Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Leaving a violent or abusive partner

Leaving an abusive home or relationship is not the same thing as the abuse ending. For many survivors, there will be on-going contact with ex-partners in relation to children or joint finances. Some women experience on-going abuse. Leaving can be a particularly dangerous time for women because the abusive partner starts to lose his sense of control. For this reason it is very important that women who are considering leaving do so with support. See ‘Life after domestic violence and abuse: ongoing harassment’, ‘Domestic violence and abuse: why women couldn’t just leave’, ‘Life after domestic violence and abuse: taking back control’).

All of the women we interviewed had left their abusive relationship. A few women were in new healthy relationships and the majority were living independently, but many of them were still experiencing ongoing harassment from their ex-partner. Ending an abusive relationship usually involved the woman leaving her home but in some cases it was the male partner who left. It was not always their first separation. Almost half the women we interviewed had previously separated from their partner and returned, before the relationship finally ended. Women stressed how important it was to get support from professionals, family members or friends, to leave when the time was right. Support after leaving was crucial too. For Khalida, leaving her 33 year marriage was like ‘coming out of jail’. Her brain felt like ‘mush’ after a lifetime of abuse. She felt her needs as an older woman with health problems were not adequately assessed by anyone. She is still struggling to find suitable housing.

Planning and being ‘ready’ to leave

Women said how important it was to leave at the ‘right’ time, when they felt ‘ready’ and safe to do so. Jane reported her social worker’s words: ‘“Actually when women leave, that is the most dangerous time, is when they leave.”’ A particular event may have triggered the actual day of leaving, but most women had made detailed plans in advance to ensure that they and their children would be as safe as possible. This planning often began once they realised that their partner’s behaviour was domestic violence or abuse (see ‘Recognising domestic violence and abuse’). After ten years in an abusive relationship, Irina realised the truth from a domestic violence and abuse website, and followed the advice given on how to leave.

Jane described how important it was to wait for the right time to leave, with all the necessary support in place to keep her and her children safe.
Alonya’s social worker encouraged her to ‘escape’ and helped her make a plan to leave on a day when her partner was out of the house. Alonya arranged temporary accommodation with a friend.
Some women, such as Tanya, talked about gradually feeling stronger over time until they reached a point of being able to leave. Women with young children were initially reluctant to ‘disrupt the family’ but a point came when they felt ready to leave.
After months of planning, building up a ‘survival pack’ at a friend’s house, Jessica woke one morning and decided ‘Today’s the day’.
Leaving was particularly difficult for migrant women on ‘spouse visas’, who had no right to remain in the UK if they left their husband and no access to funding for a refuge place, or to the benefits system.
Yasmin, a young migrant woman from Pakistan was controlled, physically and sexually abused over many years. She talked about how she secretly used the internet at the library to learn English and make contact with other women via chat rooms.
Triggers to leaving

Despite planning, some women had to leave suddenly with virtually no possessions or money when an opportunity arose, such as their partner being out of the house. Philippa could not carry anything and just had what she was wearing, with her daughters in their school uniforms. Jane lost her business and her house but her children were happy to leave. She said: ‘You don’t really have a lot of choice about it .... when you go out the door with just a few possessions and your children, that’s when you realise what the important things are’.

Women described a number of triggers to finally leaving an abusive relationship. For many it was a particularly violent physical assault from their partner, especially if it involved their children. 

Violent assaults triggered leaving

Many women said how scared they were after an assault that led to serious injury, as they felt that their partner could end up killing them. After receiving a serious back injury Jacqui decided it was ‘now or never’ and left, after her health visitor asked her: “In a year’s time …do you think you’ll be alive still?” Lindsay fled after her partner ‘put a hot iron on my back, put a hot iron on my daughter’s back’, and Penny left after her partner raped her.

Linda went to a work conference for two days, and returned to find all her clothes had been cut up and her University teaching files shredded. Later, when they split up, he smashed up the family home and stole all her personal information, her financial details and her computer.
Sometimes women stood their ground with a positive outcome. When Mandy was violently attacked by her partner she ‘made damn sure it didn’t happen again’.
Concern for safety of children 

The trigger to leave described by many women was either their children witnessing violence in the household or the violence being turned directly on to them (see ‘Impact of domestic violence and abuse on children’).
Confronting their partner about affairs with other women

Several women said they discovered their partner was having an affair. When they tried to question him, his angry, violent reaction triggered her to leave. Stephanie ‘kicked [her partner] out’ when he lied yet again about an affair and Liz left her marriage when she discovered her husband’s secret phone that he used for contacting his lover.
Role of friends and family members in helping women to leave

The role of friends and family members in supporting women during or after an abusive relationship is explored more fully in ‘Getting help from family and friends for domestic violence and abuse’.

Family members and friends often provided practical support on the day of leaving or immediately afterwards. Alonya’s friend offered her a temporary place to stay and ‘two big Polish guys’ helped her to move her belongings.
Chloe was kept a virtual prisoner and was ‘allowed’ twenty minutes to ‘visit the bank’ when she made contact with a friend and asked for her help to leave. Chloe said she had ‘amazing support’ for the process of leaving from friends and family. She was able to ‘couch-surf’ at friends’ houses until she got her own place to live.
Both Irina and Shaina had support from a neighbour to leave their abusive partners.
Role of professionals and survivors in helping women to leave

Women said how important the support of professionals was in leaving, particularly domestic violence and abuse support workers, the police, social workers and health professionals (see ‘Getting help from Domestic Violence and Abuse Agencies’, ‘The role of the police in domestic violence and abuse’, ‘Getting help from doctors and other health professionals’). Women who made contact with a domestic violence and abuse support worker. Some women were referred on to the Freedom Programme (a course for women experiencing abuse), which helped them find the courage to leave.
Role of other ‘outsiders’ in helping women to leave

Charlotte described how an unknown woman at a party ‘saw through my life, my marriage’ in a way that no family or friends had done, so that Charlotte decided she had to leave her husband.
Both Ana and Yasmin were migrant women living in relative isolation with few friends or family members nearby. For both women, meeting other mums at the school gate provided a crucial opportunity to get help to contact a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency and to leave their abusive partners (see ‘Getting help from family and friends for domestic violence and abuse’).

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