But when he smashed up my car in front of my family, it was the final straw.
We rang Relationships Australia and started seeing a counselor. Having a person there who had no agenda made a big difference. Over time, I learnt new ways of talking to David to let him know his anger wasn’t acceptable, and he learnt new ways of dealing with it. He did have relapses, and a couple of times I asked him to leave, but he was genuinely shattered and remorseful. He’d write me long letters expressing his feelings, as he found it all too difficult to say.
But I knew we’d turned a corner when Matthew broke one of David’s treasured model planes. Terrified, he went out to the shed to confess. He came back looking shocked. “What did David say?” I asked. “He just shrugged and said, ‘Stuff happens,’” replied Matthew. It was a miracle.
Today, David counsels men through his Heavy M.E.T.A.L (Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life) Group, based in Melbourne. Sometimes, when he tells me about the issues he is helping his clients with, I comment that they sound familiar. He reiterates that he realizes that I must have been very scared. “Yes. Yes I was,” I answer.
I know how it upsets him to hear that, but I also know how much he loves me because David made the effort to change. It takes a lot of courage to do that.