My baby-faced toyboy lost me my job, home and beat me with a DOG CHAIN – I ended up living in a tent – The Sun

WHEN Michelle Couzins met a toyboy 19 years her junior online, she thought she'd hit the dating jackpot.

But the 43-year-old mum, from Mitcham, South London, soon found herself trapped in a controlling relationship.

During their two-year fling, Liam O'Keeffe, 24, beat the carer with a chain – and even lost Michelle her home and job.

Speaking exclusively to Fabulous Digital, Michelle bravely tells her story…

Logging into the Casual Hook Ups dating site, I was only looking for a bit of fun. A regular on the site for years, I'd met a few nice days in the past, but a serious relationship wasn't on my agenda.

It was October 16 2014 when I met Rufio Gonzales, who was 19 years my junior and looked just like Harry Styles.

We exchanged numbers and texted for about a week before meeting up. Despite the two-decade age gap, we got on well and had a laugh. It all felt very easy.

He even told me about his Argentinian dad, who was in prison for stabbing his mum to death.

He told me his aunt had brought him up with his younger brother. I was shocked at his upbringing but grateful he had confided in me.

His jealous outbursts had turned violent. When he was mad, Liam would pin me to the floor, with his hands around my neck

I knew it was ridiculous to get involved, I was 39 when we met and he hadn't even turned 21. But as the compliments tumbled from his lips, I couldn't help but get sucked in.

I was on a high. I'd struggled with my weight all my life, reaching 25 stone at my heaviest, but was down to 15 stone after switching to a vegan, sugar free diet.

As the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, Rufio suggested we became a proper couple. I was reluctant but wondered if I’d regret it if I didn’t give us a chance.

We made it official on Valentine's Day 2015. Then, around April, Rufio began to change.

"Why are you looking at that bloke?" he’d bark. "Stop eyeing him up! Are you after someone else?" The questions and false accusations tripped off his tongue like bullets from a gun.

I was constantly in the firing line – for doing nothing. Jealousy had kicked in.

Rufio insisted I took all my phone calls on loudspeaker, so he could listen in. He restricted what I wore and deleted friends from my Facebook account.

One time, he whipped me with a metal dog chain

Despite everything, I still trusted him. I put his jealous comments down to his insecurity and age.

Without a second thought, I gave him my bank card and pin number – and he bought us daily groceries.

But things weren't adding up. One day, his phone rang and I saw the name 'Mum' pop up.

When I questioned him, he said it was his aunt – but he knew her as Mum because she'd brought him up. I accepted his explanation.

Much later, I overheard someone calling him Liam. He finally confessed Rufio wasn't his real name.

"That’s the name I use online," he admitted. "It seemed easier to stick with it as I don’t want my family knowing I go on dating websites."

Shockingly, Liam admitted he had a mum and dad. When I asked him about the stabbing story, he shrugged and laughed it off.

Despite his possessiveness, I was determined to get the old, fun Liam back.


Coercive control is a term coined by academic and activist Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse in its many forms.

It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self.

It became an offence on December 29 2015 and is part of the Serious Crime Acts 2015.

Until then, domestic violence was understood as physical attacks carried out by a partner or ex.

In Scotland, they use the term 'domestic abuse' to stress abuse is about much more than just physical violence.

Signs of coercive control include isolation, degradation, mind games and the micro-regulation of everyday life – monitoring phone calls, dress, food consumption and social activity.

The perpetrator creates a world in which the victim is constantly criticised and watched. Their every move is checked against an ever-changing rule book.

Fear and confusion are central to understanding coercive control and the victim becomes brainwashed, adapting her behaviour to survive.

At the time, I worked as a carer, visiting elderly and disabled people at home.

Before long, Liam was asking to come to work with me. I told him he couldn't, but he was insistent. He’d accompany me on jobs, sitting outside and waiting for me to finish.

Then one day, he became aggressive, shouting at me from outside an elderly client's home.

After we left, my boss rang and asked me to come into her office. "I’m afraid we are going to have to let you go," she said.

I was devastated. For the first time, doubts about Liam began to creep into my head. His jealous outbursts had turned violent.

When he was mad, Liam would pin me to the floor, with his hands around my neck. This would happen about three times a week. One time, he whipped me with a metal dog chain.

But his apologies afterwards seemed so sincere. I hoped he would see sense, that the charming Liam I knew would come back.

When Liam didn't pay to renew the tax disk, our camper van was towed. We ended up homeless, sleeping in a tent in the park

Without realising, I turned to food for comfort and my weight slowly crept back up. Liam's compliments turned to insults about my body, slowly wearing me down.

My parents tried to make me see sense, refusing to let Liam into their house, where I was living at the time.

He persuaded me to buy a camper van for us to live in together but, when Liam didn't pay to renew the tax disk, the van was towed.

We ended up homeless, sleeping in a tent in the park. Then Mum received some news. "I’ve got cancer," she said. "It’s bad."

I burst into tears. The news made me realise I had to get my life back. I started staying at Mum and Dad's again. But I was living in constant fear, I couldn't see a way out.

Things came to a head one night, when Liam picked me up from my mum's house.

"I can't do this anymore," I said. Liam flew into a rage at the thought of me leaving him.

I have no regrets about escaping Liam. I don’t think I’d be alive now if I’d stayed with him

Grabbing me on the doorstep, he lifted my T-shirt up, exposing my bra and bare skin to the street. "Have a look at this!" he shouted to passers-by.

I was so angry, I slapped him around the face. Luckily he didn't retaliate – but I knew this was the final straw.

Feeling desperate, I called the domestic violence helpline the next day. Gently, the call handler persuaded me to call the police.

A day later, on July 14 2016, Liam was met by police officers when he came to meet me at my parents' house.

I could hear the raw anger in his voice as he was arrested. Despite everything, he made me feel like I had betrayed him. He was given strict bail conditions not to contact me or my family.

It was a year before he was charged, on July 3 2017, with putting a person in fear of violence by harassment and controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.

On August 31 last year, Liam O’Keeffe, now 24, from Mitcham, pleaded guilty to putting a person in fear of violence by harassment and controlling or coercive behaviour.

In October, he was sentenced to 21 months in jail, suspended, at Kingston Crown Court. The judge imposed a 10-year restraining order.


You don't have to suffer in silence.

If you are experiencing domestic violence or someone you know is there are groups that can help.

Refuge runs a free, 24-hour helpline on 0808 2000 247

You can also visit the website or contact Women’s Aid.


Today, I still suffer from post-traumatic disorder, occasional agoraphobia, nightmares, feelings of worthlessness, tics like head jerking movements and severe anxiety.

But I have no regrets about escaping Liam. I don’t think I’d be alive now if I’d stayed with him.

The police officer who took my statement said it was the worst case of coercive control he had ever come across.

I became morbidly obese while I was with Liam. I've lost eight stone since reporting him and am down to 12st 13lbs.

I'm studying psychology and criminology at the Open University and I have a new job as a senior care assistant in a small, privately run care home.

I want everyone to know it is possible to escape abusers like Liam. I cannot thank the domestic violence charity enough for making me see sense.

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