Recovering from an abusive marriage during COVID-19

By Clara How, May 21, 2020

This story contains mentions of trauma and domestic abuse. 

Since the beginning of the year, COVID-19 has affected each individual in unique ways. For some, it means battling the coronavirus, or being at risk of infection. For others, it means managing both family responsibilities and working from home. For a group of women in Singapore who were already facing emotional, financial and physical struggles, the pandemic has rendered them especially vulnerable.

Charleen*, 50, is one of these women whose life has been disrupted. A single mother of two daughters (aged 10 and 13), she is currently living in a shelter run by AWARE’s Support, Housing and Enablement (S.H.E.) Project. The S.H.E. Project provides housing and support for low-income single mothers, referred by Family Service Centres or community partners. 

Since the pandemic began, Charleen’s plans for the future have ground to a halt. Her two-year lease in the shelter is coming to an end, but progress on finding new housing has been slow moving. She has had to stop working, and is now surviving on her savings. 

Charleen has survived an abusive marriage, and is coming out of the other side of a recovery process feeling stronger and happier. Times may be uncertain, but she is continuing the fight. We hope that by shining a light on Charleen and her tenacity, her story will inspire others and raise awareness for women in similar circumstances in these challenging times. 
 

* * * *

Since the circuit breaker measures began, I have been feeling trapped at home. 

If I’m constantly indoors and not able to go out, I feel like I’m being physically restricted. This strain stems from the traumatic time that I spent living with my ex-husband, when I was physically and mentally abused during our 12 years of marriage. 

While I don’t wish to go into details about the physical abuse, what was more lasting was the psychological damage which I repressed during the marriage. He was very controlling and critical, and I felt like I couldn’t make my own decisions, even about what I eat or wear. He tried to control my Internet usage by always changing the WiFi password so I couldn’t access it, and read all my emails. To this day, computers are a trigger to me. 

It took an incident that involved my daughter to finally see that I had to leave him, to protect my two children. I looked at her face when she was abused, and she had no reaction. It was as if she had no emotions, and she could no longer react to what was happening. She was seven at the time.

I looked at her and thought, I won’t allow this to happen anymore.

I summoned the courage to leave our home in 2015 and file for divorce, with nothing but the clothes on our back. We moved into my mother’s house, where we lived for the next two and a half years. The divorce was granted in 2017. He was meant to give alimony, but we have never received any. 

I was grateful to have a roof over our heads in my mother’s place. But because it wasn’t our home, I still felt like I couldn’t make my own choices. My mother and sister didn’t always respect my parenting decisions, even when it came to choosing what type of food my girls should be eating. It still felt like I was controlled. 

It didn’t help that while my mother understood why I had to leave the marriage, my family was not very supportive. It embarrassed them, because they saw divorce as a failure. 

I wanted to move out of my mother’s place, but I couldn’t afford to. Someone told me about the S.H.E. Project and I said that I was all in. I just wanted a place where I could feel independent. I applied, and once I received the phone call to say that I was selected, my children and I left my mother’s home to move into the shelter within a few days. This was July 2018, and the two-year lease is expiring this July.  

Since moving into the shelter, I feel so blessed. The shelter doesn’t look like one — it is a fully furnished apartment that can accommodate up to three families. My family has our own private room and our own bathroom, and we share the flat with two other residents. It’s so discreet that our neighbours aren’t aware that this is a shelter, and think we are renting with friends. We pay a very low rental fee, and have a common fund to pay for the repair work of any faulty appliances. 

In the shelter, we come and go as we please. No one controls us, and we finally feel safe.

I feel like a resident here, and after discussion with the other tenants, we decorated the place so it truly feels like home. We have all become friends, and it feels like family. My children are happy and very comfortable living here.

Our circumstances have changed since the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, I was earning an income of less than $2,000. Now, my income is zero.

When I was married, I had a full-time job and loved what I did. However, during the divorce proceedings, both my ex-husband and I were told to attend mandatory counselling (we saw different psychologists). The psychologist told me that I had many underlying issues, and as we processed, the trauma that had been buried came to the surface. It affected me so badly that I was unable to work and had to leave my job. 

Sights, sounds, and smells would trigger memories, and send my body into a defensive mode. Once, I was seeing a physiotherapist for spinal injuries that I sustained from the abuse. I had seen him many times before, but I was inexplicably triggered at that moment. I lost control, and despite my injury, tried to run out of the hospital. My fingers felt like they were jammed up.

My brain tells me that I’m okay, but my body reacts differently. Eventually, my psychologist managed to keep me grounded over a phone call. He kept telling me that I was safe.

After leaving my marriage, I also became a selective mute. I found it difficult to be in front of people, and couldn’t talk. I also had trouble eating for many months. During my relationship, I was criticised for everything I ate. So when I saw a plate of food, it nauseated me. It took me a long time to process with my psychologists, and eventually, I enjoyed eating again. 

Technology was another trigger for me. During our marriage, he would access and read my emails without my permission. Computers remind me of this abuse of trust, and I am still learning how to overcome this fear. I reply to my emails during my counselling sessions, which I am still permitted to go to in person. 

Because of my reaction to the triggers, I was unable to work for the next year or so. But I have been working all my life, and once I was able to, I went to work for an NGO. Before the circuit breaker measures, I had joined an organisation that worked with children. We were unable to continue because it involved home visits, but I hope that I will continue to pick up where I left off after the circuit breaker has been lifted. 

Right now, we are relying on my savings, the handouts that the government has given, and assistance from the Social Service Office under the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It’s not a nice feeling to have to ask for someone’s help, but it puts food on the table. 

But the biggest worry for me is that our two-year housing lease with the S.H.E. Project is ending this July.  I have my two children, and we need to feel safe and stable. Where are we going to go once we have to leave?

When I moved into the shelter, the plan was that by the time the lease ends, I would have sold my marital home and found a new place for us. Unfortunately, my ex-husband is very difficult, and is refusing to let go of the home. He is barely contactable. Despite being given three court orders, he is not complying, which has stalled the entire process. I don’t have a lawyer, so going to court is almost like a full-time job, where all my time would be spent gathering documents.

Before COVID-19, I was working with the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and a Member of Parliament to help me get a flat. But when the pandemic kicked in, everything slowed down. My court hearings have already been postponed twice. 

I was recently informed that despite previous assurances, the HDB has rejected our application for a rental flat because my name is still on our marital home. 

It’s incredibly frustrating that despite it being three years since my divorce and trying our best, I still can’t get a place of my own because of housing laws and my ex-husband’s behaviour. But to move out and rent another home would cost me at least $1,000, which I don’t have.

This is the one thing that COVID-19 has taught me: I cannot be financially dependent on anybody, including the government. I need to have a stable job.

Not knowing what is next is very scary, and I worry about it all the time. But all I can do is to keep thinking of solutions: who can I turn to, and where can I get funding from?  

When I was married, I was the sole breadwinner, and earned enough to send my children for ballet and violin classes. Because I left my marital home with nothing, my savings were drained because I had to buy everything all over again, including clothes, school books and uniforms. 

Right now, my savings are as low as $100. I try to reserve as much as I can for emergencies, such as going to the hospital, or to replace essentials like broken spectacles. 

There are a lot of misconceptions that vulnerable women face, particularly single mums. People wonder, why are you stuck in this situation for so many years? They think that I’m not working on it.

But since 2015 I have gotten out of my marriage, received custody and looked after my children. It’s not that I’m lazy — I’ve been working on helping us get free and being a mother. Once the circuit breaker is lifted, I definitely want to go back to work, and continue to aggressively look for housing solutions. I’ve also applied for maintenance from my ex-husband, even though I would rather not have to go to court and see him.  

This feeling of being broke, and not being capable of doing a lot of things is a learning lesson, and something I’m teaching my daughters. They’re learning the importance of working towards their material goals, and at the supermarket, they calculate the cost and decide which brands are worth purchasing. 

I may not be financially free, but I’m a lot happier. Through this journey I realised that once I started to learn how to love myself, I learnt to set boundaries. I’m very proud of the internal achievements I’ve made, and I’m proud of my two girls.

Before, I lived in a survival mode and repressed my pain. When I discovered my voice again, I realised that people will only start listening to you when you listen to yourself.

This is what I hope to use my voice for. I want people to hear this: 

For people who have vulnerable women in their lives, please respect that while we do need support, we can also do things on our own. Sometimes, we just need someone to hear us out, instead of counselling us on what to do. 

I hear things like, “oh, maybe you will meet a better man” all the time. But not every single mother is looking for men and love. I want to be better on my own. It doesn’t take a man to make me feel better, and I want my children to grow up and think that too. 

For women who are in abusive relationships, don’t stay in them for the children. Save ourselves first, and then we can save our children. That’s one way that we can break this cycle of abuse. Hearing about the rise of domestic violence during this time worries me greatly. 

I know that it is tougher to try to break free during this pandemic, but please know that it is okay to ask for help, and not feel embarrassed. Plan forward. Take one small step at a time.

There are always people and organisations that can and want to help, be it emotional and financial support. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.

* * * *

*Names have been changed to protect Charleen’s privacy. 

For this story, we reached out to AWARE, who are raising awareness and donations for vulnerable women who have been hit hard by COVID-19. These women include low income single mothers, foreign domestic helpers, foreign spouses, family violence victims and workplace harassment victims. If you would like to donate and find out more about how to help, please visit https://www.giving.sg/aware/vulnerable_womens_fund.

Charleen credits a huge part of her recovery process to the S.H.E. Project, saying that “living at the shelter gave me more time and freedom to meditate, reflect and stay calm.” As mentioned in the story, the shelter assists low-income single mothers with housing for up to two years, in an apartment that can house up to three families. S.H.E. residents pay a very low monthly rental fee, and attend support programmes conducted by Daughters of Tomorrow, an organisation that supports women in need. 

For more information, visit https://www.aware.org.sg/support-housing-and-enablement-s-h-e-project/

If you or someone you know is facing a situation of abuse or violence, call AWARE’s Women's Helpline at 1800 777 5555 (Mon-Fri, 10am-6pm).

Writer’s Note: 

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about life indoors, my changing relationship with my mother, and being apart from my significant other. I write to stop the days from shapeshifting. 

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