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Why I stayed a mistress in an abusive relationship

By Hoe I Yune, Oct 31, 2019

When Rahayu Natalya's father passed away suddenly, it made her reflect on her unhappy marriage, and decide to divorce. Ready for a fresh start, she moved back from the US to Singapore. 

In an attempt to rebuild her life and reconnect with old friends, she reached out to an ex-boyfriend. He was her first love and she wanted to know how he was doing. Seeing him again brought back old feelings, as it made her think that perhaps this was her second chance at love. 

Unfortunately, this isn't a love story with a happy ending. Natalya looks back on how the relationship grew abusive and she wants other women who find themselves in her shoes to know that as much of a struggle as it can be, it’s worth it to walk away. You’re stronger than you think.

* * * *

Hi, my name is Natalya and I’m a 37-year-old waitress. 

I got married out of peer pressure, because I felt like as a woman, to be married was something expected of me. 

I met my ex-husband Eric* when he was visiting Singapore for three days. He was a friend of a friend and I offered to bring him around. We clicked well enough that he asked me to marry him before we parted ways. 

I thought he was joking, but we kept in touch after that and from time to time, he’d ask again. 10 years older than me, he struck me as the type who couldn’t bear to be alone and enjoyed being in a relationship. Finally, I said, “If you want to marry me so badly, give my aunt a call.” I gave him the number of a dear aunt of mine, not really expecting him to ask her for my hand in marriage but he did. 

My aunt was impressed and said, “It’s better to be loved than to love.” Other relatives chimed in and said, “You’re almost 25 and will soon be an old maid. Nobody will want you then. This guy wants to marry you, so you should marry him. Love can come later — you’ll adapt.”

Eric and I were in a long-distance relationship for less than a year before I moved to the US and married him. We were together for eight years. He was a decent guy and I enjoyed his company. Sure enough, I grew to love him but there is a difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. Once he retired from the navy and spent more time at home, I noticed the disparity in our relationship. Mealtimes aside, we would always be spending time apart in different rooms of the house. We were more like friends than a couple.

I couldn’t get along with his family either, who expected me to be a submissive housewife. His sister once asked me to cut her toenails and that irked me. “Why should I help a grown woman, one who is fully capable of taking care of herself, cut her toe nails?”

Age was catching up on Eric and his fitness deteriorated. I felt even more trapped, because how can you leave someone when he needs you the most?

Since he was no longer frequently out at sea, we decided to try for a child. We had trouble conceiving for about a year, so I consulted doctors. They couldn’t pinpoint anything out of the ordinary and attributed it to the fact that I wasn’t ovulating. Meanwhile, my ex-husband didn’t want to get tested, as he thought his child from a previous marriage was enough proof that he could have children. Not wanting to bruise his ego, I didn’t pursue the matter.

To ease the pain, I slowly gave up on the idea of having a child and told anyone who would ask that I didn’t want a child. 

To fill my time, I took up a job as a bartender and babysat for friends. I’d get sad sometimes, especially when around children, but I tried not to think about it. 

In 2014, my father died from a heart attack. I immediately flew back to Singapore for the funeral and to sort out final arrangements. 

It was so out of the blue that it made me take a good hard look at my life and what I wanted: to spend the rest of my life with a man whom I’m in love with. I didn’t want to stay with someone just because I felt comfortable with him. Eric and I ultimately filed for a divorce. 

I decided to return to Singapore for good, ready to rebuild my life, when I reconciled with my ex-boyfriend Jim. 

Jim and I first met when I was 23. It was Christmas Eve and we were at a bar in Singapore when he came up and talked to me. I was with my dad and step-mum. We played pool together and he commented on my perfume. He asked, “What’s that smell? It’s lovely.” I told him it was Chanel.

He was my first love and I was completely smitten. He was charismatic and such a gentleman — opening the doors for me and footing the bill before I could do so much as lift a finger. Things were going smoothly for four months until the day before we were due to fly to Hong Kong on holiday. 

We visited Chijmes and were having drinks with his best friend, when his best friend suddenly turned to me and asked if I knew a certain woman. I was confused because I couldn’t recognise the name, although she shared the same last name as him. It was definitely not his mum or sister because I knew their names. “That’s his wife,” his best friend continued. It felt as if he wanted a reaction out of me but I tried my best not to react. Not one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, I tried to laugh it off before grabbing my bag and walking away. Jim, who had averted his gaze and remained mum earlier, chased after me. 

I was shocked. I met him at the bar on Christmas Eve with his brother and sister, and not once did he mention having a wife. I felt sick. I wanted to back out of our Hong Kong trip, but he persuaded me against it. He said “Since we already bought tickets, just go on the trip, after that, you can walk away.” I caved, thinking that it was true that tickets had been paid for, and how I really wanted to go on the holiday.

We spent a week together, mostly shopping and eating. When you’re with someone from day to night, it’s hard to stay frosty for long. We were in the lovey dovey early stage of our relationship and whenever he complimented me or grabbed my hand as we were walking, I felt my heart skip a beat. Growing up, I never thought I wanted a relationship, yet he made me want one.

When we talked about what should happen in the future since he was married, he reassured me that he loved me. I don’t say words like “I love you” very easily, so I thought he meant it. 

For two years, we continued seeing each other and went on a few more holidays. After the first trip, we talked about his marriage, and I believed him when he said he was no longer in love with his wife. I wondered how she must’ve felt sometimes but I chose to prioritise my own happiness. It was foolish really. His father-in-law unexpectedly found out about us too and didn’t say anything, which helped me convince myself that it was okay to go on as his mistress. 

It came to an end when his wife came across our Bangkok air ticket transactions and confronted him. He had to make a choice between me and her and to my surprise, he picked her. It broke my heart because I was always given the impression that he wanted to be with me. He always said how unhappy he was in his marriage and that he wanted to be with me. Looking back, I know it was my fault because I already knew he was married yet I chose to continue the relationship. But it still hurt me. We stopped seeing each other after that, although he soon started calling again to say that he made a mistake and still wanted to see me. 

I held on to a glimmer of hope that if I gave him time and maintained my distance, he would leave her. That is until one day, he called to say that his wife was pregnant. My heart stopped. 

“Go be a dad and be a good one,” I said. I decided to stop answering his calls after that because her pregnancy cemented the fact that he wouldn’t leave her. 

When I married Eric, I thought I closed the door on my relationship with Jim. But when I returned to Singapore after the divorce, I’d revisit the old areas that we frequented and I started to wonder how he was doing. Curiosity got the better of me and I reached out to him through email. 

It turned out that Jim was still legally married to his wife — the same woman he chose over me the first time we were together, but he told me that his marriage had long been broken. They were estranged and he had been seeing other women for years. 

We arranged to meet for lunch. Online, he joked that I would probably have to be the one paying for lunch. I thought he was just exaggerating at the time, but when I saw him in person, I was shocked. His t-shirt was worn out and his trousers were so tattered that you could see his underwear through a hole.

He explained that he was at a low point in his life, drinking heavily, and had just lost his job. I felt sorry for him because he seemed so different from the man whom I used to know. In the past, he was always so focused and driven. Seeing him not even have $5 in his wallet, I felt sad and wanted to help him. When he said he had no place to go, I asked him to move in with me. In hindsight, I was stupid, and lured by the distraction. 

I was going through an emotional rollercoaster ride of my own, losing my father and going through the divorce. I wanted a project to focus on, and what better project than my first love? 

Realising that I needed to earn money to continue supporting the two of us, I got a job as a waitress, but for our first few months together, we entirely relied on my savings. He knew I had a bit of inheritance from my father’s passing and he used that to his advantage. I paid for food and rent. On top of that, he would ask me for money to buy alcohol. If I resisted, he would get abusive. 

I’m not trying to victimise myself here. The way I see it, I’m responsible for my own actions and I was too stubborn to listen to friends who advised me to cut ties with him. 

I insisted that I knew him, but it turns out that people can change over time. It was difficult for me to see him for who he had become. 

We had a particularly bad fight one day. He wanted $50 to buy more beer and I refused to give it to him because I didn’t want to keep wasting money fuelling his alcohol addiction. That angered him and he slapped me so hard across the face that I fell down. My stomach started hurting and I told him to just take the money and go.

I realised I was bleeding but thought it was just my period and bad cramps as usual. I headed over to a friend’s place nearby to confide in her how aggressive Jim was getting. It wasn’t the first time he was physically abusive but I kept finding excuses for him, like how he was going through a rough patch in his career and was stressed out having to support his two children.

At my friend’s, I bled profusely, needing to change my sanitary pad every 10 minutes and couldn’t stop fidgeting. I was a bit suspicious but I was also in so much pain that all I could think of was how to make it go away. We got into the jacuzzi tub, thinking that the hot water would ease the pain when we realised that I was bleeding so heavily that it flowed into the tub. “You’re not bleeding, you’re haemorrhaging!” my friend exclaimed.

Her husband drove me to the hospital and the first thing the doctor said after the checkup was that I was positive. I didn’t understand right away and she had to look at me and say, “Honey, you’re pregnant”. I didn’t think that was possible. I had been trying for so long with my ex-husband but was so sure that I was incapable of conceiving a child.

It was a Friday so I had to wait until Monday before they could do a proper scan. Jim went back to the hospital with me but unfortunately, they couldn’t detect the heartbeat, which meant I had miscarried. I cried my heart out in front of the hospital. Jim was far from sympathetic and he said the most hurtful words — “Miscarriages happen all the time. You’re not special so why are you crying?” I should’ve known there and then that he was awful. 

I was sad because I lost the baby and angry that I spent eight years married to someone who couldn’t have a baby. I felt as if I lost my youth to my last marriage. 

But in my grief, I saw the silver lining and that was that I could have a child. I was still hopeful at the time that Jim was simply going through a rough patch and that we could start something new together after he divorces his wife. I had a soft spot for him and put him on a pedestal. Even when I was married to my ex-husband, I would reminisce about how much kinder Jim was to me when we were together. 

We didn’t outright make plans to have children after the incident but Jim knew that I wanted one. He would comment on how beautiful our child would look if we had one. 

Jim has a young son and daughter from his marriage and they would visit us sometimes. He was kind to them. However there were instances when I wasn’t in the mood to entertain them when they came over, which angered Jim. Once he grabbed my head and smashed it against the wall, threatening me to “Do good by my kids or else”. 

The physical abuse didn’t stop me from making excuses for him. Although my parents got a divorce when I was three months old, and later my mum and step-dad divorced when I was six, my family has always possessed a cheerful demeanour. We’re the sort who are capable of cracking jokes at a funeral. I was taught that every marriage has its problems and sometimes you just have to stick it out, even when the sadness outweighs the happiness. I think because of that, I chose to focus on the positive things about our relationship and ignored the red flags.

I told myself that he simply loved his kids and wanted me to care for them too. I told myself it was normal because once people have kids, maybe they don’t care about themselves so much and tend to prioritise the children.

It also felt like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde situation. He would get so drunk and abusive sometimes that he’d kick me and call me a dog and spit on me, yet the next morning, he’d ask, “Why are you sleeping on the floor?” and coax me to move onto the bed.

He often cooked for me and whenever we were eating, it touched me when he was attentive to whether or not I had enough. He eventually landed a job in F&B and would drop me phone calls to say that he missed me or that he couldn’t function without me. The odd kind gestures and the memories from our past would make me think that there must be something good inside of him and that he truly loved me. The thought of us conceiving a child against the odds also made me think that being with him was my shot at a happy family. 

Photos provided by Rahayu Natalya. *Names have been changed.

Part two will be uploaded tomorrow

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