Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Recognising domestic violence and abuse

Not recognising that they were experiencing domestic abuse was the biggest barrier for women in both getting help and leaving an abusive relationship. They knew very little about domestic abuse. As Sara said, ‘I didn’t realise it was abusive until I was out of it and people kept telling me’. Most women were in abusive relationships for many years, knowing things were ‘not right’ but the abusive relationship became ‘normal’, a ‘way of life’. Their partners’ abusive behaviour often escalated gradually over time and women were too involved, too controlled to see the reality of their situation. ‘Early signs’ of abuse that they talked about were only recognisable with hindsight.


Charlotte described the ‘insidious drip, drip dripping’ of her partner’s control, which he was careful to balance with enough ‘niceness’ to keep everyone thinking he was alright (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 38
And everything just kind of fell apart from there really. He kind of went into this spiral of just vileness. He just was nasty and angry all the time. And it started coming out more towards the girls as well as me. I was kind of slowly shutting down and, and disappearing really. And he was just getting angrier and angrier with everyone around him, desperately trying to control everything. I didn’t go out anymore. The girls weren’t really ever allowed friends back. They weren’t allowed to go to birthday parties at the weekends. And it just became this desperate, desperate clinging for him to kind of control us all more and more and more and more. 

He was looking through our phones. He made me go through my Facebook account and he wanted to count how many pictures of him were on my Facebook page. And then we had to sit down and compare that with all of my friends, how many pictures of my friends’ husbands were on their Facebook pages compared with how many were on mine. Yeah, taking the girls’ phones. He smashed my eldest daughter’s. I can’t even remember what he said that she had done wrong. She hadn’t texted him, or something, to say when she was coming back. Something like that. I can’t remember. And he grabbed her by the neck, he had her by the kind of scruff of the neck in one hand and he had her phone in the other hand and he forced her head down while she had to watch him smash her phone against the banisters. And then he told her to go and get her laptop because he was going to break that too. and then when she brought that back up - and I was just standing by watching this awful thing happening, knowing if I tried to step in and do anything it would make it worse, so I just had to stand by and watch it – then she had to thank him for not smashing her laptop. And he said that he had, he had chosen not to do that, so she had to thank him for that. And there were just lots and lots of incidents like that. He just was going crazy. 

Was it a daily kind of occurrence or?

No, no not daily. Always enough niceness to keep everyone thinking that he was alright and he was OK. So it was always a very careful balancing act between nice things and fun things and spontaneous things,


With the outbursts and the that kind of subtle insidious drip, drip, dripping of not being good enough 
Some women said that generations of abusive and controlling relationships in their family, or a succession of recent abusive relationships distorted their understanding of what a ‘normal’ relationship is like.

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
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.


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.”
Others, like Liz and Lolita, found it hard to accept the reality of their partner’s abusive behaviour. Liz, a confident professional woman, was shocked when she realised the full extent of her partner’s violence and abuse, while Lolita recognised her partner’s abusive behaviour from previous experience but still found it hard to come to terms with reality.

Liz described being ‘in shock’ as the awful reality of her partner’s behaviour dawns on her.

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Age at interview: 46
So when you just said to me, “I think that was the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” what were you referring to?

That realisation that, that – because abuse is something that happens that, that, before all of this, it’s somebody knocking somebody about.


I didn’t see how, I had no knowledge at all, I didn’t know anybody else that had been abused.

But when did that realisation come?

It came on about day three-


-of after I split up.

This is your second husband now?

Yeah, that, that I felt I didn’t – I could see that, because at that point 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, I could almost, it was like an out of body experience, I could feel that, 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, 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. And the house was in his name and so he was going – he was threatening to cut off utilities unless I did certain things. So and then trying to break in. So I was frightened. And so I moved back here, which is, this is my house in my name where I’ve always paid the bills.

Lolita recognised her partner’s abusive behaviour but still loved him and was not prepared to give up the relationship without a ‘fight’.

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Age at interview: 20
Yeah, so at this point when things got difficult and you were contacting [local DVA agency], did you realise that, “This is domestic abuse that’s happening to me”?

I knew that it was because I’ve been in, I’ve had domestic abuse done to me before.

Have you? Right.

Yeah, so I knew exactly what it was, I knew. I didn’t really know how to handle it because it was very, you know, if he’d lived in [name of city] I could have told him, “Can you just leave?” and he could have left and gone back tomorrow. But because he lived in [name of county], I couldn’t just say, “Can you leave?” because he had nowhere else to go. So I felt like it was forced on my part to be in the situation because it wasn’t so easy to just get rid of him.

Right. And what about your own friends at this time, were there any friends that were aware of what was happening or you were able to talk to, or not really?

I’m a very open person and I believe, you know, the more people that know your situation the better, because the more people that know the possibilities of what might happen. And at some point my family did say, you know, “The reason we don’t want him down is because we fear for your life.” And that was really hard to hear but, like I said, you know, I knew what was best for me. And I knew that in, in life, you know, I had a path that I was on, and if that path was going to end with that relationship then that’s what life had in store for me.

Right, right.

But I was positive that he would never do that, because I felt like I knew him better than that. And he never, obviously I’m still here today, he never killed me. He’s never really physically you know, hurt me to the point where I am bruised or I’m bleeding. But mentally, he’s hurt me more than anything and, in a way, physically obviously with the strangling me. He did hurt me, but I’m stronger than that. And I, I’m proud, you know, of myself because I a lot of people in relationships they just, you know, “It’s not working, I just want, I’m just going to leave.”


And I don’t believe in that. I believe that literally you will stay until you can’t, you’ll fight until you can’t fight anymore. You know, if you love someone you don’t just give up on them. Because relationships, they’re not meant to be broken.

So you still loved him, even though all this was going on?

Of course. Love is not, you know, face value, it’s not on the surface. Love is deeper than that. And still to this day I kind of feel like I’ve got some sort of love for him. I’m not in love with him, but I do care about him. Because he gave me the best feeling that I’ve ever had before, you know, he made me feel alive after a lot of stuff that I went through before I met him. He made me feel like I was human and like I could be loved. And he showed me that there is good in some people.
Importance of recognition

Recognising abuse was very important since only when women realised what was going on did they feel able to seek help. For the majority, this was after many years of abuse or after the relationship ended. For some women, learning about domestic abuse came from a chance encounter. Tanya was waiting for her car MOT test when she saw a poster on a notice board:

‘ “Does he do this to you? Does he do that to you? Does he call you names? Does he put you down? Does he hurt your pets? Does he threaten to hurt you? Does he hurt your children?” And I’m thinking “Oh my God, that’s us.” And I picked a card up ... but I was so scared of him finding it. I binned it.... That was a few years before we left.’

For all the women we interviewed, understanding about abuse had a major impact, like a light suddenly coming on. They began to realise that their partner’s behaviour was not ‘normal’ and it was not their fault. This was the first step towards getting help and leaving the relationship or, if they had already left, recovering from their experiences. After being kept a virtual prisoner by her partner’s controlling behaviour, Chloe said, ‘lights went on’ and she realised the danger she was in when he began to manipulate her towards a double suicide. Many women, like Sarah, described a ‘light bulb moment’ of understanding about domestic abuse.

Sarah described her ‘light bulb’ moment when she realised she had suffered abuse, years after the relationship had ended, triggered by an article she was reading.

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Age at interview: 32
Anyway so people don't know how to handle it, don't know how to identify it. I had no idea, it took me years to, to realise what had actually happened. 


Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Yeah so it wasn’t until kind of my mid 20s that I started reflecting on it and I can't remember ... there must have been a light bulb moment, maybe I read an article or something like that, I can't remember. Something twigged and I was like that's what happened to me. 

Is it ... was it at that point that you actually started thinking that was abuse?

Yes, yeah. Until that point I didn't ... I think growing up you ... when you're at school and things you hear about you hear about women being battered and just being like hit and things like that. Because that wasn’t really my experience of it I didn't put the two together. 

But I think because I, because it took me such a long time to understand my own experience that there was then a, almost a dealing with that [laughs] kind of time afterwards. 

That's was about five years later or something. 

Yeah so I think ... the relationship ended, I think before I was 21 and I think I labelled it as domestic abuse when I was about 27 I guess and then I had to deal with that like emotionally I guess. I had to understand it and say I think this is where external support would have helped because it's been 12 years and I've done all of that myself. 


So yeah then I had a whole ... so once I had labelled it as domestic abuse I had a whole period of time where I then had to deal with that emotionally and I always knew I wanted to get into volunteering but it just had to be the right time where I felt I could kind of cope with it.
Making Excuses

Women made excuses for their partner’s behaviour or thought that it was ‘all their own fault’ and felt they should ‘work harder’ at their partnership to make it happier. Anna’s partner convinced her that the emotional abuse she experienced was ‘all in her head’, a form of abuse known as gas-lighting (see ‘Coercive controlling behaviour’). Irine’s partner would always ask for her forgiveness after an episode of physical and verbal abuse.

A big problem is that domestic abuse is ‘private’ and hidden. Irina only recognised her situation when her partner began to behave badly in front of others.

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Age at interview: 33
And when did you recognise then, when did that realisation come to you, that it was domestic abuse?

Unfortunately, I realised it’s only in March or maybe in, yeah, I, because he used to abuse me at home and no-one could see or hear. Probably our neighbours could hear but they didn’t interfere because it’s private life and it’s like, and because he was abroad for three or four weeks, it was like quiet, sometimes it, a young family probably they have fight, it’s OK. But last time, it, he, what he did, he did it in front of my friends in their house. He shouted at their son, at our son slammed the door and I think he would hit my or, because if, my friend’s husband just hold him because he was so angry and after that I realised that that’s it. If he’s doing it now in front [traffic noise] of friends then,  I can’t tolerate it because it’s just, when it’s at home, yeah, you can under, OK, next day he’s crying asking for forgiveness, you think, “OK, this time he must understand. This time I will give him a chance”. But, no, they will never change and they will use everyone, friends, family, just to get, gain control over you again. It’s just, I don’t know, they’re really clever and but you, I remember, after abusing me at our friends’ house, then he came back home, he was somewhere for 24 hours, just drinking at someone’s place, or a friends, our friends’ house somewhere, and I remember then he came and just in room and ask me, “I feel really bad at the moment, can you give me a cuddle and spend time with me? And your friends, they, they envy you, they don’t like you, only I can give you the best. I know what is best for you.”

That moment I realised that he has problems with his in, inside his head, mental problems, that he’s liar, that he all these years I couldn’t trust him. I believed him but now I question everything. 
Jessica believed that her husband’s increasing demands stemmed from her inability to ever do things ‘right’ for him. ‘I thought it was my fault, I should try harder’. Only when she stopped ‘trying’ to please him and ‘trying’ to improve their marriage did she recognise her partner’s abusive behaviour for what it was. Her understanding of abuse was helped by attending the Freedom Programme (a course for women experiencing abuse).

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

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

Extremely controlling. Yes.

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

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

When abouts did that realisation come to you? Or …

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

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

Who were the phone calls to?

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

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

That was incredibly about 26 years.

Right. Yeah.


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

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

What does trying mean to you?

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

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

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


You know, anything really to hold it together.


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

He hadn’t been trying?




So, what happened then? When you stopped trying.

Yeah, big wake-up call for me. I started seeing the flaws in our marriage then. And also having, and the knowledge the Freedom programme, we were learning about just, you know, how abusive he had been and lots of other women all in the same situation. And at that point I decided I was going to leave. And I started making preparations to leave. 
Image of an abused woman

A major problem for these women was the image they had of an abused woman as one who has been beaten up and is covered in bruises. But some of the women we interviewed were never physically attacked and it took most women a long time to realise they were being ‘manipulated, bullied and brainwashed’ by their partner.

After years of a controlling relationship with emotional, financial and sexual abuse, Julia finally realised that she was experiencing ‘domestic abuse’ after watching a TV programme and ringing the helpline number given at the end of the programme.

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
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.


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.


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.


Lots of digestive problems, what I now recognise as being PTSD and things like that.
Jacqui, after experiencing her partner repeatedly calling her names and calling her stupid, only recognised that he was abusive when he ‘grabbed her by the throat’ and lifted her off the floor. Many women, like Tasha and Linda did not recognise their partner’s financial abuse until they left and found out they had no money at all. Melanie said her partner plied her with alcohol so that her mind became clouded. Only when she decided to stop drinking did the ‘fog lift’, but it was many years before she understood psychological abuse.

Melanie realised ‘Something was wrong, definitely wrong’ with her relationship as she was scared all the time.

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Age at interview: 42
Could you tell me just a little bit about what happened to you?

Well this relationship [clears throat] I didn’t even realise it was abusive because I didn’t understand that this form of abuse is possible. 


And it wasn’t physical abuse, it was more psychological abuse. And obviously now I look back, it was a lot of raping as well.

But in this relationship it was more like moving things, breaking things, always with me, very controlling with their wording. 

Silently controlling. Yeah, it’s just more or less all of that really. And I didn’t even think I was in an abusive situation for a long time. I knew something was wrong because I felt on edge and I felt scared a lot of the time.

Hmm. Felt scared?

But I didn’t know, yeah, I didn’t realise that this was a form of abuse. That he had control of my finances and things like that. 

How long were you together?

Since 2005 until 2012. 



And when did it dawn on you, when did you realise this is abuse?

When his father died, I think in 2000… and I think it was 2011 or the beginning of 2012, and I knew that I was scared all the time. I knew I was walking on eggshells.

I knew that when he was downstairs he would, I was scared to come downstairs. I knew that at that point I kind of woke up to catch him doing things to me. And felt like I couldn’t question him because if I questioned him he would always shout me down…


...and made me feel like a child. So, yeah, I think that’s when I realised when something was wrong, definitely wrong. 
Triggers to recognising abuse

Friends and family were generally unaware of what was going on, and domestic abuse was just not something people talked about. Women felt that there is a general lack of awareness and education in society about domestic abuse. Liz’s sister-in-law eventually saw what was happening and persuaded her to go to the doctor for help. Liz said, ‘I didn’t see that as abuse even. I saw that as me not coping’.

Several women learned about domestic abuse via the internet or the TV. Yasmin was trying to improve her English when she chanced upon a YouTube video about abuse. Kate was looking at ‘Mumsnet’ and happened across a link to domestic abuse.

Kate described the shock of realising she was reading about her own situation online.

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Age at interview: 44
No, I realised it was an abusive relationship around about the time that my daughter was 2 and my son was 4. I started reading on the internet and I was on Mumsnet and I clicked on a link that said, “Are you being abused?” And in sort of total innocence I clicked on that link because I was thinking, “Oh I wonder what that’s about? And you know, I don’t know anything about that.” And I opened up this page and it said, you know, “Does your partner do this? Does your partner do that?” And [laughs] I just had this really big shock, because I read through this page and it was this awful realisation that actually, what I was reading, that was me. And basically I closed the page down, kind of ran away, buried it in the back of my mind, forgot about it. It was really unnerving. But then I found myself going back and having another look, and then running away, and then coming back and reading it again, and then running away. And that went on for a little while and I was sort of slowly waking up, I think. And I think, as I became more aware, I think how I reacted to my partner must have shifted. Because he became more abusive. And the sort of deciding moment was when he hit our son over a cleaning his teeth one evening. 
Professional intervention from police or hospital staff helped some participants to recognise that they had been abused. Things finally fell into place for Shaina when she made contact with a specialist Domestic Violence and Abuse agency.

Shaina made sense of her experience when her Domestic Violence and Abuse worker showed her the ‘Duluth Power and Control Wheel’* that shows the difference between an abusive and a healthy relationship.

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Age at interview: 32
So you went to the GP and they put you in touch with [local DVA agency].


And what did they do, give you a number to ring or how did that contact come about?

I think I got a referral letter, then I was given an appointment of like for 6-12 weeks long.

Right, and how did that go, how did you get on with that?

It was good. It was literally learning to be strong, not to blame myself. You know, we did the wheel of…

The wheel, yeah.

…abuse and all of that. And it was like, “Ding dong, makes sense.” And that’s when everything really, the whole definition of domestic violence was clear for me.

That was the first time you’d really understood it?

Yeah, yeah that was the only time. Before then I was you know, mentally, emotionally, you know, people think physical all the time but, yeah, there’s a lot more to it than that.

* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services (see our resources).

* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services.

Last reviewed February 2020.

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