Women’s coping strategies for domestic violence and abuse
On average, women in the UK stay in an abusive relationship for 2.6 years before they leave (2015 figures from the UK charity Safe Lives). Both remaining in an abusive relationship and leaving it can bring risks of harm and benefits to the women themselves, their children, family members and friends (see ‘Why women couldn’t ‘just leave’’, ‘Leaving a violent or abusive partner’). Leaving can be a particularly dangerous time for women and children, as partners begin to lose some of the control they previously had and may retaliate. Similarly, staying can be dangerous as the risk of further abuse is likely to escalate as partners increasingly feel they can get away with it.
The women we interviewed talked about relationships that lasted between one and 33 years. They described the strategies they used to cope with everyday life and to keep themselves and their children as safe as possible, until they felt ready and able to leave. Although most women recognised that they were having difficulties in their relationship, the majority did not realise that they were experiencing domestic violence or abuse. Early in the relationship, women used a variety of strategies to justify or deal with their partner’s behaviour, such as ‘normalising’, ‘acceptance’, ‘denial’, 'keeping the peace’ or ‘blaming themselves’. When women tried to stand up for themselves or challenge their abusive partner, this usually led to further abuse, so, to play safe, women tended to take on a more submissive role. Tina’s partner often made threats to kill or harm her or the children if she displeased him. Tina decided the only way to keep herself and her children safe was to ‘be nice’. When the abuse became harder to cope with, women often continued with these strategies, in order to keep them and their children as safe as possible whilst secretly planning to leave. A few women used alcohol or drugs to find temporary relief from fear and anxiety. Strategies for coping at a later stage included seeking help, attending couple counselling, monitoring abusive behaviour in a diary, working towards financial independence through getting a job, and finding secret ways to communicate with others, such as keeping a hidden mobile phone. Women also tried to keep their children away from the abusive partner, to protect them.
‘Normalising’ and ‘Acceptance’
‘Normalising’ was a way for women to believe that what was happening to them was a ‘normal’ part of life and relationships. Most women assumed, at least initially, that their relationship was ‘normal’. They wanted the relationship to work out and felt it was up to them to accept what was going on and make the best of it, hoping that things might change in the future. Women said they tried to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible for them, like Jane who also ran a business with her partner and wanted to make a success of it. Women who had grown up with abuse in their household or were young and inexperienced said they had no idea what to expect in an adult relationship, and thought their partner’s behaviour was ‘normal’. Ella met her first abusive partner at the age of 15, and felt that, had she had help to understand abuse at that point, she would not have gone on to have two more abusive relationships. She explained how multiple abuse experiences distorted her view of what a ‘normal’ relationship was. Melanie described how she grew up in an abusive household and was ‘moulded to be this person who accepts these things’. ‘Denial’
Some women tried to hide their partner’s abusive behaviour both from themselves and from the outside world, sometimes out of shame or an unwillingness to face the painful reality of their situation. Jane described how, early on in the relationship, she tried to rationalise her partner’s abusive behaviour by saying it was ‘just a one-off’ but then, over time, she began to believe her own denial. Women frequently kept the abuse a secret, as they were in fear of things getting worse if their partner found out they had been talking about him. The women we interviewed talked about covering up bruises or ‘putting on a show’ to the outside world. Jessica and Melanie both described how their up-bringing in an abusive household led them to ‘put on a mask’ and ‘hide behind an imaginary wall’ rather than reveal their true feelings to anyone. Some women, like Tasha, still believed in their partner’s better nature. Despite her partner’s controlling behaviour, Tasha clung to the belief that he could be trusted and really was acting in her best interest. Women who had jobs outside the home described ‘throwing themselves into work’ as a distraction from the violence at home.
‘Keeping the peace’
Living with abuse became a ‘way of life’ for the women we interviewed. They described the tactics they used to try and ‘keep the peace’, so that their partner would not get angry or blame them if things were not how he wanted them to be, which led to him becoming abusive. Jane explained:
‘It was always, wasn’t his fault .... so that was, but it becomes a way of life. You start to think like that and you start to think that he’s right in everything he’s saying, and it’s easier to change your habits to change the person that you are, rather than admit that this relationship isn’t what you expected, what you wanted, and how do you even begin to get out?’
Irina and her partner lived in an isolated house. She tried to play the abuse down, preferring to give him ‘chances’. Irina described how she tried to ‘appease’ her partner, anticipate his moods and ‘just tried not to upset him’ to prevent him getting angry. Several women said they agreed to sex when they didn’t really want to, as a way of appeasing their partner. Others agreed to wearing clothes they disliked but their partner insisted on, just to ‘keep the peace’.
Melanie tried to keep the peace by keeping to her partner’s ‘rules’ but as the rules were constantly changing, she became confused and felt she could 'never get things right’. Based on violent and controlling behaviour already experienced, women had reason to take these threats seriously and they lived in fear, ‘treading on eggshells’ to avoid triggering abusive behaviour, while secretly planning to leave. Philippa described how she secretly acquired a mobile phone as a means of accessing others outside the home. Charlotte talked about the violent repercussions if she or her daughters displeased her partner. Blaming themselves
Women tended to blame themselves for their partner’s behaviour, often because their partner had manipulated them into believing the abuse was all their fault. Jessica for example, believed she must ‘work harder’ at her marriage to make it happier. This feeling was echoed by many other women who believed the best way to cope was to change their own behaviour so that their partner would treat them better. As Jacqui said you ‘try and become the person they want you to be’. Jane decided her own behaviour was to blame for her partner’s abuse. After her partner violently assaulted her and walked out of the house, rather than call the police, Liz tried to find him and apologise as she had pushed him during the incident. She was so ‘brainwashed’ she felt she 'deserved to be hit', and believed she couldn’t cope without him. Using drugs or alcohol
Some women found temporary relief from their painful experiences of abuse through the use of alcohol and drugs. Keeping a diary
On the recommendation of the police or a solicitor, several women began to monitor and record their partner’s behaviour, by keeping a secret diary. Tina’s partner forced her to have sex before giving her money to feed their children. The abuse continued after she moved out and the police advised her to keep a record of all her dealings with her ex, to make a case for prosecution. At the time of interview there was a warrant out for his arrest. Secretly getting help
Women had to be very careful getting help, especially if they were planning to leave, as they knew their partner’s abusive behaviour would get worse if he found out. Charlotte secretly went to her doctor who prescribed anti-depressants and referred her for counselling. These treatments helped her to realise that she couldn’t put up with the abuse any longer. Chloe was hardly ever allowed out of the house but she made an excuse and slipped out to see a friend, to ask for her help to leave.