No betrayal could be more complete, more emotionally destructive, than discovering the man you love is an online child abuse offender.
Yet not even your horror and your anger at this most base theft of your love, of your blissful naivety, will likely offset your personal descent into shame, and disbelief, that nagging question of how could you not have known.
Even worse, what sort of creature have you enabled?
Yet for Natalie Walker, once the sheer scope of her partner’s sickness unravelled, the ultimate lesson which ended the marriage was there was no-one to turn to for understanding, for support.
So she created PartnerSPEAK, an online forum for partners of those looking at online child exploitation.
And she hasn’t let it stop there.
Natalie is now investigating links between those offenders and domestic violence, with research highlighting similarities between the experiences of non-offending partners and domestic violence victims.
She, along with other advocates, are now pushing for non-offending partners to be classified as secondary victims of crime and for support services to be funded.
“You didn’t know because he is far more invested in you not finding out than you are in finding out because you didn’t know there was anything to find out and his entire life is built around hiding this secret, so you didn’t stand a chance,’’ she said.
‘‘All his friends came over for a long weekend and one of them, who had always serviced our computer, took me aside and said: ‘Look we know (he) has always had a lot of porn on the computer but this time I found something different and I need you to know it’s children’,’’ she said.
“I went digging and I found some hidden RSS feeds and that’s where I found content that was about children and teenagers, barely teenagers, and that kind of stuff.
“I challenged him and he denied it briefly, but I had it right there. Then he was distressed to the point he was crying, howling.”
Natalie married her dream man while still in her early 20s.
“He wasn’t just a nice guy. He was beyond that. We were the pin-up couple in our group. All my girlfriends wanted to have a boyfriend just like him, he was the kind of guy your parents are very happy with, kids loved him.
“He’s the kind of guy you’d think ‘he couldn’t have done something like this’.”
Even as they started dating in high school, Natalie knew there was a secret underbelly to her man – he seemed hooked on pornography.
“He always hid it, even back then. Even when it was just magazines like Playboy, and those sorts of things,” she said.
“But as the years went on, his porn started becoming more depraved, more disturbing – and it kept getting worse.
“He went out of his way to hide it and so every few years, which increased to every few months, I would find it and by this stage we’re online and I would find it somehow, we would have a confrontation, and he would cry, and would promise not to do it again.
“I would be very clear and articulate about how damaging it was to me, to know my partner was looking at this depraved material and how it was affecting me.”
Natalie soon recognised the cycle – something happening, the tears, the promising it’s not going to happen, the walking on eggshells and the honeymoon period.
“I told him ‘that looks a lot to me like domestic violence and I’m not going to become that kind of victim and this isn’t going to happen again, and if it does, I’m out of here’.”
But none of that prepared her for what was to come.
“I felt the same as anybody when reading or thinking about it, that kind of abhorrence and horror and sickness but then magnified because it’s this person I’m so close to which made me nauseous,” she said.
“But then on the other hand, it made sense. There was no red flag or prediction that I thought something like this would happen, but with the context of the escalation, I guess it made sense.
“So I was shocked and horrified yet it made sense at the same time.”
She kicked him out of the unit in which they were living, she dropped out of her university course and started working fulltime. And still the trauma went on. Natalie had become collateral damage in her husband’s savage perversity.
“The shock and horror, that’s different for a partner is if it’s the person you’re intimate with, the next thing you ask yourself is ‘what does that say about me?’ That I chose someone who is turned on by that and how didn’t I know and I should have known and I’m part way responsible,” she said.
“It’s so awful, everyone else is saying ‘how could she not have known?’ because that’s your biggest question of yourself, you don’t need other people asking it.
“How could I be sleeping next to this person and he’s doing this? Is there something wrong with me, am I stupid, a bad judge of character – can I trust no-one?
“I thought ‘if this is the nicest guy in the world, and he can do this, then everybody’s a potential paedophile – and I can’t trust anyone.’”
Natalie remained wrapped in, even protected by, that emotional isolation for almost a decade.
“I had planned to have children with him and for the next 10 years I was single, and I was never having kids with anyone, because if he could be a paedophile, anyone could,” she said.
Then she started doing what many in her position do — reading survivor stories from child sex victims.
“That’s probably the most grief I’ve ever experienced,” she said.
“The partners of these offenders are the people that know with every ounce of their being the nature of their offence and what it means and who’s affected – and that’s the first level of trauma.
“The second level of trauma is that my whole life’s a lie, I can’t trust myself, I can’t trust anyone.
“A lot of women I speak to say ‘my whole sense of meaning, my whole sense of self, my whole sense of the world is gone’, it’s been ripped out’. With no hard ground, it’s all shifting sand”, many of these women go through post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You think it can’t get any worse and you’ve got to deal with people’s responses,” she said.
When Natalie revealed her husband’s story to his mother, her mother-in-law, she responded: “Well, didn’t you know that before you married him?”
“All his friends rallied around him. Out of his whole family, with the exception of one aunt, not one person held him to account – and the auntie was ostracised by the family,” she said.
“They were virtually protecting him, and why was I trying to ruin his life? It was an insane response, my world had turned upside down.’’
And then there was the police.
Natalie reported the offences – and they are crimes – and gave police the contact number of the mutual friend who had first found the material.
But they never contacted him and they never investigated the claims.
And through it all, as the insidious reach of the dark web spread around the world, increasing the power of paedophiles, there was no support as more and more partners/spouses found the men in their lives investigated, charged and arrested.
And for Natalie and PartnerSPEAK, the fight goes on, and has barely begun.
For information or to access peer support, go to http://www.partnerspeak.org.au/