When I was in my early twenties, I went on a date with a man who, as my Gran would say, could have charmed the birds from the trees. He was polite, opened doors for me, did that old fashioned waiting-til-you-sit-down-before-he-does thing. I remember sitting across from him at a Chinese restaurant he had chosen that wasn’t either of the ones I’d suggested when he’d asked where I’d like to go, smiling until my face hurt, trying to decide if it would be too impolite to just get up and leave. Nodding, sympathizing, while he ranted about his ex, who was, to anyone who would care to listen, a terrible person. She was the topic of conversation for the entire meal. When the meal was finished and he had refused to allow me to pay half, he then repeatedly offered to drive me home, and would not listen to my assurances that I would be quite fine getting the bus. There was no second date, despite his persistence that it had been a wonderful night and that I was his soulmate. Sometimes the red flags are easy to spot. Mostly, they are hidden behind a blindingly charismatic persona we rarely see again, once we are entangled in the relationship.
In the days and months after my 13 year relationship ended, what helped me most of all was reading the stories and experiences of other women, who had been similarly trapped in abusive relationships. What struck me, during that time, was how similar our stories were, and how overwhelming my feelings were that if I had only read those stories before, perhaps I would have seen what was happening earlier and felt empowered to do something about it. Domestic abuse is insidious, and hard to untangle or acknowledge, but knowledge, as they say, is power. For a while, I gave myself quite a hard time about it, stuck in the idea that I could have prevented it, or chosen a different path – all the while silencing myself, as I had learnt to do for so long. Silence keeps us safe, right? Keeping our mouths shut keeps us out of trouble. I’d pretty much perfected the art of keeping silent, all the while walking on eggshells, waiting for the next explosion. I broke my silence in December 2019, with this blog post, written around my experiences and emerging ideas to create a textile project around the red flags, or early warning signs, of abusive relationships.
Being out of an abusive relationship makes it 100% easier to see what has been there all along – the red flags of abuse are always present, even in the early days, but part of the pattern of abusive behavior means that it is incredibly difficult to see them. The creeping, overpowering behaviors of abuse in the early days of a relationship are like ivy – beautiful, but gradually blocking our vision, suffocating us so that we lose the ability to really drill down into our gut feelings about what is happening to us. Quickly, quicker than most of us would imagine possible, we stop trusting ourselves, even when we do see warning signs that all is not well. By the time we see things for what they are, we’re so entangled and trauma bonded, that it’s hard to find a way out.
The following are what I believe now to be the main red flags in an abusive relationship – but with so many different behaviors manifesting under each one, they are incredibly hard to pinpoint or isolate in the early, heady days of a relationship. So much easier to spot in the aftermath. Nine red flags, each one stitched into the next, all of them coming together to blindside you – intensity, jealousy, control, isolation, criticism, sabotage, blame, anger, destruction. The man who tells you that you are his soul mate on the first date, who seems to like everything that you do, like he’s a mirror image of you, who wants to marry you after you’ve only been dating for 2 months, who wants to move in, who wants you pregnant. The man who wants to know who you’ve been with, and where, and what time you’ll be back and somehow manages to disguise it as concern for your well-being. The man who takes you to your favorite restaurant/movie/place only to pick so many holes in the service/storyline/atmosphere, that the restaurant you love, the movie you love, the place you love, becomes the restaurant you never eat at, the movie you never watch together, the place you never go. Ever again. The man who uses silent treatment, sulking and mood swings to control you. The man who places the responsibility for his well-being on your shoulders. The man who blames his angry, destructive outbursts on his work/his parents/the children/his ex and then, eventually, you. The man who constantly, in ways you can’t even see until you are miles and years away from him, pushes at your boundaries, slowly destroying them, one by one.
There are some deeply insightful articles and books in print and online that can help make sense of the warning signs of abuse. I’d recommend this article here, and the book Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft as a good place to start. The latter was gifted to me after a doorstop conversation with a women I barely knew, but who had walked the same path I was on, and who wanted to help. This book, above everything else I have read on the subject, helped me most, and ultimately sparked the idea to create the #redflagsproject.
This project proposes a journey together, to share the knowledge, experiences and stories of women who have been affected by domestic abuse, either directly or indirectly, through creativity. To bring together all those who want to support, in all the ways possible, women who have lived through domestic abuse, or who are living through it still. Inspired in part by The Women’s Quilt (which was also a collaborative piece, but devastatingly, made to remember the 598 women who were killed as a result of domestic violence between 2009-2015), I want us to create a body of work that will help to highlight the early warning signs of domestic abuse.
To begin, you are invited to collaborate on two creative pieces.
The first will be a patchwork quilt, where each woman designs and makes a patchwork square, to be stitched together into a quilt of stories. Patchwork squares, once made, can be sent to me and they will be stitched together to form the quilt by local women who feel called to, during some sessions I have arranged with Woman’s Health Advocate Ruth Willis at The Red Shed. Stories will be shared and heard and honored as we stitch, and local photographer Vicki Cracknell will document this process for us as part of the story of the project itself. Her images are beautiful, and I’m confident they will capture the care we will take with every patch and every story we stitch together.
The second creative call will be a postcard contribution, inspired by the 52 Stitched Stories project run by textile artist Fiona Doubleday. Fiona will receive your postcard contributions, and stitch them together to form a banner of stories, which will be displayed with the quilt, and supporting material in an exhibition. Pieces can be multi-media – so paint, collage with paper or fabric or both, hand stitching, embroidery, applique, printing, weaving, felting – any craft discipline is welcome – what is important is to convey your story, the red flags you perhaps, with hindsight see now, your sense of solidarity if you are a woman who has not experienced domestic abuse, but want to stand beside those who have, acknowledging it’s existence and the impact it has on the lives of so many – all contributions that feel important enough to share are welcome, and will be honored.
As you create your patch and/or postcard, you may wish to write an artist’s statement about your contribution to the project. If you feel able to, include why you felt called to be involved in the project, how you hope the work may help other women and girls, how you decided to create your patch/postcard, and what part of your story you are sharing through your finished piece. You may find it healing to write a testament of your experiences of the red flags/warning signs you encountered, but remember, you do not have to do this if you will find it too triggering. Creative statements can be hand written or typed, and will be hand bound into a book that will travel in exhibition with the quilt and banner, and/or stitched into further art installations that will be added to the body of work exhibited.
For your patchwork square, begin with a piece of cotton fabric that measures 10 by 10 inches and mark out a 0.5 inch seam allowance. Work within the central area of your piece, keeping the seam allowance clear.
For your postcard, begin with any stitch-able surface that measures 6 by 4 inches. The final pieces will be attached to fabric, to create a banner of fragments of connected lives, lived experiences, and sisters standing in support of each other.
When you are creating your pieces, you may wish to include text, images, symbols, or choose particular colours that have significance for you. The work you create is personal to YOU, your story, and your experiences.
The primary aim in producing this collective body of work, is to offer a space for women to share their stories, to be heard, believed, held and know they are not alone. Long term, I hope that the work will travel around the country, being displayed with the aim of highlighting the warning signs of abusive relationships, to empower and support women and girls. If you feel called, and are safe to do so, please join us.
When you have completed your submission, please email us for more details on where to send your work.
Patchwork/written testaments: Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org
Postcards: Fiona at email@example.com
Thank you for considering being part of this important project.
My blog and everything in it will always be free to inspire and support people to live with less plastic, live more sustainably, live with less, and work to reduce the impact of climate change. During August, I will be completing the 62 miles for Refuge Challenge – you can sponsor me here.
You can support this project by using the hashtag #redflagsproject in any information or in-progress images you share on social media.
Please share this safely with anyone who may benefit from reading it.