'I could kill you and nobody would know': Law student eloped with man who later turned abusive

PHOTO: The Straits Times file

Elaine was a law undergrad with a bright future ahead of her when she did the unimaginable, especially in the eyes of those close to her.

Then 21 years old, the Singaporean went against her mother's wishes and eloped with a bartender she had known for just about a year.

Elaine always had a penchant for "bad boys", and while the relationship was passionate and exciting, the low points were just as dramatic. But she chose to ignore the warning signs.

Their 16-year marriage was rocked by abuse and infidelity, until she got a divorce in 2014.

Now 45, Elaine shared her story with AsiaOne but asked not to be identified as her ex-husband has since remarried. 

Describing the early days of their relationship, she said: "I was not allowed to put on makeup or even people-watch because he would accuse me of trying to attract another man's attention.

"He threw away my pager when he saw guys messaging me, and he convinced me that my mother was against us being together because he was Malay-Muslim and she would therefore try to break us up."

In a bid to thwart their romance, her mother had pulled Elaine out of the university hostel and imposed a midnight curfew. It only fuelled Elaine's rebellion.

“I actually proposed to him,” Elaine shared, with the thought that "since I'm 21 and an adult, I don't need my mother's consent". But she didn't expect things to escalate so quickly. The couple got married just a few months later, on Valentine's Day, 1998.

“Everyone thought I kena bomoh (black magic),” said Elaine with a laugh.

She quickly found out that instead of regaining her freedom, she was simply escaping one cage to go into another.

Converted to Islam and wore a tudung

Elaine converted to Islam just before the wedding, despite the former choir girl's staunch Catholic upbringing.

Once she got married, however, Elaine became disturbed by her new husband's additional demands.

"He suddenly told me that I had to attend religious classes,” said Elaine, which “wasn’t part of the deal”. He also insisted that she wore a tudung. Taken aback, it made her question who she had married.

Elaine admitted that at first, she held on to the relationship as her pride was at stake. That, and her belief that marriage was sacred. 

She reasoned to herself that "I already married the guy, I ran away and hurt a lot of people. I'll just try to make this work".

Within two months, Elaine fell pregnant with her daughter. Two other children followed — a boy and a girl — over the next five years. All the while, the relationship remained rocky.

“There were good days but also very bad days where we would quarrel and take out knives," she shared, adding that "he once took a claw hammer and smashed my phone".

Over the years, his assault on her was insidious and incremental.

“He would always tell me that I’m stupid, so I began to believe I was stupid,” she shared, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. By then, Elaine had graduated from law school while juggling her tumultuous home life and her first pregnancy.

She developed trust issues because whatever secrets or insecurities she had shared with him, he would use it against her in arguments.

Possessiveness was also a constant. “Wherever I went, I had to ask him for permission. If he couldn’t find me, he would blow up.”

His paranoia that she was having an affair, even after the kids came, meant he would drag her out of bed in the wee hours. He accused her of going on overseas trips with her "boyfriend".

"He'd make me account for all the entries in my passport and question 'who were you with', and I would take out all the children's passports and tell him, 'look, we were there as a family', or 'look, you were there'. This was at 3am in the morning and I had to go to work after that," said Elaine.

In the morning, however, he would be a different person, presenting her with flowers at the office to apologise. Cycles of accusations followed by remorse continued, which were "very destabilising". 

Ironically, Elaine found out that he was the one who had been unfaithful. "I'd hear things, or people would come to the door and say, 'tell your husband don't disturb my daughter'," she said.

"But he would always come up with some excuses and I would readily believe him, because I didn't want to rock the boat." 

Being the sole breadwinner while her husband struggled as a musician also meant she was abused financially. He demanded that she buy him a car in Kuala Lumpur when he was based there for a period of time. "He wanted a Mercedes," said Elaine, adding that after she told him no, he made a ruckus at home.

"In the end I bought him a second-hand Mitsubishi."

Elaine said her unwillingness to divorce him even though she had nothing to lose stemmed from "guilt towards my kids" and pride, "because I wanted to prove everybody wrong".

The abuse was mainly psychological and emotional, but turned physical once. It was in 2013, during a trip to Kuala Lumpur to celebrate their wedding anniversary.  

"He struck me, but not hard enough to leave any marks. But he said he could kill me in KL and nobody would know. That really scared me."

And after years of being manipulated and isolated from her friends by him, she had no one to turn to during her depths of despair.

"Every day while driving I'd do my crying in the car. I couldn't see the road, because I'd be bawling my eyes out, thinking about the failure that I am.

"I thought that I failed my children, I failed this marriage, I'm stupid, I'm this and that. I think that was the lowest moment in my life. 

"I was still a Muslim then and I took refuge in prayer," said Elaine. Even though she had mended fences with her mum by then, she did not want to burden her with her problems.

'He made me satanic overnight'

Elaine's resistance finally broke one day, when she discovered that he had locked her out of her own Facebook account. He also edited her profile, making her "satanic" overnight.

"He put the satanic symbols on my profile picture and uploaded devil pictures", shared Elaine, "and made a fool of me on LinkedIn".

"He really went out to assassinate my character and credibility, and I was a legal counsel," said Elaine, who managed to get support from her understanding boss and colleagues.

When she went to religious counsellors with what he did, everyone advised her to "get out". She added that "nobody asked me to save the marriage".

"So he has issues, and I realised it was never me to begin with, and I didn't feel guilt anymore," said Elaine, who finally made the decision to divorce her husband in 2014. 

Elaine remained a Muslim for a few years as she saw "no need to change". She only returned to Catholicism in 2017 when she remarried. Her current husband is a long-time friend whom she knew from church.

Dealing with childhood abandonment

Elaine shared that her damaging view on relationships could be related to issues in her childhood. Her biological father had given her away to his sister, and Elaine only found that out when she was 30, just before he passed. 

Her adoptive parents divorced when she was 14, and her father "completely cut [her] off" from his life when she went to university.

Elaine reasoned that her early experiences with abandonment — first by her natural parents and subsequently by the man who raised her — meant she constantly craved the attention of men who "didn't give love freely, and I always had to work for it".

"I took on the guilt (of her father's abandonment) and asked myself, 'You can divorce my mum, but why did you divorce me too?' 

"And subsequently when I found out about my natural parents, I questioned, 'Oh did you cut me off because I was not your flesh and blood?'"

However, Elaine was quickly able to look on the positive side and realised that with her adoption, she was given opportunities such as an education that her natural parents would never have been able to afford.

Elaine is philosophical about her life's journey and what she went through.

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"If you develop a different mindset, it's very empowering to feel that I took on these issues and I am able to handle it. And whatever happens in my life, I was meant to learn from them," she shared.

This was after a period of soul-searching and learning more about herself within the past year. This expansion of spirit has also changed the way she parents her three children — aged 18, 20 and 23. She has allowed herself to show a more vulnerable side to them, which has drawn them closer. "Before this, I was more like an ATM," she shared.

Elaine stressed that her past has taught her that one shouldn't be afraid to reach out for help.

She shared: "For women going through this, you need someone to support you, you don't need to do it alone. Whether it's professional support or someone in the family, you must be willing to trust.

"It took me so many years to set boundaries and to love myself.

"If I could turn back time, I would have stood up to my ex-husband a lot sooner, and loved myself enough to walk away. I would also not shy away from asking my friends and family for help."

candicecai@asiaone.com

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