Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Domestic violence and abuse survivors supporting each other

The early refuges were often staffed by volunteers who themselves had experienced abuse and who had been through the refuge. The idea that women can share their experiences of abuse to empower themselves and others is an important one.

Research has shown how important it is for survivors to be able to help others, and that this can help to turn their negative experiences into something positive. Many services encourage peer support groups and involve volunteers who want to give something back to the services which helped them. As well as general groups, more structured domestic violence and abuse groups exist. For example, the Freedom Programme is a rolling twelve - week course that women can attend as many times as they wish. Whilst facilitated, the purpose of the group is to enable women to support each other in recognising signs of abusive behaviour and looking at safe ways to move forward. After the Freedom Programme, and when they are ready, women can go on to complete the Recovery Toolkit.

Women we interviewed frequently said that the best support for dealing with domestic abuse and its aftermath was to talk to other women who had experienced it themselves. One of the reasons women found it hard to talk to family members or friends was that they did not have first-hand knowledge of domestic violence and abuse. As Anna put it: ‘Unless they’ve been there they don’t get it’. Shaina suggested that it would be helpful if professionals with personal experience of domestic violence and abuse spoke out, as they could offer better support. She felt that ‘there is only so much you can do to put yourself in somebody’s shoes’. After her support worker from a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency confided that she too had been through domestic violence, Tina was able to get ‘really close to her’. Tina flagged up the limitations of non-specialist organisations, such as the Samaritans, in supporting survivors of domestic violence, and it was her specialised support worker who she believed saved her from suicide.


Tina would like to see ‘more people out there’ who have survived domestic violence and abuse to support others, as volunteers.

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Age at interview: 50
Where should the help come from?

I do think, not being nasty, there should be people like, how should I put it, like myself who’s been through it. 


Who they can open up and talk to because they’ve been through it themselves.

Oh right. 

And then they, they would chat quite easy then, I think.


I think. 


Because if, not being nasty, [first support worker] from [Domestic Violence and Abuse agency], she sat there and she said to me, “Don’t worry I’ve been through it myself”. And she knew and then I started becoming really close to her. 


Because when I was telling her things she was going like this is good to say yeah, this happened, do you know what I mean?


To her…


…so she knew and I think that was easier because you knew…


…if somebodies going through the same as…


…what you are.


And there’s easier. But I think there should be somebody out there, not the Samaritans because not being nasty they deal with everything, don’t they. Do you know what I mean? 

Yeah, it’s true.

But if somebody’s actually gone through…

Gone through it.



…what they’ve gone through…


…yeah, and that’s why I think they should have somebody, outsiders, doing it, voluntary

Yeah, yeah.

…who would do it.

That sounds really good

And to be quite honest with you after all this if they had somewhere I’d do it myself.  

Would you?

Yeah, I would, yeah I would and I’d do it voluntary for them.


Because I know that much. I went through it. 


But I mean, seeing the people and talking to them on the phone and then like it if me and a cup of get a coffee or whatever and chatting to them. They’d feel a little better.
Chance and informal meeting with other survivors

One of Victoria’s friends was also in an abusive relationship. She helped Victoria to recognise what was happening to her, as she saw her ‘light going out’.

Victoria was too low to see what was happening until her friend, also in an abusive relationship, helped her to recognise domestic abuse (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 42
So when did you realise that it was domestic abuse that you were experiencing?

I think I just started thinking about family patterns and I just thought, “I’m co-creating my parents,” not physical, but mental. And my self-esteem had never been so low as it had been then. I mean I’ve, I’ve struggled. But, yeah, that was, I’d kind of hit rock bottom.

So was it when you were still with him that you…


…recognised it was abuse?

Yeah, I definitely recognised it was abuse and…

Was there a certain moment that kind of?

…I had friends, one friend said, “Please leave him because it’s kind of,” she said, “your light is going out. And you’re such a bright person and you’re a funny person and he’s just sapping that all from you.” And you know, and I just, I came away thinking, “Oh yeah, actually yeah, kind of I don’t feel I am the person any – I’m not [Name] anymore.”

Had you told her what was going on, what he was doing?

Yeah, and she was also in a, she still is in an abusive relationship, not physical, mental.


Not, not a happy setting. But her family pattern is that you, you don’t leave, you stick, you stay by your partner, so that’s her programming.
Women who had chance encounters with other survivors of domestic abuse were able to share experiences and provide mutual support. They said it was a welcome change from the usual response of ‘why did you stay so long?’ Jessica talked to friends whose relationships were in difficulty and offered them support either to stay or to leave. Anna shared her experiences with members of a group, and was able to help another woman who opened up about domestic abuse. A few women, like Julia and Stephanie encountered colleagues who were survivors, in the workplace.

Stephanie provided support for another woman going through a difficult divorce.

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Age at interview: 39
Are there any other people at work that you’ve confided in about this? 

I’ve only told one person a member of my team and that’s because she’s divorcing her husband at the moment and he’s being quite manipulative. 


And I’ve given her some support and just told her a little bit about my experiences and I think she’s found that very helpful. Because I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Well, how on earth did she get into this situation? And why did she stay in it so long”? And then it, it I’ve said, “Well, this is how it happened to me and that’s possibly why it’s happened to her as well”. So I’ve just told a couple of people…


…but generally I find people don’t particularly understand.


And I don’t like talking about these things at the workplace anyway. 


If I can help it.
Lindsay lost custody of her daughter but a chance encounter with another survivor helped her to start the process to get her back.

Lindsay’s six year old daughter was sexually abused by her dad but social workers offered no support. Another survivor of domestic abuse helped Lindsay to get her daughter back.

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Age at interview: 35
To get my daughter off him I had to give up all residence, all parental rights to her. So I signed her over to my sister, put her into foster care, temporary foster care they said it was, and my sister. Took me 14 months to get her back, because local services and the local authority wasn’t being on my side because of the negligence on their side. And it was the lady in the court who was going through the sort of similar thing in [Place] courts. Who given me all these leaflets, told me about all these different solicitors won’t fight the government, solicitors won’t fight the local authorities, solicitors won’t fight the Social Services. And if you haven’t got money for that, you’re knackered. And they introduce you to someone called the guardian of the court who is then your child’s guardian. Who says they’re going to fight for what’s right for your child? No one. No one brought up about from 2009 to 2012 what had happened to all them numerous calls, why was she still put with them, put with him.


[Sighs] And this one lady in, in the court, she was just like, “I’m going to fight for myself,” she went, “I’m going to stand up for myself.” I thought, “Right, if she can do it, I can do it.” 
While still in an abusive relationship, Penny and Chloe both had contact with their partners’ previous girlfriends. Penny’s partner’s ex communicated via email, urging Penny to get out of the relationship, a warning that provided the trigger for her to leave. Chloe became friendly with her partner’s ex through shared parenting, and regretted that she didn’t take enough notice that his ex ‘was very happy to be rid of him, which should have been another big red flag’

Tasha was in a new healthy relationship at the time of interview. Her new male partner was also a survivor of domestic abuse and the couple are able to support each other.

Support groups

Following chance encounters with other survivors, both Shaina and Lindsay became involved in setting up local survivors groups and received training and support. Lindsay got help from MIND, a mental health charity, and Shaina got support from her local Council. Through her support group, Lindsay found out about the Freedom Programme.

Lindsay formed a support group and also became a volunteer mentor for domestic violence charities.

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Age at interview: 35
So we linked up, and now there’s a group, there’s a group of survivors, there’s a group of us called the Survivors.

So have you created, have you helped to create this group?

I wouldn’t like to say created. Coffee morning, they all come for a brew.

How is that, a weekly coffee morning?

Yeah on a Tuesday, yeah.

That you all meet up?

Yeah, well it’s a coffee night, Tuesday yeah.

Yeah. Is that each other’s houses or do you go to different venues?

No, we don’t go to houses, just the park. MIND, the organisation MIND has a lot to do with it, a lot to do with it. They let us use one of their rooms there.

Right, and have you had specific support from MIND?

Yeah I’m under MIND, yeah.

Yeah, what have they done that’s been useful or not useful?

Helped with my anxiety, the rape, the sexual abuse, the depression, CBT, anger management, self-esteem. And I got put on, after all that with my youngest daughter, when they took my daughter off me, when I thought I’d given her voluntary, they never, Social Services never got back in touch with me and said, “Look, you need to do this, to do that to prove to us, why we do these assessments, to get your daughter back.”


They never, they never did that. And it was so far down the line that I very nearly lost, they only give you so many weeks, and nobody told me that. And it was that lady again, she said to me, “Go to [Name of agency].” And I went there and they work, after Social Services, they do parenting courses and things like that, and they helped me.

So what’s [Removed]?

[Name of agency], where I mentor now. I do mentoring there now, sexual abuse, domestic violence, Women’s Aid.

Shaina talked about the ‘emotional understanding’ shared by women survivors which led her to train with the local council and set up a support group.

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Age at interview: 32
But I think generally it is good for somebody to support another person that’s been in domestic violence.

Right, so you mean get support from someone else, another survivor basically?


Yeah OK.

We’re actually setting up a domestic violence support group at well, hopefully,[local school].


With [name of town] Council, yeah. We’ve had training and we’re hoping to start in October.


Yeah so we’re, we’re all bringing survivors together or people who need, are currently in, need support, but it’s going to be hard to get them and they need to get comfortable. But what we’re going to do is set up like activities that you do, so that it’s a social thing. And, you know, maybe you hear other people talking and you’re not really ready to open up yet, and maybe one day you’ll get comfortable with the group and have the confidence to open up and discuss stuff.

Yeah, and how are you going to reach out? Are you going to put leaflets around or?

We are. We’ve called ourselves ‘Stars and Rainbows’, so that it’s an anonymous kind of title. And we’re going to give out like leaflets that doesn’t actually indicate too much to people about the whole what’s included.


But discuss face to face with that person. So, you know, if their abuser finds things it’s not related to like domestic violence. So it’s a little bit of a secret thing.

Yeah, no, I understand, yeah.

And they’ve got like little lip balms that they’ve designed with numbers and helplines on it.


There’s a bar code on it, but it’s actually a helpline.

Oh brilliant.

So no one would ever think that it was that. And we’ve got panic alarms and little leaflets and little cards to give out.

Brilliant. Who helped you design all that?

Well three, well, me and two other women who have suffered from domestic violence got together after we did Parent Champion for [name of town] Council. And we decided, well, we want to support other people that have been through it, and we can understand what they’ve been through. Whereas maybe someone that hasn’t, it’s very hard to put yourself in that.

Yeah absolutely.

Because even some of my girlfriends can’t understand why I stayed in my relationship for so long. But unless you’ve been in it, you don’t get it.

Many women were keen to put their experience of domestic violence and abuse to good use, by helping others. Tanya, Ella and Min were volunteering for their local domestic violence agencies. After receiving a lot of counselling, Min wanted to offer something back in return for the ‘amazing’ help she had received.

Min felt she was ‘on a train’, on a lifetime mission to raise awareness of domestic violence and abuse (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 47
Did you make contact with a specific domestic violence agency at any point?


How did that come about?

The police sexual assault team, they, after the police thing was no further actioned, they said I needed extra support, because they knew I’d be upset.


And they wanted to make sure that I was OK.


So they referred me. And I’m going to be working for them as a volunteer. They’re amazing. They were so [voice falters] amazing. I had a lot of counselling last year; some weeks four to five hours a week.

Who was the counselling from?

Various, do I have to specify the name or?

Well not if it’s a local name.

It is local.

But is it a local charity or?

Yes, it’s basically charities. It’s basically, I had an amazing IDVA [Independent Domestic Violence Advocate]. She hung around for way longer than she should have done, you know, she was absolutely amazing. And she helped me keep my head above water when I actually thought I was going insane. And yeah.

And you were saying, the sexual abuse team that you’re going to be working with as a volunteer, is that as part of the police or is it a separate charity?

It’s a separate charity.

Right, dealing with?

No, no dealing in sexual abuse, yeah.

And do you receive counselling from them as well?

I did, I received counselling for six months. And, as a result of that, they approached me and said that they thought that I could help other people with my experiences and I’d be, I can’t remember how they put it but, you know what, this is my life now, working in raising awareness.


Because you’re on that train and you’re not going to get off until they chuck you off.
Since ending her abusive relationship, Victoria felt she was ‘coming back to [herself]’. She wanted to help tackle the problem of domestic violence and abuse because it was on ‘such a grand scale’. She planned to take a counselling course as a first step towards helping other women.

Meeting survivors at a women’s refuge 

Women entering a refuge talked to other survivors. For Tasha this was an ‘eye-opener’, which enabled her to recognise the full extent of her partner’s abusive behaviour. Khalida, who had lived all her life within a close Asian community, and had never been shopping or made any household decisions, received practical and emotional support from another women in the refuge (see ‘Going Into a Women’s Refuge’).

Khalida received support from another Pakistani Muslim woman in the refuge, and felt that professional support was lacking (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 58
But when I came to the refuge I didn’t have a clue of what was happening. I didn’t know where to shop, I didn’t know what food was I supposed to give my son, what was I supposed to do? I needed advice. I needed somebody to actually help me, you know. That now you’re going to have to cook for yourself, you know, and you have to, you have to fend for yourself, you have to shop for yourself. Because I never shopped in my – all these years. He did all the shopping.


And he made all the decisions of what food was supposed to be cooked in the house, everything, him and his mother. And I didn’t even know how to get the stuff. I was a very – I’m a very good cook, but I don’t know how to – I didn’t know how to go and buy the onions and the garlic and the ginger, you know, the things to, to do. So somebody should have helped, helped in that way. But then, luckily, another woman came into the refuge, another Muslim lady, and she fared better than me because she has been living in [city] and she was born and bred in [city]. So she always knew. She had a different kind of problem. Her children were, children and husband, she was forced into marriage 25 years ago and she had two, three, four children from him, to an older man, and now he is in his seventies. And she’s 41 or 42 or something.

How many children?

She had four children from the old man. And so she, she never really loved him or cared about him. She was forced into marriage when she was young, by her father. And she, she was engaged to somebody else. Her mother engaged her to somebody who she loved or she cared about in her teenage. But he refused after the mother died, and he just totally refused and married her to this old man.

Yeah, so she was at the refuge with you.

So she was at the refuge. But she said, well one thing is she left her husband, she divorced him and she got married again to her, the love.

From before?

Yeah, so that’s a good, that’s a good ending. 


I’m trying to say that that was a good ending there, you see. She’s really happy now.

That’s amazing.


So you stayed there and then eventually you got?

So she helped me. What I’m saying is she was a Pakistani Muslim lady, but she helped me go shopping and do everything. And I mean we, we even kind of like we cooked together and we kind of, you know, did half, paid half, half/half and we cooked together.

What were you doing for money at this time?

Money was the - what was it now? What do you call it?

It was a benefit?

Yeah, it was a benefit, JSA. First they put you on JSA and then they want you to look for jobs. And I think it’s atrocious that they want you to look for a job while you’re in that condition, where you don’t even know where to shop for food. And how are you going to shop for – how are you going to look for a job? I think that’s something to be, you know, concerned about.
Freedom Programme

The Freedom Programme is a structured educational and support group for women survivors of domestic violence and abuse, often run by survivors who have had training and experience in group work. Women who attended the Freedom Programme described it as their ‘saviour’, a ‘wake-up call’ and a ‘turning point’. Meeting other survivors was crucial, and often the facilitator had also experienced domestic violence and abuse. For most women, it was the first time they had recognised that what they were experiencing was domestic violence and abuse.

The Freedom Programme was the first time Charlotte had discussed her experiences with others who understood. They helped her to see that her partner’s behaviour was not ‘normal’ (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 38
And then a year after we broke up, that’s when I found the Freedom Programme. And that happened quite randomly through talking to a friend who was having addiction therapy, group therapy, doing a 12 step programme. So he was talking to me about that and about the benefit of group counselling. And he didn’t, he didn’t know anything about that, you know, it was literally a conversation about him and how beneficial he had found group counselling because of shared experience. Because, you know, addiction is this horrible quiet thing that nobody talks about and it seems really seedy and you feel really dirty. But when you’re in a room of people who are all in the same situation, you start realising that, actually it’s not some dirty, nasty thing, there are reasons. So through having that entirely separate conversation with him, I suddenly thought, “Do you know what, this is what I’m missing. I’m missing shared experiences. I’m constantly trying to, trying to explain myself and nobody gets it. And that’s great, I’m glad nobody gets it, because it means they haven’t been through something so horrible. But I [pause 2secs] maybe I would benefit too.”


So I got in touch with Women’s Aid and they put me in touch with the people in [Place] who were running the Freedom Programme. And I remember going along to the first one and just thinking, “I’m going to be laughed out of this room as some kind of fraudster. You know, they’re literally going to turn around and say, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing here? You don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t been a victim of domestic abuse.’” And it’s a 12 week programme. And as the weeks went on I began to realise that actually, not only was I not being laughed out, but I was getting sympathy from people who had been through similar things, who were looking at me and going, “Wow, that’s really awful.” So it kind of made me realise that, not only was I not crazy for being there, but that actually perhaps it really had been that bad. 

How did that feel to have that?

Horrible, really horrible, because I hadn’t realised. And I still think now I probably don’t give it enough I probably don’t take it seriously enough. There’s still a bit of me that thinks, “Oh maybe I was just overreacting. Perhaps he did have a point.” So that was, that was really, that was really – there were a couple of weeks in particular, things that really hit home that were really difficult. I’d come home and just in pieces. There were a couple of times I phoned my mum on the way home to say, “You’ve got to be at my house when I get there because I can’t walk in through the front door.”

Yeah. But to be in that group and to have these other women who you had shared experiences with, what did that feel like?

That was amazing.

Because they really, truly understand the issues?

Yeah, that was amazing because that was the first time when I’d actually been able to discuss it with people who had lived through similar things, and who understood it, and who would say, make suggestions of things. And I’d go, “Yeah but that’s normal, isn’t it?” And then they’d look at me, “No, that’s not normal.” And the facilitator, the woman who facilitated, she was incredible. 
For Jessica, the Freedom Programme was crucial. It helped her to recognise the nature of her husband’s abusive behaviour. She saw the ‘flaws’ in her marriage and felt empowered to leave her husband of 26 years. The facilitator also supported her to phone her local Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency to ask for help.

Jessica realised, after attending the Freedom Project (a group course for women experiencing abuse) that her partner ‘was domineering’ and had ‘taken over her whole life’.

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Age at interview: 46
And would you describe what was going on as he was very controlling? Is that, that how it was for you?

Extremely controlling. Yes.

I mean, did you realise at the time that it was domestic abuse? Or not really?

I knew that there was something wrong in the marriage, that but I didn’t know it was domestic abuse. No. No. I didn’t find out about that until much, much later.

When abouts did that realisation come to you? Or …

After many years of marriage and friends said to me about going to the Freedom programme, and I just, the second session, the person that ran it just looked at me and said to me, “Do you want to make some phone calls?” And I just looked at her and went, “Mmm, yeah”.

And she took me aside and I made those phone calls. It was very, very difficult.

Who were the phone calls to?

I think one was, might have been to social services. The other one, I think, to [specialist domestic abuse services for women and children], I’m not sure.

At what stage, how far into your marriage was that event that you just described to me?

That was incredibly about 26 years.

Right. Yeah.


Yeah. And how’d you’d coped with all that going on for 26 years?

I kept thinking maybe it was me, maybe I should keep trying and I kept trying in the marriage, you know, you just kept as you do, you keep trying and then after going, doing a couple of session at the Freedom programme I suddenly realised, you know, that it wasn’t me, that he’d been controlling and he’d been abusive and at that point even my son recognised that I’d changed. I suddenly decided to stop trying because I’d always tried in the marriage.

What does trying mean to you?

Just carrying on with the marriage, trying to keep it, pull ….

Trying to keep them happy, that kind of thing, do you mean? Or, or not particularly?

Not particularly, no. Just I don’t know, putting spice back into the marriage.


You know, anything really to hold it together.


And when I actually stopped, for the first time I realised he hadn’t been trying for an awful long time. Probably hadn’t been trying for years and years.

He hadn’t been trying?




So, what happened then? When you stopped trying.

Yeah, big wake-up call for me. I started seeing the flaws in our marriage then. And also having, and the knowledge the Freedom programme, we were learning about just, you know, how abusive he had been and lots of other women all in the same situation. And at that point I decided I was going to leave. And I started making preparations to leave. 
Lindsay attended the Freedom Programme after leaving her abusive partner, and said how much it had helped her to deal with the ‘knock-on effect’ of domestic abuse on her and her children. She said: ‘I’m not a victim anymore. I won’t be a victim anymore’.

The Freedom Programme completely changed Lindsay’s perspective so that she no longer felt like a victim.

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Age at interview: 35
What about Women’s Aid, how have they supported you?

[Name] got me onto the Freedom Project. Even though I was out of the domestic violence relationship, the, the knock-on effect on me, I knew it had damaged my kids. But then when you sit that course and you, you see it through your children’s eyes. My eldest daughter had a lot of resent, resentment towards me. It ruined our relationship. She seemed to think that I allowed this to happen. So I did the freedom project, which was a13 week course on all predators.

How was that helpful?

You have different ones. You have the bad father who tells you you’re a crap mum. And you have king of the castle, everything’s his way, you know. Then you’ve got the bully. Then you’ve got the jailor who locks you in. And my ex-husband was all of them. Honest to God, the sexual predator, you sit there and you think, “Wow”, or they’ll be other girls there like, “I shouldn’t be here. I don’t need to do this course because my partner wasn’t like that.” And then a couple of weeks down the line they’re like, “Yeah, yeah he used to do that to me.” And that really changed my perspective, the Freedom Project. The lady from the Freedom Project put me in touch with Women’s Aid.


With [Name]. And after the Freedom Project, there’s the recovery toolkit.

So how did you initially get onto the Freedom Project?

One of the ladies who comes to the survivor’s thing, she was half way through getting her children back, and she said to get her children back she had to sit these courses that was organised by a third party, parenting course, anger management, drug rehabilitation. And I was like, “What are these, why haven’t I been offered?” 
The opportunity to meet other survivors lessened women’s sense of isolation and loneliness. Penny, however, preferred to opt for one-to-one support rather than a group. Stephanie could not find a group that met outside of her work hours. 

After the Freedom Programme, Melanie went on to complete the Recovery Toolkit and subsequently began to act as a mentor for other women through Women’s Aid.

Melanie went on to train as a co-facilitator for the Freedom Programme. Helping other women makes her fell she has ‘come full circle’.

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Age at interview: 42
And you, have you continued?

I have. I have continued. I’m doing a mentoring course that, well, I’ve just finished my mentoring course with the Freedom programme as well. 

Meaning? What does that…

Helping other women within the Freedom, I co-facilitate the Freedom programme now, so I sit on the side and I help women if they’re in distress or if they need to talk to somebody. I signpost women as well. Yeah, so yeah, I’ve, I’ve come full circle. Hopefully [laughs].

And I think you say you’ve been doing the toolkit as well, is that …?

I’ve do, I have. Yeah. I, I finished last week, I finished recovery toolkit I think we’ve got one more, not this week, next week, yeah, one more.

Does that work like in a group, like the Freedom?

It works in a group. I think specific women that are, that understood what recovery is about, because I think, I think for a lot of women you have to be in the right place, understand what recovery what the Freedom programme is about first and actually feel like you get it, because I think a lot of women have gone through abuse and although you’ve gone through it and you’ve gone to the recovery, to the Freedom programme you may not quite understand still what it is that these men do, because they do have a persona, there is a persona with abusive men and if you don’t understand that bit you can’t really move on to the recovery side of it. Because you, you have to understand what abuse is, I think and what, all the tactics that these people use. So there’s only, there was only four of us, three of us actually in the recovery side of it. 

So do you go straight on to the recovery side from the Freedom group? Or do you, is there a time gap? How does it work?

I think there was a two week …


… gap, in between. And I think she selects who …

Ahh, I see.

… who was ready …

Who was ready, yeah.

… who was ready…


… and I think you can do the recovery, you can do Freedom as many times as you want, I think.

Right. How long does it last?

It’s a 12-week …

Every week?

...rolling course, yeah.

12 week.

12 weeks, yeah. Yeah. 

Yeah, so that’s, sounds like that’s been really important for you.

Oh gosh, yeah. Definitely. 

Last reviewed February 2020.

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