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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Obstacles to seeking help for domestic violence and abuse

Many women face obstacles in their help-seeking which can make it difficult to ensure a safe end to an abusive relationship. Amongst the women we interviewed, common obstacles were that the women did not recognise that they were experiencing domestic abuse because their partner’s behaviour was portrayed as ‘normal’, and then they just did not know where to turn. An additional obstacle for some women was their inability to access services due to their immigration status.

‘I knew I needed help but I didn’t know how to get it’

Women said that it was difficult to get help because they did not realise for a long time that they were experiencing domestic violence and abuse (see ‘Recognising domestic violence and abuse’). They also did not know who to talk to because, as Sarah said, ‘I think the problem is a lot of people don't really understand domestic abuse’. Women felt that people they knew would not understand ‘if they haven’t been there themselves’.

Other obstacles included not recognising abuse, blaming themselves, not knowing who to turn to, being socially isolated, no-one stepping in to help and living in fear. Women said they had been conditioned by their partner to believe that everything they did was wrong and the abuse was all their fault. They also described living in fear of making things worse if they talked to anyone and their partner found out, leading to more violence or abuse. Fear was also a major obstacle for women in getting professional help, fear of having anything written on their medical records and fear of other services getting involved, such as social services. Once violence or abuse was revealed in the household, women feared they would lose custody of their children.

Overcoming obstacles
All the women we interviewed had overcome obstacles, sought help and had left their abusive partners. Their accounts showed that they needed to wait for the right time to seek help, when they were ready to face what was happening to them and had safety plans in place. Some women, such as Julia, Tina and Philippa all eventually escaped their abusive relationships without any help or support. Philippa said, ‘I just felt isolated, I just felt I had to do it all on my own’

Julia said: 

‘I didn’t realise that’s what it was at the time... I ended up having to work it all out for myself really, so it took a long time’. 

Not recognising domestic violence and abuse 

Most women assumed, at least initially, that their relationship was ‘normal’. This was particularly the case if they had grown up with abuse in their household, or if they were young and inexperienced and had no idea what to expect in an adult relationship (see ‘Recognising domestic violence and abuse’). Ella met her first abusive partner at the age of fifteen, and feels that, had she had help to understand abuse at that point, she would not have gone to have two more abusive relationships.
 

Ella did not know what a normal guy and a normal relationship were like, until she contacted Women's Aid who 'opened her eyes' to the abuse she had suffered for years (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 27
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But relationship-wise, there was the three. But I believe, had I got help after the first, it was almost like patterns, because I believed I wasn’t even though all the things I knew were wrong-ish, I just guessed it was normal as well, like there was nothing better, this was what, this was how it was.

Right.

So I feel that, had I got help from somebody sooner, I could have seen that this was wrong. Because when I got in touch with Women’s Aid and realised just how much I’d actually been through, that was such a shock to me. Because I didn’t know that there was financial abuse, I just thought that was normal, that you had to give your money and things like that because you were living with somebody. There were just so many things I opened my eyes to more that I just thought was normal.

Yeah, so throughout those three relationships you’ve told me about, you felt that what was going on was normal?

Yeah, apart from obviously, like I said, a few things that made me feel like this wasn’t right. But, but no, other than that, that was it.

So you didn’t think about abuse. Had you heard of domestic abuse at that time?

Yeah, but like I said to you, when I got in touch, when the lady said to me, “I think you need to speak to Women’s Aid,” I thought, “But I haven’t been beaten up.”

Right yeah.

“I’m not a battered woman. I’m not black, I’m not blue. Why would I need to go to Women’s Aid for?”

Right OK.

And then when I went there and actually started learning and listening to things, I thought, “I can’t believe I’ve been living all these years like this.”
Often there was a specific trigger to seeking help, such as a ‘light bulb’ moment when a woman realised she was experiencing domestic abuse. Julia and Ana both responded to TV programmes that gave the helpline number at the end.
 

Julia had never actually been hit by her partner. She talked for ages to someone on the helpline who helped her see what was happening and she realised she had to leave.

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Age at interview: 57
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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 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 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. 

And it was only a few years before we broke up that I saw a programme about domestic violence on TV, and phoned the number they gave at the end. And I said, “Oh I don’t know what I’m supposed to, what I’m going to be, I don’t know what I’m phoning you for, because my partner doesn’t hit me or anything, but he’s just so horrible to me all the time.” And the, the man on the helpline, he talked to me for ages and was really helpful. And he said, “You are suffering domestic violence.” And it was only then that I realised really.

Yeah.

By that time I was a wreck.

A wreck?

Well, it had been 20 years of just constant battles. So I had chronic fatigue syndrome.

Right.

Lots of digestive problems, what I now recognise as being PTSD and things like that.
Being manipulated and blaming themselves

Women tended to blame themselves for their partner’s behaviour. This led women like Jessica, for example, to believe that she must ‘work harder’ at her marriage to make it happier. This feeling was echoed by many others who believed the best way to cope was to change their own behaviour so that their partner would treat them better. As Jacqui put it, you ‘try and become the person they want you to be’. As Jane said: 

‘You start to think he’s right in everything and it’s easier to change your habits and change the person you are’.

Partners often behaved like ‘Mr Charming’ in front of family members or friends, to ‘trick people’ into believing that all was well, while privately threatening to kill their partner or harm the children if they tried to get help to leave. This made it hard to women to be critical of their partner to others. Their partners also manipulated them to feel critical of previously close family members, cutting off avenues of support.
 

Charlotte said she ‘nearly lost’ her mum and only realised after she left her partner that he had manipulated her feelings against her (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 38
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I mean I almost lost my mum because of him worming his way in-between me and her.

What did he do?

Oh he was telling me all sorts of things about her, how, how much she mollycoddled me, how controlling she was of me, how manipulative she was of me, how it was her fault that we couldn’t go and live anywhere else. And why couldn’t I see that she was just trying to control my life and she would never really let me grow up and never really let me be free? And you know, and my mum’s, she’s a very Mumsie mum – don’t mean that, that sounds awful. She’s a very loving, quite protective mum. She does do the whole, “Oh come to me, sweetheart, you know, it’s been really rough.” Which can be irritating. But equally, she’s my mum.

Yeah.

You know, she loves me. She’s – she wasn’t being all of those things, but he managed to twist it in such a way that I believed him. You know, “My God, he’s right. You know, I’m a mother now, I’m the grown-up. I shouldn’t be going to her for advice. I shouldn’t be talking to her about things.” I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody about anything. I only should only need him; he was enough. And I shouldn’t need to talk to my mum. And we did, you know, she thought she had lost me. She thought that we were this cosy little clan of two and she wasn’t allowed in.

And did that continue for years or?

That was probably yeah, probably about four or five years.

Yeah.

I can’t even remember, we had a long conversation, I have a vague memory of walking round a big lake in [Country] with her, having it all out and telling her that I was cross. And there were things I was cross with her for. But actually, when we talked about it, I think I realised, “Actually I’m not as cross as I thought I was. Actually you haven’t really done anything wrong and I’m not quite sure why I’m this cross.”
In contrast, Jane described how her partner had a diagnosed mental health condition, had a breakdown during their relationship and used his vulnerability as ‘emotional blackmail’. Alonya’s partner used a fake illness to manipulate her feelings and prevent her from talking to others or leaving him.
 

After years of feeling sorry for her abusive partner, Alonya found out his ‘spinal tumour’ did not exist.

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Age at interview: 31
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It started little by little, and one time he told me that he had spinal tumour. And I believed that but after years I found out he’d never had any spinal tumour.

Why do you think he said that?

To control my feelings, I don’t know. To make me, oh, because we had started to have arguments. The arguments were on untruthfulness or on small things…

Right.

…and he would just defend himself a lot, and I think one time I just wanted to leave and he said, “Well, you don’t know everything and, you know, I have spinal tumour and I wouldn’t tell you that”. And I felt really sorry for him. And I thought I had to be more careful and, it was really, I felt bad. Over the years, it’s kind of, again, I just saw a letter, he was checked for that, but they didn’t find anything. 

Right.

And he knew already about it….

Right.

…that he didn’t have anything.
Not being ‘ready’ to ask for help

Some women felt ‘too ashamed’ to talk about abuse or, like Penny and Ella, felt ‘too emotional’ to speak out, ‘too low’ or ‘not in a fit state to push for help’. Some women were not ready to talk about abuse as they did not want to ‘bore’ or ‘burden’ others with their troubles, especially if their family and friends disliked their partner and just told them to leave when they were not ready or safe to do so. 

Women generally found it safer to keep up a pretence to others that ‘everything’s fine’. Shaina wanted to protect her partner from getting into trouble with the police. Kate was trying to shield both herself and her family from what was happening.
 

Kate did not want to make things with her husband worse by confiding in her family. She felt safer keeping quiet and trying to ‘fix’ their marriage.

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Age at interview: 44
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Had you spoken or revealed to any family and friends before that time about what was happening in your relationship?

Not really, no. I knew they couldn’t help because none of them had a, he didn’t have a positive relationship with any of them. I think I was trying to shield the reality of what was happening. It wasn’t till I gave up that I was willing to let everyone else know.

Yeah.

I was trying so hard to fix it and I didn’t want, I thought, I knew that if they knew, how that would change how they treated him and how they behaved towards him. And I wanted to have, I wanted it to succeed and I didn’t want to make it worse. Because everything made him angry and I didn’t want to make him even more angry by telling them stuff which was going to make him angry, which wasn’t going to help. So yeah I did, I did keep it all in pretty much until I asked him to go. My sister then asked me to write down about his abuse. And that turned out to be a really big ask. I couldn’t work out how to structure it or [laughs] present it. So I broke it down into the four categories of sexual abuse, emotional/physical abuse, oh sorry, emotional/verbal abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse. It was like all these little headings. And then I just started writing, trying to stick at least under the categories. And it ran to over 10,000 words. It just was so much. When I started looking at it, it was unbelievable amounts of stuff, the daily stuff, the big stuff, the big blow ups, the repetitiveness, his beliefs, his attitudes, his it just amounted to so much. And when I looked at it all when I’d done it, I could not believe that actually I’d had so much to say when I’d sat down and analysed it properly.
Some women said they still loved their partner and really wanted the relationship to work. They hoped, like Tasha, that in time their partner’s behaviour would get better.
 

Despite her partner’s controlling behaviour, Tasha clung to the belief that he could be trusted and really was acting in her best interests.

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Age at interview: 40
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So, as I said, until I left I sort of realised what had been going on with the money. Didn’t click that he was having all the brand new games that were going out and, you know, he had subscribed to all these different things and stuff. That obviously he had to pay for but, you know, it was quite an eye opener. 

And at the time, how did it feel for him to have control of all the, all of the money, how did you feel about that?

I just thought he was taking care of, you know, of the household bills and stuff …

Yeah.

…and he was, yeah, I didn’t, didn’t think anything of it really. I just thought he was doing everything, as I say, everything he did was for my benefit. 

Yeah.

You know? 

Yeah.

And he to well, so I didn’t have to help me, like, you know.

For you?

Yeah.

And just thinking as well the way you kind of, during the relationship you kind of lost your, some of your friendships and …

Yeah.

… your relationships with family members as well, I mean, when you were together, how did that feel kind of losing those relationships?

At the time, I mean, it, well I must admit at the time it didn’t feel bad because I did actually believe him that it was for the good, you know [strange noises] that they were a negative part of my life and they shouldn’t be in my life. Because that’s how they made me feel. So, yeah, at, at the time it was fine, you know. I sort of became reliant on what he told me. And trusted everything he said like.
For many women, the trigger to overcome obstacles and to seek help was an escalation of abuse, or a desire to protect their children, when violence was turned towards them. Jacqui sought help when violence moved from ‘the odd slap, the odd push… to him breaking my ribs’. When her partner hit their four year old son, Kate knew she had to take action.
 

Her son being hit was Kate’s ‘deciding moment’ to seek help, but the reaction of her therapist delayed her help-seeking.

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Age at interview: 44
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And the sort of deciding moment was when he hit our son over a, over cleaning his teeth one evening. I wasn’t very well and his father was supervising him to clean his teeth. Both of the children always wanted me to be there, whatever was happening. They were already quite unhappy to be alone with maybe not clear cut to be alone with their father, just always wanted to be with me, always wanted their mummy to do everything, which didn’t help the dynamic at home, because that made him angry. So his father was supervising the teeth cleaning, my son was 4 and not cooperating particularly well, and very abruptly, without warning he was hit on the head so hard that he flew across the room off the floor. And I think that, that was the, that was the turning point. And from that moment forward I wasn’t in a, you know, “Is this a you know, what’s going on here?” It was a “Right, we’ve got to fix this”…

Right.

..approach. It didn’t occur to me to leave. And I look back now and I don’t know why. It did occur to me to report it to the police or to Social Services, but I was seeing a therapist at the time who advised me not to.

Right OK.

Which I now understand, having described [laughs] described the incident to him, he had a duty of care to us which I think he failed, in that it absolutely should have been, his advice should have been to report it, and in fact he probably should have reported it himself. And I think the fact that he didn’t react like, “Oh my goodness, you know, this is not OK and we really ought to do something about this,” it kept me there.
Feeling unwell was sometimes a trigger for women to seek help, such as Anna who felt ‘low and tearful all the time’, and Julia who was ‘distressed, ill and isolated’. Melanie only began to seek help once the abusive relationship was over. Once she was on her own she finally realised the full extent of her partner’s controlling behaviour. She was left penniless and began to reach out to others for support.

Social isolation

Women described little opportunity to contact friends, as their partners rarely allowed them out of the house on their own, and all their movements and phone calls were monitored (see ‘Coercive Controlling Behaviour’). Sophie, Ana and Yasmin all said that their only opportunity to leave the house was to collect the children from school. If they went anywhere else or invited a friend to the house, the partner would become physically abusive and make them ‘pay for it’.
 

Sophie’s partner made sure she was ‘chaperoned’ by him or the children at all times, and he listened to all her phone calls.

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Age at interview: 49
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Well he wouldn’t – I wasn’t – it got to the point where I basically wasn’t allowed out the house, apart from to take [Daughter] to playgroup. I wasn’t allowed out the house. I wasn’t allowed to travel on my own. I wasn’t allowed phone calls. I was being monitored all the time. That was the other thing he did: I was being monitored all the time. So even when he wasn’t in the house, he’d ring me about every 20 minutes and check what I was doing. And if he rang and he couldn’t get through, then he’d question, you know, question me about who I was talking to, why I was on the phone to them for so long, what was I talking about, why was I talking to them? 


So I was constantly being monitored all the time, what I did, where I went. I didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t allowed anywhere, apart from just to playgroup.

Yeah.

I even had the shopping delivered. So you can’t have – it’s like you’re completely shut down and you’re just focused on them all the time. And the impact is just horrendous.

I mean were there times when you were like, “Oh, I just want to pop to so and so by myself,” and how would he react, would he say no, would he?

He’d make sure it didn’t happen.

So he’d actually

Or he’d make sure that I had children with him or I was chaperoned some way. I was never anywhere on my own. If was having – if I had a – you know, if I was on the phone to anybody, he’d come and stand in the room.

And how did that feel for him to be – you know, you said you’d try to make a phone call and?

Oh it was horrible.

Yeah.

It was horrible. It was like being in prison.
Chloe described being kept a virtual prisoner and was ‘allowed’ twenty minutes to ‘visit the bank’ when she made contact with a friend and asked for her help to leave.

Both Ana and Yasmin eventually found support from other mums at the school gate, who picked up their unhappiness and helped them make contact with a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency.
 

Ana described living in isolation and fear and how one of the mums at the school helped her contact a friend who worked in a refuge (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
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So what happened next?

Yeah, so I got … at that point, I was [pause] sorry, it’s such a big since, long time since … I’ll try and, I basically, I got talking to one of the mums at the school, and she kind of said, “Oh, where’s your other half?” and we look like a perfect family, and I said, “We’re so not. We’re like appearances deceive.” Anyway, this friend put me into contact with [name], that you know.

Right.

And she said, “Oh I know a lady that works at the refuge,” and I was like and I thought that was like, not overly religious, but I thought that was like oh my God, there’s someone, you know, looking over me.

Right.

Because it was just like wow, and I was like, “Oh wow, you know a lady that works in a refuge.”

Yes.

You know, because it was very, it’s quite, it’s unknown to, you know, it’s a bit scary, “the refuge”.

Yeah. Yes.

Even the word refuge is like …

Yes.

… you know, scary. Anyway, so this friend put me into contact with [name] and I think, as I started talking to this friend, there was an incident with him and then I was texting her, and then my, my friend texted me back, just like a long text of support but now looking back, it was definitely [name], because I know [name].

Oh right.

Telling her what to write to me, to like …

Right.

… “You don’t need to put up with that,” and you know.

Yes.

and [name] put me into contact with the local domestic violence agency again but it was a different team because I lived in a different borough than before. 

Right.

Her name was [name] and she was an angel.
 

Yasmin’s friend at the school gate gave her a card for the local support agency. She had to do this in secret, for fear of putting herself in danger.

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Age at interview: 32
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When I was going to that school on everyday basis … I have a neighbour, she’s Irish …

Uh-huh.

… she live few houses away from me … she work in the council. She asked me many times, ‘Let’s go for a pizza’, because her children and my children are in similar classes and similar years.

Uh-huh, uh-huh.

 ‘Let’s go out, have cup of tea. Let’s go library, there is a reading challenge, there’s this challenge.’

Yes, yeah.

Or your … my son have very wonky hair, teeth …

Yes.

… and she always, ‘Oh you should go to dentist.’

Yes.

Oh I … said to her I’m not even registered at a dentist. And she … always says hello and hi. And when I went home and I realised nobody can help me, she asked me, ‘What’s wrong? Surely something is wrong?’

And then she started coming to my house my husband didn’t like it, he … accuses me, oh you want to have life like white people, miniskirts, boyfriends, and this and that. So he didn’t say anything to her, but surely she can sense he is not … happy … meet with it. She gave me one stop shop card.

Oh right.

She hugged me.

Right.

Because my husband, he was on the road in that car slowly …

Right.

… watching.

Yes.

She slipped that card and she asked me, ‘Can you read this card?’, and ‘Please tear the card and flush it.’ Because she knew that that … she never knew when he was living with me or not, because he was under the mosque command not to visit me in home.

Right, yeah. Had she been through something herself, is that why she knew?

Yeah, but she works in … like social services.

Right, yes.

She gave me the card. The card doesn’t say anything, it’s just says ‘One Stop Shop’ and then underneath it says ‘Domestic violence free helpline’ and this and that.

Right.

I start calling them. I explain my situation. They can pretty much … make me like pack up my dresses, pack up your children things, pack up something which you can’t leave.
No-one stepped in to help

Many women wished that family and friends had asked more questions. Mandy, whose mum noticed how much happier she was since leaving her partner said ‘I just wish they’d noticed at the time and maybe just had a word. I probably wouldn’t have believed them and I’d have argued black was white but …I might have had somebody to talk to’. 

Penny said: ‘No-one suggested he was a bastard and I should get out’, and she only took action eventually when she was warned by her partner’s ex. As she said, however, it’s ‘difficult’ for friends because:

‘Nobody wants to interfere with a relationship that‘s sort of happening. And friends don’t say, “Actually, get out, he’s treating you rubbish”. On the whole. But it would be, I think it would have been nice if friends had been brave enough to say, “He’s not treating you very well”’.

Difficulties seeking professional help

The majority of women had ‘no idea’ where to go to get professional help. They had little or no knowledge of services available to them and they also had a fear of social services involvement. Anna’s partner played on this fear by threatening that she would lose her children if she spoke out about abuse to health professionals or the police. She was shocked by the lack of understanding of abuse by the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) that her son attended, and by the police.
 

Anna felt that health professionals and police did not know how to provide support for domestic abuse, and she never lost the fear of losing her children.

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Age at interview: 47
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You have a fear when you’re a mum that they are professionals who could take your child, who are the most precious things to you in the world. I’m not going to risk that. And there’s a, a load of mums out there that feel exactly the same. So, no. And I’ve also had to learn the hard way by being open and honest about the past, the domestic abuse side that it can be a preventive tool for getting your other children recognising that they’ve got conditions, getting that recognised because it’s easy to blame the domestic abuse. So where people paediatricians and CAMHS are all happy to jump on, oh it’s domestic abuse, not one of them have done a session with my children on domestic abuse. No-one’s talked to my children. But it is easy to be blamed. 

So are they knew, are they still involved in, with your son, the CAMHS?

No, CAMHS aren’t involved anymore. No. He’s been through that process and yeah, no. Not with them now.

So they’re not…

But the whole time we were, we were with them for about a year and they didn’t approach that subject once.

So your feeling is actually how professionals aren’t the right people because of perhaps the fear that it, it is ….

It is that fear of …

… a child being taken away. 

… you need to eliminate that fear, yeah.

I think the police could have done more earlier. They never told me about refuges.

They, they didn’t say …

They didn’t ….

… they were, they came out to you …

They didn’t tell me there was routes out. I only got, I had a leaflet when I went to the solicitor for the injunction he gave me a load of handouts and one of those was refuge and that’s how I got to know that they even existed. There wasn’t the Internet at that point, like there was now either, so police didn’t, they made me fearful that they’d take the children.

Yeah.

Which made me not feel that I couldn’t approach them again.

Yeah.

So, yes, it’s blame, that you know, you could say there are children here but explain …

Yeah. 

… it could have an effect, on, you know, …

Yeah, so perhaps they could have had an additional role to play though in the time you were seeing …

Yeah. They could have even said there were ways out, he wouldn’t know where I was…

Yeah.

… to be told that might have been a relief, finding out that years earlier. But, yeah, no, they didn’t say anything. In, in fact they brought him back home but, yeah, no, there was nothing. 

No support offered?

No.

For you.

No.
Anna was also fearful of talking to police as she believed the family’s problems were her fault. She feared the police would blame her 

‘I would be the one in trouble. Because that’s how he used to keep me, made me feel for years. I am in the wrong and I was so scared of him …that stopped me…’

When she went for professional help, Sophie was shocked by how ‘acceptable’ domestic violence appears to be. During court proceedings, she felt pressurised to return to her abusive partner.
 

Sophie was thankful she had a good solicitor who was able to use the Human Rights Act to protect her from contact with her abusive ex.

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Age at interview: 49
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But it destroys your sense of trust. It has destroyed my sense of trust. And I think in some ways one of the things that I found most shocking is how acceptable this sort of behaviour is, how acceptable domestic violence is in our culture. And we don’t like to say this, but it is actually pretty acceptable.

What’s, what’s making you think that, feel that the most?

Because you realise it’s very common. I don’t think what happened to me is particularly unusual. I think it’s very common, you know, across the board. I think that there is the attitude that you should learn to put up with it, particularly if it’s not, if there’s not a lot of physical violence, that you should be containing it in the home and trying to make as best job of it as you possibly can. There’s a huge, a huge influence in the family courts about, the family courts, because he went for contact of course. And of course he went for contact, and I was being pressurised into going back, basically going back into a relationship with him again. I have to accept him, I was told at one point by CAFCASS, “You have to accept him as being part of your life.” And luckily, because I’m quite bright and quite well educated and I had quite a good solicitor as well, I was able to turn around and say, “Human Rights Act. Fuck off. Can’t do that.” But a lot of women get bullied into that.

And I was being sold this thing that I’ve got to have him in my life, I’ve got to accept him in my life, in my house, in my home. You know, and I was basically, by that stage I sort of basically had got to, you know, “You’re fucking kidding aren’t you? You really are kidding that I’m going to have this man in my house. And you are the state telling me I’ve got to like being treated like that. And what century are we in?” You know, and that, and when this sort of started to hit me, how you’re coerced and bullied and pressurised into liking, sorry, liking [voice falters] these sorts of men XXXX you’ve got to be, you know, this is, sorry, I’m so sorry [crying and angry].
Women felt that the police and health professionals need more training in recognising domestic abuse. Catherine, Liz and Sarah, who were successful career women, experienced difficulty in getting help owing to stereotyping of how an abused woman ‘should’ look. When she sought help at the local Housing Department, Catherine was mistaken as a social worker and Melanie felt she was not taken seriously.
 

Melanie presented a positive image of herself by ‘putting on a mask’ whilst in an abusive relationship, which may have confused professionals.

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Age at interview: 42
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I found that I’ve, that, when I did go to the doctor when I was beaten up by my first partner when I came back to England, I went to the doctor’s then, because obviously a had a, my hand got bitten then and I don’t think the doctor knew how to help me. Because I do come across as a woman that’s very well-together, if that makes sense.

Out, if you’re looking at outer appearance it’s hard to explain what going on internally and if I didn’t know how to explain that I don’t think I would be able to get any help.

So despite all the terrible things that you’ve described to me that happened, you always felt able to present in a positive way like you say, you look up - together?

Yeah. Yeah, that’s one thing my mum’s taught me. You, no matter what’s going on behind closed doors, you put your clothes on and you put that mask on and you walk with your head held high. And that’s what I’ve done for most of my life, even when I’m in turmoil internally. I walk with my head held high, even if I’m screaming in, inside. Yeah.

And has that strategy been a good one for you?

I think it’s kept me here. Somehow. It’s kept me here somehow because I know that there’s a fight inside, I know there’s a fight, that I do have this fight [fire alarm]. 

I’m hoping that’s just a test.

OK.

I think if it’s real it’ll go on.

OK.

So we’ll assume it’s just a test [laughs]

OK. But I think if I’d looked a certain way, I think they would have understood it a bit more.

They, being?

Professionals. If I’d came in to the doctor as, while I didn’t feel like combing my hair and I didn’t comb my hair and I didn’t want to change my clothes and I didn’t change my clothes, I think they would understand it. But because I would do these things. Even if I didn’t have a shower I would still present myself in a way that probably was a bit confusing to professionals.
 

Sarah feels that professionals in health and police services need more training to ‘look a bit deeper at what is actually going on’.

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Age at interview: 32
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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, 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. 
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