Private Lives: Family Affair - Learning to live with anger

Arabella Melville, 50, is a writer and research fellow at the University of York. She lives with her partner Colin Johnson, 59, a consultant philosopher, in North Wales. Arabella's book `Difficult Men - Strategies for women who choose not to leave' (published by Vermilion) draws on her own experience of living with a partner who has a potentially violent temper. Bella decided to stay with Colin, despite his aggressive outbursts, and to try and resolve their problems
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Arabella

When I first met Colin, I looked up to him. He was a successful, mature and confident businessman. I was very young for my 26 years - he was nine years older. What really held us together was the same philosophical views; Colin carries on further along one line of thought than anyone I've ever met. I found this exciting. He has the most amazing insights, and is now writing a book about the philosophy of health. We've both always questioned things and built our own systems, ethics and moralities.

About 10 years into our relationship, his business went bankrupt and suddenly he had no income. He got quite depressed and really lost confidence. Then I got a job at Swansea University and became the main breadwinner. It was around that time things started to get difficult, and I think he began to feel quite powerless.

The problems built up gradually; Colin can be impetuous and, in some ways, excessive. It slowly became worse. We'd have loads of major arguments about trivial issues, and he'd become aggressive.

He didn't hit me often, and when he did the bruises weren't terribly obvious. I do remember once, though, being in a shop changing-room with my stepdaughter. She noticed this big green-blue bruise on my thigh and asked, "How did you do that?" I replied, "Your dad kicked me." She wasn't really that surprised - Colin had been in a much more violent relationship with his previous wife.

Occasionally, though not frequently, Colin would thump or kick me. He'd also throw things. He would lose control and I would cry and hide my face. The fear used to be with me all the time and affected every aspect of our relationship. There was a phase when I thought that I would have to leave. That's when I went to see a therapist who looked at the issue of Colin's aggression and my fear. We did this amazing exercise that made an enormous impression on me. She played Colin and I played me and then we swapped roles. When I played him I was suddenly able to see that my behaviour - of not standing up for myself, and allowing myself to be bullied - made Colin's violent behaviour more likely to happen.

It was a wonderful breakthrough when I realised I could control the situation. I had to show by my actions that abuse of any sort is not acceptable. If he ever starts to attack me verbally I say, "I'm sorry, this isn't acceptable," and walk off. You have to accept that it can always be a problem if you live with a man who has a potentially violent temper. It would be lovely if they could stop their temper but I'm not sure that they can.

I'm still having to cope with his potentially violent behaviour but because I behave differently, it happens very rarely. I used to try to be whatever he wanted me to be to stop his insults and aggressive behaviour. Now I simply don't tolerate it.

There is a strong bond between Colin and me. He really didn't want to hurt me. He still tells me that. Colin described his aggression as a pimple bursting and the guts pouring out. He'd feel better immediately afterwards but later on would feel awful, because I'd be a wreck for days after the attack.

The biggest outbursts happened about five years ago; we've moved on since then. I can safely say that I'm never scared of him now. That's the biggest relief of all.

Colin

I suppose our relationship came to a head around five years ago. By that point we'd been to places most people never reach; we'd lived in a community, worked in business, been rich and poor, and existed alone on a farm.

I think some of our problems emerged when life became more mundane. Neither of us was suited to farming life, and it was tough. At times I had outbursts of anger that were beyond control. When you're in a very difficult situation your partner suddenly becomes part of the problem that you're trying to solve. You just have to burst out of it somehow.

We reached the point where Bella decided to go to a therapist; a woman who produced insights that Bella found staggering. A major one was how the dynamic of her behaviour was negative and producing negative things within me.

It was no instant revelation, and we had to work at these problems for some time. But Bella's realisation that she had to put down some markers effectively began to change the relationship for both of us.

I wanted equality, for her to be a real person. Our society tends to bring up girls to be compliant women and Bella got a lot of that when she was young. Paradoxically I'd be the one to say, "Be yourself. Go for it. Don't wait to be led." But I couldn't do that for her. It used to infuriate me when she behaved so supinely. It was like adding fuel to the fire. It was short-lived, a flash fire of adrenaline and insanity.

But I always respected her as a person and I just really wanted the situation to change. I don't know what explanation there was for my aggressive behaviour; I was born in the Second World War so I was familiar with violence in certain circumstances. I don't think there's any such thing as a totally non-violent person.

When it came to the crunch between Bella and me, we had to look one another in the eyes and ask, "Do we still love each other?" The answer was "yes" so we decided to try to solve the problem. When a partner has violent tendencies, many women can't leave. It's simply not realistic, economically or psychologically.

Because we've stayed together and worked things through, Bella is much more secure and I am able to look at her more as a person now. In the past, I took on problems and got angry when she wasn't part of the answer. Now we interact more mutually.

I always felt that what we had was very special, no matter how bad it got. Some part of me thought, "This goes far beyond us splitting up." We do get on very well indeed; we miss each other whenever we're apart and we spend a lot of time laughing and chatting when we are together.

Our relationship is still hard work. Change is the most difficult thing humans confront. When you meet a partner you tend to think, "I'm set up for life now."

You've got to keep learning and growing, though. Nowadays, the anger is still there but the difference is that Bella isn't a part of the things I get angry about.

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