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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Messages to women in a violent or abusive relationship

The opportunity for women to share their experiences of abuse can empower both them and others. Here, the women speak directly to those who may be currently experiencing abuse. 

All the women had survived and left at least one abusive relationship. Their main messages to women currently in an abusive relationship are ‘You don’t have to put up with it’, ‘Get help’, ‘Leave’ and ‘There is a better life out there’. They also offered advice on how to recognise abusive behaviour. 

As Jacqui said:

‘Do not put up with it. You are worth more… if someone is making your life hell and miserable, don’t put up with it, there is no excuse at all… and you will be happier… I can promise you, you will be happier’. 

Penny said, Whatever you’re getting out to it’s not as bad as what you’re in’. She urges women to use the helplines, their friends and other forms of help.

Advice to leave

Women knew, from their own experience, that you cannot ‘fix’ an abusive relationship, however much they still loved their partner or clung on to the hope that he would change. The only option is to ‘get out’, but only when the time is right and it is safe to do so, and ideally with help from someone who understands domestic violence and abuse. 

Women, like Tina, warned that things would get worse over time and not to delay, while Philippa urged women to get themselves in a safe situation rather than ‘being carried out in a body bag’.

 

Tina’s message is clear: don’t even think about staying there, just get out straight away.

Tina’s message is clear: don’t even think about staying there, just get out straight away.

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So, is there one piece of advice that you’d give to a woman who’s in an abusive relationship? 

Get out of there.

Right.

Just get straight out of it. Don’t even think about staying there, just get out straight away. And that’s it because it gets worse and worse and worse.

Yeah.

And then it just plays mind games with your head. And then you just destroy yourself. And that is the way they do it, they just, they just sits there then and waits for you to destroy yourself. Which you will. 
It took Julia many years from making the decision to leave to actually doing it, a process that involved splitting up and re-uniting before finally leaving. She stressed the need for women to take time to make the decision to leave because of threats from their partner.
 

Julia stressed the importance of supporting women through this process, as leaving suddenly may ‘get them killed’.

Julia stressed the importance of supporting women through this process, as leaving suddenly may ‘get them killed’.

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What might be one piece of advice that you would give to another woman who is currently in an abusive relationship?

Hmm, that’s a difficult one. Because you can’t I don’t think you can give advice really.

No.

I think all you can do is listen.

Listen yeah.

Because you can’t say “you should leave”. Because I, it’s like I say, it took me years, you know, from thinking, “I really should leave,” to actually doing it. And for some women that, that’s likely to get them killed anyway.

Yes.

So you can offer to help, offer to listen and be there when they split up, be there when they get back together again, be there when they split up, be there when they get – because it will happen like that. And just understand really, I think that’s all you can do is understand what a difficult situation they’re in and support whatever they decide.
Stephanie said women are ‘brainwashed’ to believe they cannot live without their abusive partner, but they will survive and be fine. She said how important it is not to ‘normalise’ abusive behaviour. Nessa wishes she had left sooner.
 

Stephanie stresses that life is better out of an abusive relationship but she needed someone to help her ‘find the strength’ to leave, in her case her GP.

Stephanie stresses that life is better out of an abusive relationship but she needed someone to help her ‘find the strength’ to leave, in her case her GP.

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And what is one piece of advice that you might want to give another woman who was in an abusive relationship? 

Oh gosh, that’s difficult. It’s really difficult…

Yes.

…because when you’re in it, you don’t know really…

Yes. 

…first of all to get out…

Yes.

…Get out. Get out [laughs].

Yes, yes.

Run far away. Block them from every aspect of social media that you can. And get, get help. Go and get help because, because at the time you think that’s you almost think that’s the only person you’re ever going go, you’re so in love with them that you might not get anybody else and you will. You will survive. You will be fine without them. At the time you think you just cannot possibly live without this person because they’ve brainwashed you but you will be OK, you just need to get the right help. You’ll be better off without them. Life will be better.

You used the term brainwashing, that’s how it felt?

Yup, yup, you do feel totally brainwashed that you can’t live without this person that you’d be nothing without them. That you’d never get anybody else anyway. So one you, you feel that you’re totally in love with this person anyway and you wouldn’t want to lose them, but two you’d never get anybody else because you’re so useless, and you’re so awful and your self-esteem is just shot to bits that you think well I’ll never get anybody else anyway and I want this person and, and why can’t he just be nice and you just spend your whole time trying to please them. And, and actually you there’s nothing you can do to please them, nothing you do will ever be right. So, it’s very difficult. I want, I want to be able to say to people, I think the main thing that would have helped me is not normalising the behaviour. Because I normalised it quite quickly. But I don’t know how you stop doing that other than getting help. So I guess your first port of call is the GP and hopefully your GP can then sign post you to other services.

Yes. 

Who can then help you to recognise the situation that you’re in and give you…

Yup.

…the strength to, to leave because it is very, very hard thing to do. To walk away from somebody who you think you’re in love with…

Yes.

I mean, you, you might not even know that person they might be, you might be in love with a, an image of them. But, it’s not actually them.

Yeah, yeah.

That person might not actually exist.
 

Nessa wished she had left sooner. Although leaving was difficult she said it was really worth it, as she ‘got [her] life back’.

Nessa wished she had left sooner. Although leaving was difficult she said it was really worth it, as she ‘got [her] life back’.

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What’s the one piece of advice then that you want to give to women who are currently in an abusive relationship?

I’d say like no matter how hard it is and I know it’s really, really hard, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and just keep focusing on that light and try to get out of it, because it really, it really is worth it, and when you’re out of the relationship and you’ve got your life back and you start going out with your friends and socialising again, you’ll honestly ask yourself why you never done it so much sooner. So…

Is there, are there any other messages you want to kind of pass on from what you’ve learnt from your experiences?

Yeah, just like social services as well, don’t ever, because we have, both of them, they did try and say to me I think on a couple of occasions, like social services, and all that, but they really aren’t that bad, and once you work with social services instead of working against social services, that really helps you a lot. It helps you with like everything, literally getting into like the right programmes. Getting yourself somewhere, getting to where you actually want to be with your life, rather than what someone else wanted you to, and yeah.

Yeah.

Like even together as a family with me and my children, it’s helped a lot because even like, they do random check-ups and everything and it’s like, even that has helped because it’s helped me keep on top of the house, we’ve got into our own routines now, we go out and do more as a family, and we’ve got a lot more time and like we’re a lot more happier.

Yeah, already.

Yeah, yeah, just already. We’ve only been broke up since May, so just within the last three or four months, there’s been a massive change.
Women said that leaving was difficult but worth it, it was important to focus on the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Tasha stayed for years because ‘you feel as though it’s going to help the situation by not making them angry’. Ana urges women not to give up, however low they feel, and to keep hope alive.
 

Ana resisted the urge to kill herself or her partner and kept alive the hope that she would eventually be free (played by an actor).

Ana resisted the urge to kill herself or her partner and kept alive the hope that she would eventually be free (played by an actor).

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So finally, is there one piece of advice that you would give to another woman who was in an abusive relationship?

Not to give up. And I know sometimes it’s hard. I used to just kind of, I’ve got a vivid imagination so I used to just disappear in my head and just think of, this will, I’m just going to get through this, and it was hard … I just, some days I wanted to throw myself under the bus.

Yes.

Because I was so, I was so help, I felt so helpless.

Yes.

So I would just kind of go through that emotion and then a few days after an incident, I would just kind of pick myself up and I just … I always have hope.

Yes.

Live in hope because that’s what, can … because if I gave up, I used to think of well what, you know, if, if I give up, if I kill myself or if I kill him, which the thoughts I had.

Yeah, sure.

Then my children wouldn’t have their mum either way.

Right, yeah. Sure.

So.
Reading the signs and gathering evidence 

Most of the women we spoke to did not recognise that the relationship was abusive when they were in it (see ‘Recognising domestic violence and abuse’). They were keen to suggest warning signs for women to look out for, particularly for psychological abuse and controlling behaviour. Chloe urges women to take off the ‘rose-tinted glasses’ and see what is really there. As Sarah says ‘You don’t have to be hit to be abused ….ring a helpline’. For Kate an abusive relationship is:

‘Where it’s a one-way path …when you try to raise an issue but it can’t get resolved, you can’t negotiate…if your partner isn’t prepared to listen but dismisses you…’ 

Sarah said her ‘eyes were shut’. She also warned against stereotyping. A confident, professional woman, her message is that domestic abuse can happen to anyone.
 

Sarah said she would have opened up if others had noticed signs like her constantly receiving phone calls from her partner all day long.

Sarah said she would have opened up if others had noticed signs like her constantly receiving phone calls from her partner all day long.

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I think there's so many stereotypes ...

Right yes. 

... around domestic abuse about what a victim is and what a perpetrator is. 

Right. 

I wouldn’t say ... I mean I'm probably a good example of why you shouldn't stereotype about what a victim is because I'm confident and successful and I’ve come out the other end and I'm married and happy and I have a career and everything. It's not what people would automatically think and I do find that actually because I'm quite open about it so when I tell people, people are really, genuinely surprised. Just like how, how could you have gone through that, it doesn't, doesn't make any sense. But it can happen to anyone and I think people need to understand that.

Yes. 

And also knowing the signs, I think is important this is less health care but the police I think they could probably do with being better trained. So I mean for example if they go to a domestic, domestic dispute... 

Yes. 

... and they arrive and there's a women there going absolutely crazy and the man's there shrugging his shoulders then they need to be able to look a bit deeper at what's actually going on there. 

Yeah. 

Because it's very easy just to go well clearly she's the problem but it's not necessarily, it's probably not the case. 

Yeah. 

But I don't think the police are trained in that way. with healthcare professionals I guess, I guess all they can do is pick up patterns isn't it? Like if people keep returning. 

Yeah, yeah. 

Make sure that they are able to ask whoever it is that's injured; ask them what's happened whilst they're on their own as well, while their partner's out of the room. 

Yeah, yeah that's a good point. 

But yeah it's difficult to say. Just it needs time as well which is the problem, I think, people don't have the time. 

Yeah absolutely. You know, thinking about your own experience what support might you have liked at the time if there had been something available, just there, what do you think might have helped you at that time?

I very strongly think that education is a big issue. I had no idea what domestic abuse was, I thought it was just a man hitting a woman. 

Yeah. 

That was as deep as my understanding went. So I went in with my eyes shut completely. so although that's not a service I would have received at the time, I think getting it into schools, and encouraging parents to understand it and teach their children and look out for things like that is really, really important. 

Yeah absolutely. 

In terms of the services at the time I think it probably would have been helpful if somebody, again this links into the education, if somebody had been able to recognise what was going on and actually really talk to me about it ...

Yeah. 

... then I probably would have felt okay to open up about it. 

Yeah. 

But I never had that opportunity. 

I wonder who that person might have been for you; can you imagine who that person might have been?

Yeah, friend or family I guess, or colleague at work. 

Yeah, yeah. 

When I was getting lots of phone calls every day for me now that would ring alarm bells if I saw someone receiving 20 calls a day.

Yeah, yes. 

But for other people it's easy to just go oh she's on the phone again that kind of thing you know. 

[Laughs] yeah. 

You need to, you need to kind of just give it a little bit of thought [laughs] what's actually going on instead of being dismissive. 
Tanya feels that that women should not put up with a man who ‘cheats on you regularly’, who ‘makes you feel sad and drives away all your friends, and you just feel a bit stuck’. She changed from someone who was ‘crying all the time’ to ‘feeling it’s great’ after leaving. 

Women said how important it is to gather evidence of abuse in case of legal proceedings. Tina and Philippa, on the advice of the police, kept a secret diary of all abusive contacts. Philippa recorded 140 incidents of abuse that she passed on to her solicitor.
 

Fearful that she may not survive the relationship, Philippa gathered evidence of abuse for the sake of her children to stop her partner getting custody.

Fearful that she may not survive the relationship, Philippa gathered evidence of abuse for the sake of her children to stop her partner getting custody.

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The solicitor helped by telling me to keep a diary. 

Yeah, was that, was that a solicitor you'd had previous contact with?

No, no it was just a random name that I saw that this particular organisation dealt with women in my situation so they obviously had some experience. I just phoned up and I said, you know what do you suggest and they said keep a diary. 

So is that ... I mean what sort of advice would you offer to kind of women who are currently in an abusive relationship? Is that something you'd, you'd suggest to them?

Definitely because there's nothing to beat evidence, and I think when my husband found out that I'd had something like 140 recorded incidents that I'd given to my solicitor he realised there was no point him trying to get access to the children, because my evidence outweighed his. So I'd definitely say that's something worth doing. 

Whatever advice or kind of, you know, experiences would you like to share with other women? Any other messages?

It's a really tricky one. I'd like to say don't think it's going to get better because it probably won't because if it's happened once it will probably happen again. And the thing to do is just probably get yourself to a safe situation as soon as possible rather than staying. the thing I didn't want for myself was to be carried out in a body bag and leave my two children with him so I knew that that couldn’t happen, I just had to make sure that I took them with me. I didn't want to leave them with him. 

Yeah, so they were with you and that was your priority. 

Yes. 
Advice to speak out and get help

Mandy urges women to ‘tell somebody you trust …there’s help out there, whether it’s a GP, a parent, or a trusted friend, even just somebody at work, they can see it from another perspective’. Mandy’s counsellor ‘opened [her] eyes to what was actually going on’.

Listening, rather than giving advice, to women who are opening up about an abusive relationship was seen as a crucial first step. Alonya said, ‘You can’t be pushed’ but things changed for her when a police officer listened to her for the first time. She says you need at least an hour to get the message across.
 

Alonya had been ‘closed down’, thinking no-one would believe her, until a police officer listened and helped her.

Alonya had been ‘closed down’, thinking no-one would believe her, until a police officer listened and helped her.

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What advice would you give to a woman who was in a domestic violence situation?

Was in a domestic…

Or is currently…

…is currently…

…and you had a chance to talk to somebody..

It wouldn’t be one phrase only…

No.

You would need to, you need to talk to that person at least for one hour.

Right.

That’s what, the first person, I think, who did that …

Yes. Yes.

… was that police officer…

Right. 

…he just kept talking. He kept asking me questions, he, he wanted to know many things and he said, “Look, this is not right”, and he was the first person who kind of opened me because I was so closed down…

Yes.

… inside and not trusting anybody…

Yes.

…and, believing that nobody would believe me. So I think it’s important to listen, to…

Right.

… to talk …

Right.

… and yeah, you can’t be pushed. You, you have something, you changed mentally at that time…

Yes. Yes.

…you’re kind of in survival [laughs] and so closed…

Yes.

…from everthing.
Sarah, Tasha and others, urge women to ‘ring a helpline, actually talk to someone who knows about it’, to ‘use people like Women’s Aid’. Catherine encourages women to get help ‘even if you have the slightest inkling’.
 

Catherine opened up to a counsellor, which was scary but helped her to deal with her current situation and her past (played by an actor).

Catherine opened up to a counsellor, which was scary but helped her to deal with her current situation and her past (played by an actor).

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And do you have any advice for other women who are currently in an abusive relationship as an adult, whether that abuse is from kind of like, you know, a sibling or a son or daughter or partner?

Well, I think with the thing with the counselling I was very scared to do that because I was frightened of, you know, trying to confront all of these feelings and all of these things. I didn’t really ... I think I didn’t realise until I went to do it that, you know, obviously counsellors are trained to be skilled so that that doesn’t happen to you and, you know, that, well ring me up if it ... if it does start to bother you kind of thing. So I think that I would ... I would say, you know, even if you have the slightest inkling to get some help, to get some help... 

Yeah. 

... because actually, as scary as it might feel, it’s better to do it in the long run because even though you might have to deal with lots of feelings in the long run you would feel better because you’ve done something for yourself, and you’ve faced up to it and you’ve tackled it and, you know, maybe you’ve admitted it to other people like in your family or something like that. I think because my family knew most of what I was going through and ... but because of their limitations they were just like, “Well, you should just leave then.” 

You know, and it isn’t as simple as that, you know. Yeah. And talk to your friends and actually listen to what they say. And... yeah. Actually I think one of the things that I wish I’d done when I was younger was to talk to somebody about the things that I ... you know, the way that I kind of did things in my life and realised that, you know, I was doing things in a way that was programmed into me as a child and it wasn’t very normal. And, you know, I think you can make an assumption that that ... “Oh that’s just the way I am.” 
 

Victoria urges women to look for information, see their GP, apply for legal aid, and try to gather ‘proof’ of psychological abuse (read by a professional).

Victoria urges women to look for information, see their GP, apply for legal aid, and try to gather ‘proof’ of psychological abuse (read by a professional).

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I mean what advice would you give other women who are currently in an abusive relationship?

Get out. Look for all the information. Go to your GP. Go to your GP and I guess they can, they can contact other services.

Did you do that?

Hmm no, I didn’t, I didn’t do that. I didn’t feel, I felt like they could only help me so much, that it was down to me. That’s the impression that I got, that there was only so much help.

Yeah.

And physical - mental abuse has only just kind of been recognised, hasn’t it, as part of domestic abuse?

Recognition, yeah, yeah, definitely changed.

So I applied for Legal Aid and they wanted more and more proof. And then a lot of a health visitor I talked to the other day said Legal Aid is still not quite acknowledging, it’s like you need more and more proof when it’s mental, when it’s psychological. If it’s physical abuse then you’ll be granted. But because mine wasn’t physical abuse, mine was mental and psychological abuse, I had to pay myself for the legal.

So it wasn’t even now recognised as?

Legal Aid, I just thought, “I haven’t got the time. [Name]’s withheld [Son]. I haven’t got time for Legal Aid to go on and keep sending me letters saying more and more proof.” We, we could have been like five years down the line until Legal Aid could have said, “Actually, you’ve given us enough proof now. You can go to court,” and by which time, oh my God, five, another five years in that desperate, horrible situation. I, there’s no way I could have – you know, it wouldn’t have been good for me or [Son].

No.

Now it’s done and dusted. We can, we, we’re moving on. we’re so much happier. There’s still wounds, there’s still scars but we’re on our way.
Put yourself first

Women stress the damage caused to themselves and their children by an abusive relationship, and how ‘wonderful’ the freedom to live their own life now feels. Jane said, ‘You must put yourself first, put your children first’ rather than trying to make your partner happy. Lolita said the most important message is to ‘love yourself’ first and foremost.
 

Surviving an abusive relationship taught Lolita that she can be happy and confident without needing to depend on a relationship.

Surviving an abusive relationship taught Lolita that she can be happy and confident without needing to depend on a relationship.

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OK, so what is one piece of advice that you might give to another woman who was in, currently in an abusive relationship?

Hmm I guess it would be just to love yourself.

Right.

Because I spent a lot of life not loving myself. And when I found someone who loved me, I thought that I had everything. But learning to love myself now I don’t have him, I believe now I have everything.

Really?

I can do what I want, I can say what I want, I can wear what I want and I can look how I want and I feel great. You know, I have been so open recently about showing people, especially men, what I look like without make-up, and not caring how they feel or what they have to say, because I am confident now that I am a beautiful person on the inside. And beauty is only skin deep, do you know what I mean?

So as beautiful as I am on the inside, I believe that I can be that beautiful on the outside, simply from loving myself. And because I was so unhappy and I am so happy now, that shows that you don’t have to be in a relationship to be happy. You don’t have to have love. And as long as you have people around you that care about you and want more for you, you don’t even need to consider being in a relationship. And a lot of women that are, right now I know they don’t have family and friends, but they can just look for someone from [local Domestic Violence and Abuse agency] or anything, anywhere where they can look for help, and the people will help you and they will care about you and they will want more from you. You know, all it takes is somebody to make you feel good about yourself, to make you feel good about yourself. And it’s, it’s not easy, I know it’s not easy, but all it takes is one, one person. I believe that we should all, you know, stand in a circle and hold hands and pass that feeling of self-respect and self-worth. And that everybody should feel like they can achieve more, and every woman should believe that they deserve better and that they can have better for themselves, for their children, for their families, for everything. And I believe that every woman, at some point in their life, will have that feeling. And I hope that I can help them get it.

Last reviewed February 2020.

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