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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Emotional-psychological abuse and effects on women’s self-esteem

Introduction

We know from the testimonies of women over past decades that, for many, emotional-psychological abuse was often more damaging than physical abuse. Unlike the impacts of physical abuse, the emotional and psychological scars are not immediately visible. Constantly having to deal with the changing demands of an abusive partner wears women down, so that they develop a range of problems such as finding it difficult to sleep and eat and symptoms of anxiety, self-harming and suicide attempts. Research which has followed survivors over time shows how dealing with the emotional impacts of grief, anger, and fear, can be a long term process, as described by Julia and Yasmin. Julia said the abuse had affected both her and her wider family: ‘it’s devastated me, yeah, yeah broken me. I feel broken. I don’t, I’ll never be right again.’

 

Yasmin talked about the mental ‘scars’ which have stayed with her and affected her confidence and self-esteem.

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Age at interview: 32
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How are you … are you alright in yourself?

I’m fine. The thing is … you know, every time you … have that so many scars in your memory …

Yes. Yes.

… even though they are only … you know, scars …

Yes.

… they don’t hurt you, but when you look at the scar the whole story will run out in your mind, oh I got this because of that, that always there.

The whole story runs out, yeah. Yeah.

That’s always hard. Sometimes you kind of say, ‘Oh how stupid I was.’ Sometimes you say, well … if you should … that time I go for hug. That every time you think differently.

Mm, yeah, yeah.

You can’t always blame yourself, ‘Oh how stupid’, or how weak I was. Every time you look at that scar it’s … with the time, with the confidence, with the self-esteem, every time your mind tell you a different story.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah I understand what you mean, yeah. 

So yeah, if I see … when I’m sleeping, because my daughter, she notice a few times … Daddy used to drive Mummy from one bed … if I used to sleep with her ...

Right.

… a few nights to be able to be safe.

Yes.

But he, either pick me up to take to other room, or either drag me.

Yes.

Either way. So … now they don’t have to see that anymore.

Mm. Good. 

I don’t have to sleep with him to get my children … McDonald’s.

Yes. Good.

So yes there are lots of positive things, but scars are there.

Right. Of course they are, yes.

So I think with the mood swings, with … your confidence and self-esteem level, every time you tell different to yourself because of this happened.

Yes. Do you think it’s had any lasting effect on your actual health?

It does kind of make you drained. There are a few days when I feel ‘Oh gosh, I can’t do anything.’
Women described how their partners would stop them from seeing family and friends, constantly criticise their behaviour or appearance and punish them if they failed to meet their demands. By isolating women through emotional and psychological abuse, partners’ control often increased.
 

Jessica described her partner isolating her from her friends and the impact that this had on her self-esteem.

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Age at interview: 46
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He made an awful lot of people disappear throughout my life. And when I was, at my 40th birthday party he only had his friends at my birthday party, none of my friends, because he said he didn’t like their husbands. And it was all of his relations there, none of mine. Apparently he told his family that I was having a separate party, but I wasn’t.

So how were you feeling at that time?

That everybody seemed to be deserting me and I was all on my own and my self-esteem was really low and, especially when you’ve got young children, because you’re very isolated then anyway, and, like I’d always worked and suddenly you can’t work, you’re isolated with the children you’re a new mum. Which, you know, you’re just stuck in the house. Extremely lonely. 

He broke me. Totally.

Yeah.

I didn’t have any say, I had no self-will any more. And …

So, he’d broken you?

Literally.

Over the relationship?

Yeah. Totally broke me.

Hmm.

Yeah. So I became a nothing. Yeah.

Gosh.

Hm. Yeah. I was the strong one in the relationship and he broke me. 
The impact of emotional-psychological abuse could be profound and long-lasting, as Nessa said: 

‘When it came to arguing and his anger, he would lash out at me and, like, marks heal andfade but the emotional is what kind of stays there and gives you insecurities about yourselfand everything really’. 

Once they were able to leave the abusive relationship, many women were able to regain their confidence and self-esteem (see ‘Life after violence and abuse – taking back control’). 

Feelings of shock and grief after recognising abuse

For some women, when they realised that they had been in an abusive relationship, the emotional and psychological impact was almost like experiencing a bereavement as they came to terms with the loss of the relationship they wanted or thought they had.
 

Jacqui described the escalation of abuse from the ‘odd slap’ and name-calling and the grief and shock she experienced after being hurt by the partner she thought loved her.

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Age at interview: 59
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In the beginning it was fine and it slowly escalated from the odd slap, the odd push escalating up to him breaking my ribs, finally hurting my back, and that’s when I actually started to seek help because I was beginning to get afraid that he was going to permanently damage me or kill me.

OK, so can you recall the first time you experienced abuse from him?

Yes on the whole it was when he was drinking or he came back from the pub and he’d been drinking. And he would start off calling me names, like I was stupid, that sort of thing. and the first time I can really remember thinking, “This is abusive,” was when he grabbed me round my throat and lifted me off the floor by my throat.

And how long into the relationship was that?

That was probably about two years into the relationship. And, as I say, it slowly escalated even further than that. The very first time it was a bit like going through grief when he broke my ribs. He’d come back from the pub very argumentative, so I went upstairs to try and diffuse the situation. I’m 5’4” and he’s 6’4”. And I was on the bed and he grabbed me and slammed me on the floor and stamped on me, and we both heard my ribs crack. And he just said, “I didn’t mean to do that,” and he got into bed and went to sleep and left me on the floor.

And at that time can you recall how you were feeling, lying on the floor?

Absolutely in shock. Absolutely in shock. Here was this man that was supposed to love me and he’d, he’d really hurt me and he hadn’t cared. it was the most awful feeling, awful feeling. As I say, it felt a bit like grief.

Hmm.

You know, and the shock of it.
 

Liz described her shock at discovering that the behaviours she had been experiencing from her husband were not ‘normal’ in a relationship.

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Age at interview: 46
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I’d found out that – well, he’d hit me, I’d found out about an affair, I find – found out that he’d been lying to me for years, financially he’d been stripping money out of bank accounts. And then I found out that he’d punched my daughter when I wasn’t there and he’d hurt her with a horse riding helmet. My au pair had witnessed him doing that. And I could almost, it was like an out of body experience, I could feel that why was I feeling so needy, so desperate and scared?

Because I’m in a house, I’ve got a job, I can look after my family, you know, I can downsize house, I, you know, I can cope. Why was I feeling so frightened and in shock, numb? I wasn’t able to drink, I wasn’t able to eat, I wasn’t able to function – what was wrong with me? And then I started talking, and I started talking to my sister-in-law, who’s a vicar’s wife, who has dealt with women who have been abused, and telling her some of the things that had happened to me, and the way my marriage was. And, shockingly, she said that wasn’t normal.

Right, that was a real shock to you?

It was a shock to me. And so much of a shock that when I got back to work I took two weeks off, I was given two weeks’ leave, because I had to leave the family home because he was trying to break in. 
Ongoing feelings of anger 

Alongside feelings of shock and grief, women also experienced anger at their ex-partner, but often the anger was directed towards themselves.
 

Penny described her anger with herself about being taken in by her ex-partner and finding that she is now less trusting of new people.

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Age at interview: 62
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I’m very angry with, cross with my, angry with myself that I was so taken in, angry with myself that I gave him so much. 

You mean, financially?

And probably that’s, yes.

Or … 

Yes.
 
… in other ways?

Yes, and time, but financially mostly. And yeah, angry that he’s made me less trusting of people. More wary. Because he just took me in. And I was more wary of my current partner for a while because I’d been, thought I’d been done once and probably was more wary of, well I was, probably much more wary of my current partner than I need of been because…
Anna described similar feelings: 

‘I’m more angry with me than I am with him. … And I hate myself more than I do him, because him I’ve got no emotion …. I don’t hate him, I’m not angry at him, I don’t think anything of him because I cannot be bothered to give him any emotion.’

Loss of trust and long term impacts

Women we spoke to experienced feelings of regret and also a loss of trust in other people. Jane experienced these emotions not only on her own behalf, but also saw similar effects on her children which lasted into adulthood.
 

Jane saw the effects of her abusive marriage on her children once she was out of it. She regretted that their childhood was ‘a battleground’ not a place of ‘nurturing’.

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Age at interview: 46
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So just reflecting back now, what do you think have been the biggest impacts of your experiences on you as a person, on your life?

My health and the health of my children, especially the mental health. You don’t always realise it when you’re in a domestic abuse relationship. You think the kids are going to be OK and that they’re going to cope. But in reality they don’t cope, you know, especially with the constant arguing between one parent and the other parent and where one person is saying one thing and the other parent is saying something else. They don’t know who to trust, who to believe and who is telling the truth. Because quite often in domestic relationships there’s a great deal of control, and how the control is gained is through emotional and through financial and also through making the abused feel that they’re worthless and that they don’t know what they’re talking about and, you know, just generally trying to gain that sort of mind control over the person. So they lose who they are, the abused loses who they are for the abuser to take control. And that sort of mental shift, as it were, is where you don’t trust yourself, where you don’t believe in yourself. It happens over a short s-space of time, but quite quickly, but you don’t usually realise it. It happens just a little bit and then a little bit more and a little bit more, and before you know what’s happened, suddenly you’re this person that you don’t recognise. And if that’s happening to you, then you can be sure that’s happening to your children as well.

So did you see that in your children, that shift?

You don’t when you’re actually in the relationship. But when you leave the relationship and you actually realise just how close you got to maybe not being here for your children, because it got so serious that, you know, you got a really severe beating that time, and also on your child’s behalf as to what they go through emotionally. A childhood should be one of growing up and being nurtured and be loved. It shouldn’t be one of where it’s a battleground. And if a child gets forced to grow up too early because they get to deal with adult emotions and adult feelings, then what happens is they don’t grow as a person, like as a child would. So there’s a great deal of mental health issues there that could happen. My oldest child, she was very badly damaged by my partner, my ex-partner, mentally and physically. And when she, when we finally left the relationship, she suffered from nervosa bulimia. And she got down to about six stone, and she was being sick all the time, she had no self-worth in herself and it was actually pitiful to see that that was the direct impact of domestic abuse. And, you know, you don’t realise it at the time, but these are really serious issues. You mustn’t just think of yourself; you must think of the children and what they could go through later on in adult life just because of domestic abuse. You have to be strong for yourself and for your children, even if it’s really hard to do. There’s lots of support out there. And the minute you make that break, you think that you’re not going to be able to cope, but you will, you will. And you’ll find that friends that come out of the woodwork that you lost contact with, family that you didn’t really tell will all rally round and they will all help you. And, you know, it’s so much easier when you’ve actually left, but you have to make that break and you have to make that decision that this is the right thing to do. And you have to think, not just of yourself and the impact on yourself, but also of your kids. 
Other women also acknowledged that the mental damage caused by domestic abuse might take years to heal. Anna explained that:

‘The self-loathing and the self-hate is probably still with me today and I don’t know truly how long the mental side will take to heal. …the bruises and everything else, they heal, they go. The mental side, it’s stopped me going into any other relationship because I can’t. I’ve got a real trust issue so I can’t’.
 

Lolita described her ongoing confusion and loss of trust as well as the impact she felt this would have on future relationships.

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Age at interview: 20
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And how has it left you feeling?

In a way I feel like I’ve survived, I’ve come out of it and I’m alive still, you know, I’m still going. But, in a way, I still feel broken because I didn’t want to not be with him, if I did I wouldn’t – I would have left him.

Yes, yes.

So it’s like I feel like I held out all that time for it to just amount to nothing.

Yeah.

And that hurts me the most because I was so certain that he was going to be the man that I marry but he’s not. I feel like I was prepared for life with him and I’m stuck living a life without him, so I feel lost and I feel lonely and I feel like I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t really have the confidence to meet new people anymore because I don’t feel like I’m myself anymore. I feel like I was myself with him. You know, I feel like I adapted my life to being his girlfriend and living with him. So now I just I’m slowly I’m not really looking for love, but I can’t help but want it.

Yeah, yeah of course. And what would you say was the main effect the abuse had on you as a person and on your life?

I don’t trust anybody now. Like I really don’t. I can’t imagine laying down with another man and being vulnerable. I can’t imagine having another man in my house. I can’t imagine trusting somebody. The thought of, you know, sex with another person, will it be consensual, will I really want it? And questioning what is consensual sex now, because I just don’t know anymore. You know, I feel so lost and so confused from being with him that I just feel like I just have to pick up the pieces. And, you know, like I said, I am really lonely, but I don’t know how I’d go about meeting people as friends or in a relationship because I’m so used to everything being about him. I don’t really know how to make it about myself.
 

Shaina described having to rebuild herself and learn to trust people again.

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What do you think has been the biggest impact really on you as a person and your life from having been through that domestic abuse?

I think I had to rebuild myself completely.

Really?

Yeah. And learning to trust another person to come into your life has taken me a long time. I’ve been single three years, you know. It’s been trying to process everything. And my main priority was to re-stabilise my children. Because, again, they’re the innocent people that I brought into this world. Like his dad told me, “He hit you when you had your first child. You shouldn’t have had more kids with him.”

No.

And that is something I do dwell on and I think, yeah, that was a mistake. I don’t regret my kids, but I have brought two additional children into quite a volatile situation. So now my main focus is to make sure they’re fine, because they didn’t deserve to be in that. So that’s what my life has been dedicated for like two years. Then rebuilding myself enough, and again to learn to trust a man to come into my life, so yeah.
The impact of abuse was long-term for Lindsay as well. She explained that her life had been turned upside down:

‘He just changed my life, just totally changed my life. Don’t really go out anymore, suffer with postnatal depression. I have panic attacks, don’t trust anybody.’ 

Feeling powerless 

Melanie described feeling helpless to do anything to change the situation she was in.
 

Melanie described feeling like she was ‘nothing’ and being powerless to change anything.

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Age at interview: 42
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So I was nothing. Nothing. Eventually. So whatever relationship came after that, it was very easy because I was nothing.

So is that how your most recent relationship left you feeling, like you were nothing?

I was nothing. I was absolutely nothing. Shit on the bottom of his shoe. 

That’s how you felt? Hm.

Yeah. I think there was a stage where I thought if the house was on fire I would be left and he would take his child. And I think I remember saying that to him and him almost laughing about it. And me thinking there’s something true within that statement but still not feeling that I had the power to do anything about it. 
Many also suffered from depression alongside the lack of confidence and as Penny explained, that made it more difficult to leave: 

‘I just felt - well my confidence, confidence just went down and down and down and I was so depressed really that I wasn’t in a state to get out of it.’ 

Abusive partners used humiliation as a way of abusing women, for example by belittling them in the way Lolita described, so that they began to lose confidence in the way they looked.
 

Lolita began to feel unhappy about her appearance, which led to comfort eating and weight gain. She became depressed, living her life ‘on autopilot’.

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Age at interview: 20
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And then it progressed like that throughout the relationship. Things, if I didn’t do things when he said, it was a massive argument and he was literally just belittling me and just trying to break me down to the point where I felt like I had to do it. And he was very horrible, telling me nobody else would want me, he’s lucky that – I’m lucky that I have him and nobody else would give me a chance because I’m ugly and I’m fat, and just basically making out like I’m horrible and I am unlovable, which I don’t think that I am.

Did you begin to believe those things about yourself?

I could never believe that, because if I was nice enough to find him I could be nice enough to find somebody else. So I never believed that. I just kind of lost the love for myself because I was giving someone all of me and I wasn’t getting anything in return. So I kind of felt like I had nothing left to give myself. So I wasn’t really happy with my appearance anymore. I put on weight because I was eating a lot to try and comfort myself. And I just felt like I’d lost the spark in me, because I couldn’t have a spark, every time I was happy I was put down. So it’s like I just felt like it wasn’t worth being happy anymore because it was never going to last. So I decided to just not do anything, and to just live life on autopilot.
 

Sarah explained the way her partner would control her and would try to stop her seeing her friends because he was jealous. Over time, this had an effect on her confidence.

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Age at interview: 32
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It would be instances where I wanted to go out with my friends, I mean I was young it's what I wanted to do.

Yeah sure. 

And he wouldn’t like it and I'd either receive sulking or he'd get a irritable about it or he'd question me about the night quite intensely about other men and did anyone try chatting you up, all that kind of stuff that wasn’t, in retrospect, very healthy. 

But at the time how did you feel about it?

At the time it was ... I remember feeling slightly put out about it, because that wasn’t something I'd experienced before but it was my first serious relationship where I felt like he really cared for me. So I think I didn't have an understanding then that wasn’t just part of somebody caring that much for you. 

Yeah, yeah and what other things did you notice? You talked about jealousy as the relationship progressed, what other aspects were difficult for you?

So as it progressed he started ... let me think. So he started kind of using tactics to make me sure he was my entire world I guess. 

Oh okay. 

And so he started trying to, trying to put me off my friends. At first it was subtle and I hardly noticed it, it would be digs at them or making me believe that they're not good for me and things like that. And then that progressed into trying to stop me from seeing my friends and things like that, he was trying to isolate me, essentially and... so that started to become difficult because then his view of the world was my only perspective really. So when it did get worse and worse all the time it was difficult to, it was difficult to be able to step back and be able to analyse it logically and realise that it wasn’t actually very healthy at all. 

So at the time, how did you feel at the time, you know, feeling like you weren't able to see your friends and so on?

I started to ... because in parallel to this he had also started putting me down, kind of digging away at my confidence. I started to feel like I didn't necessarily want to be going out as much anyway. And when it did start getting worse and worse he would actually try humiliating me when we were out in public in front of his friends and my friends and stuff and all that made me want to do was then not go out. So, so yeah it kind of all started to intertwine and just got worse and worse and worse as time went on. 
Women often started believing the insults their abusive partners threw at them and blamed themselves for the abuse they are experiencing. This made it hard to leave because women were not sure they can cope on their own (see ‘Coercive Controlling Bahaviour’).
 

Julia describes a ‘campaign … of constant belittling’ so she began to believe she was inadequate….’damaged goods’.

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Age at interview: 57
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Well, we weren’t married but he was my long-term partner and my son’s father.

Right.

And it was, I mean it was quite a few years ago now. It was, it wasn’t a single event, as such, as much as a sort of building momentum of emotional abuse, which I didn’t really understand at the time was that. So it would have been back in 2004, I think, that we split up eventually.

Right.

And it just took the form of a sort of constant belittling, being ignored, being in bad moods with me, criticising me all the time. It was just a sort of constant, low level campaign. It felt like a campaign, yeah.

It felt like a campaign, right, a campaign yes. So how many years had you been in that relationship?

Oh we were together 22 years.

22 years, OK. And was it something that you were aware of quite early on or was it more that it developed over time?

Well, it, it becomes, the thing about it was that we started going out together when we were both in our early 20s and it was almost like I was sort of putty, if you like, and he convinced me from the word go that I was all wrong. I mean I had had bad experiences of sexual violence and I had physical problems caused by taking the pill, which made which had an effect on our sex life.

Right.

And it was just from almost just months after we started going out together I was just being told I was inadequate, I was an inadequate sexual partner. constant arguments right from, like I say, almost the very beginning. And I, for most of the time we were together, I thought he was right. I thought he was. I thought I was damaged goods. 

Losing a sense of identity

Women used words like feeling ‘only half the woman I was before’, that their ‘light had gone out’. Often they said that, rather than being themselves they tried to become the person their partner wanted them to be.
 

Jacqui described being controlled by her ex-partner to the extent that she became afraid to be herself, and instead tried to be the person her ex-partner wanted.

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Age at interview: 59
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And just thinking how did it feel to have your behaviour controlled by somebody?

Awful, absolutely awful. Having to, having to think all the time, “Well if I do that how’s he going to react? or if I do that how’s he going to react? Oh, should I ask him first?” all those sort of things just to try and stop him getting angry.

And keeping the peace all the time. You, you start being afraid just to be who you are and that you, you sort of become, try and become the person that you know they want you to be.

Right, and you’re continually trying to achieve that?

Continually, and it is so wearing and so stressful living on your nerves like that all the time, always having to watch what you say all the time.

And what about now? Obviously you seem very positive now in terms of your voluntary work and enjoying life again and you’ve got, you know, you’re the person who you were before you were in that relationship, you’ve got yourself back. So would you say that the abuse you endured still affects how you feel about yourself in any way or what you do?

To, to a degree, yes. But I’m actually trying to improve that myself by doing courses to help me improve, you know, my self-worth, my belief in myself, my confidence.
Sara lost pleasure in the things she used to enjoy and said that: 

‘I felt completely crushed like I know as a parent your identity does, you know if you like you have to find your identity but when someone ... you feel ... well when you've got someone saying what you can and can't do you can't find that identity. Because I remember him saying, "Why don't you do watercolours, you used to do watercolours?" But I was so tired, do you know what I mean…?’
 

Ella described feeling ‘lost’ in her ex-partner and how for a while after the relationship ended, she did not know who she was (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 27
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He controlled my life. I didn’t know who I was. I got lost in him. I don’t know, I just don’t, it’s such a weird – I never thought that I could ever I can’t believe, when I look back, that I had to say to people I believed he would kill me, because looking back now, that seems so [deep breath] surreal. But at the time that’s what I must have thought. I believed that if I didn’t do all these things that, yeah, that he would, he would kill me hmm.
 

When she finally got away from her husband, Yasmin discovered that she officially ‘did not exist’ as everything, including child benefit, was in his name.

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Age at interview: 32
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So now I am learning more about my religion.

Right.

More about the England law, and more about the … until I left my partner I never knew I can get a child benefit or I am register with my children as a Mother, yes or no. So when I called the first time [unclear] people, they … the first thing they said is ‘You don’t exist in our papers.’

Yes. Mm. You don’t exist. Wow.

And he make sure he give me that reminder, ‘Oh if you leave me you will end up begging on the streets. And when you’re on the street you have to sell your body for either…’

Right. I guess you thought he was right?

Yes.

You did, yeah. Yeah.

I thought then I might have to sell my body too many peoples…

Yes.

… now it’s only one.

Yes, yes. Yes.

So he controlled me … my mind … my body, my finance …

Yes.

… my social life, everything. My emotions, everything.
 

Alonya felt the only solution was to ‘disappear completely’, change her name and start a whole new life to stop her abusive partner tracing her.

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Age at interview: 31
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Recently I started to see because my ex-husband found my details again and he started to harass me again. 

So you’d moved, had you, from the first place?

Yes I did.

And he found out, found you a second time?

He kept, kept finding my his ways. He would come to my work, and he would just tell them, “Oh I need her address because I’m taking her to court” he would make the stories that I owe him enormous amount of money. And so things like that. And recently my friend, she gave him my details. He told her that I owe him money, and he probably made a big story about it. And she gave him my telephone number and my email address and he started to send again harassing messages and intimidating messages. 

Yes.

And anytime I hear from him, it’s a big shock. It affects my mental well-being quite strongly. 

Yes.

I act out of character. My, I start to think about different bad things probably not related exactly to the relationship. 

Yes.

I start to get really scared that, just images, something going to happen. And those images, like what we going to be sent or, put into prison, or sent from this country…which are not - I haven’t done anything wrong…

Yeah, that’s how you felt. 

….Yes. I was [tearful].

Yes.

And I can’t stop thinking…

And is that still going on now?

Well, this is I think recently I found if I started to get into recovery more and I decided that I will change this address again and I decided to change my name. I want to disappear completely….

Right

…because otherwise I will be always be scared of him, by my name, because I have his name….

Right.

…still until now somehow may find me. 

So I will be very careful to just have very small amount of friends or, who doesn’t know him, and it’s time to disappear, it’s time to start living new life. 
Occasionally, women were able to hold onto their confidence in some areas of their life. Kate, for example, never lost confidence in her parenting ability. 

‘I think,I started to lose all confidence in myself as a person. Funnily enough, I didn’t as a parent. Seeing as he took such a back seat, I mean he’d shout at me that I was doing it all wrong, but I was very aware that I was the one that was doing it so it made it slightly easier to hold my ground.’

Last reviewed February 2020.

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