Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Recognising domestic violence and abuse

Not recognising that they were experiencing domestic abuse was the biggest barrier for women in both getting help and leaving an abusive relationship. They knew very little about domestic abuse. As Sara said, ‘I didn’t realise it was abusive until I was out of it and people kept telling me’. Most women were in abusive relationships for many years, knowing things were ‘not right’ but the abusive relationship became ‘normal’, a ‘way of life’. Their partners’ abusive behaviour often escalated gradually over time and women were too involved, too controlled to see the reality of their situation. ‘Early signs’ of abuse that they talked about were only recognisable with hindsight.
Some women said that generations of abusive and controlling relationships in their family, or a succession of recent abusive relationships distorted their understanding of what a ‘normal’ relationship is like.
Others, like Liz and Lolita, found it hard to accept the reality of their partner’s abusive behaviour. Liz, a confident professional woman, was shocked when she realised the full extent of her partner’s violence and abuse, while Lolita recognised her partner’s abusive behaviour from previous experience but still found it hard to come to terms with reality.
Importance of recognition

Recognising abuse was very important since only when women realised what was going on did they feel able to seek help. For the majority, this was after many years of abuse or after the relationship ended. For some women, learning about domestic abuse came from a chance encounter. Tanya was waiting for her car MOT test when she saw a poster on a notice board:

‘ “Does he do this to you? Does he do that to you? Does he call you names? Does he put you down? Does he hurt your pets? Does he threaten to hurt you? Does he hurt your children?” And I’m thinking “Oh my God, that’s us.” And I picked a card up ... but I was so scared of him finding it. I binned it.... That was a few years before we left.’

For all the women we interviewed, understanding about abuse had a major impact, like a light suddenly coming on. They began to realise that their partner’s behaviour was not ‘normal’ and it was not their fault. This was the first step towards getting help and leaving the relationship or, if they had already left, recovering from their experiences. After being kept a virtual prisoner by her partner’s controlling behaviour, Chloe said, ‘lights went on’ and she realised the danger she was in when he began to manipulate her towards a double suicide. Many women, like Sarah, described a ‘light bulb moment’ of understanding about domestic abuse.
Making Excuses

Women made excuses for their partner’s behaviour or thought that it was ‘all their own fault’ and felt they should ‘work harder’ at their partnership to make it happier. Anna’s partner convinced her that the emotional abuse she experienced was ‘all in her head’, a form of abuse known as gas-lighting (see ‘Coercive controlling behaviour’). Irine’s partner would always ask for her forgiveness after an episode of physical and verbal abuse.
Jessica believed that her husband’s increasing demands stemmed from her inability to ever do things ‘right’ for him. ‘I thought it was my fault, I should try harder’. Only when she stopped ‘trying’ to please him and ‘trying’ to improve their marriage did she recognise her partner’s abusive behaviour for what it was. Her understanding of abuse was helped by attending the Freedom Programme (a course for women experiencing abuse).
Image of an abused woman

A major problem for these women was the image they had of an abused woman as one who has been beaten up and is covered in bruises. But some of the women we interviewed were never physically attacked and it took most women a long time to realise they were being ‘manipulated, bullied and brainwashed’ by their partner.

After years of a controlling relationship with emotional, financial and sexual abuse, Julia finally realised that she was experiencing ‘domestic abuse’ after watching a TV programme and ringing the helpline number given at the end of the programme.
Jacqui, after experiencing her partner repeatedly calling her names and calling her stupid, only recognised that he was abusive when he ‘grabbed her by the throat’ and lifted her off the floor. Many women, like Tasha and Linda did not recognise their partner’s financial abuse until they left and found out they had no money at all. Melanie said her partner plied her with alcohol so that her mind became clouded. Only when she decided to stop drinking did the ‘fog lift’, but it was many years before she understood psychological abuse.
Triggers to recognising abuse

Friends and family were generally unaware of what was going on, and domestic abuse was just not something people talked about. Women felt that there is a general lack of awareness and education in society about domestic abuse. Liz’s sister-in-law eventually saw what was happening and persuaded her to go to the doctor for help. Liz said, ‘I didn’t see that as abuse even. I saw that as me not coping’.

Several women learned about domestic abuse via the internet or the TV. Yasmin was trying to improve her English when she chanced upon a YouTube video about abuse. Kate was looking at ‘Mumsnet’ and happened across a link to domestic abuse.
Professional intervention from police or hospital staff helped some participants to recognise that they had been abused. Things finally fell into place for Shaina when she made contact with a specialist Domestic Violence and Abuse agency.


* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services.

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