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Sarah

Age at interview: 32
Brief Outline: Sarah met her first ‘serious’ boyfriend when she was 18. Their relationship lasted two years, during which they lived separately, each at their parents’ homes. Her boyfriend was jealous and possessive, did not like her seeing friends and questioned her in detail about ‘other men’ if she went out. She mistook this as a sign of his love, only realising years later that it was the beginning of his controlling, abusive behaviour.
Background: Sarah is a 32 year old happily married white British woman. She does not have children and works full time as a Project Manager in the Civil Service.

More about me...

Sarah describes herself as ‘young and inexperienced’ when she met her boyfriend who was 21 and initially she found the intensity of their relationship ‘romantic’. Only in retrospect can she see that his sulking and irritability if she went out with friends, his constant questioning on her return was ‘unhealthy’. This progressed to his using ‘tactics’ to isolate her and make sure that he was her ‘entire world’. For example, he frequently put her down and humiliated her in public so that going out was no longer pleasurable for Sarah. He told her she was ugly and had unpleasant body odour. 

Worst of all, he manipulated things she said so that she began to feel she was going crazy. He made her feel that if anything went wrong, it was her fault. They spent so much time together that Sarah lost sight of any other perspective than his, and she now describes him as ‘darkly clever’. She was unhappy but, having no previous relationships to compare with, did not realise the source of her unhappiness. She changed from a confident out-going person to a ‘complete shell’ of herself.

Her boyfriend’s behaviour escalated into physical and sexual violence and harassment. He would shove her or poke her in an aggressive but ‘almost playful’ way and coerce her to have sex when she did not want to. She lost a job as a result of his harassment over the telephone that affected her performance at work.

Sarah did not confide in anyone about her relationship difficulties. Her family thought her boyfriend was lovely as he appeared ‘charming’. Sarah’s knowledge of domestic abuse was confined to the idea of women being physically battered. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, had witnessed domestic abuse between his parents and subsequently his step-parents.
The ‘turning point’ came for Sarah when she attended a residential training course for her job, the first time she and her boyfriend had been apart. She describes a ‘light bulb’ moment when she realised how much happier she was, away from him, meeting new people. She left him two weeks after returning home, with the support of a friend in whom she confided. Sarah had previously never thought of ending the relationship.

Sarah’s struggles with the ongoing impacts of the abuse, such as a fear of showing her vulnerability, have been helped by her patient and understanding husband. She feels that there needs to be more education about domestic abuse to counteract the stereotypes, for example the police and health professionals need be better trained to pick up subtle signs of abuse. It took Sarah six years before she recognised that she had experienced abuse and she would have liked some external help. She now does volunteer work for a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency.
 

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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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. 

Really. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Okay. 

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. 

Right. 

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.
 

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

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

Yeah sure. 

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

But at the time how did you feel about it?

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

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

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

Oh okay. 

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

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

I started to ... because in parallel to this he had also started putting me down, kind of digging away at my confidence. I started to feel like I didn't necessarily want to be going out as much anyway. And when it did start getting worse and worse he would actually try humiliating me when we were out in public in front of his friends and my friends and stuff and all that made me want to do was then not go out. So, so yeah it kind of all started to intertwine and just got worse and worse and worse as time went on. 
 

Sarah’s partner threatened to have sex with somebody else if she refused to have sex with him.

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You said things got worse and worse I just wondered if there were any other tactics, any other things that were going on. 

I'd say his jealousy was one of the big parts of the relationship. It was it was relentless and then he would, if we were having an argument, he would get quite physical like I've already said. He was relatively ... well he was sexually abusive in that he would he would coerce me into having sex ... 

Right when you weren't wanting it. 

... when I didn't want it, yeah. 

Okay. 

And he could be quite aggressive then. And using all the, all the tactics of oh you know if you don't somebody else will. You're the woman, you're supposed to, I'm the man I need this. All the rubbish.
 

Sarah explained that the impacts of abuse stay with you, and that she still sometimes suffers with depression despite being in a new, good relationship.

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Do you think you're still experiencing impacts from that abusive relationship as your life goes on?

Yeah I think it stays with you your whole life. I can't imagine it going away. I try and think of the benefits, you know, I know what to look out for in other people and I can then now help people with it. But the ongoing, I guess I do suffer a little bit with anxiety sometimes and I have small bouts of depression every now and again. I just kind of for short periods I'll just slump and I'm usually able to pick myself back up again. I mean I'm lucky I'm married to the best person I know and he's very understanding because I think I struggle to show any vulnerability. 

Right. 

Because when I was with the ex if I did show any vulnerability it was just used against me every time. 

Oh. 

So it would even again be like well yeah that's because it's your fault, that's because you're stupid, or you know it was always just used, used against me all the time. 

Right. 

Or if, if I said anything in confidence then it would be used against me, it could be that he'd tell someone you know. It was always just put downs as well. So I do struggle with that a little bit but, not as much, not anywhere near as much as I used to. It doesn't sort of harm my marriage, it’s just I'm lucky that my husband is so understanding. Because he knows all about this... 
 

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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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. 
 

Sarah’s partner was ‘darkly’ clever in manipulating her so that she never went out with friends.

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And you said something about he stopped you seeing your friends, how would he actually do that? What tactics would he use to isolate you?

He made it so that it's very darkly clever I guess, he made it so that I didn't want to go out, so it wasn’t worth my while going out because of the consequences of him being so jealous. 

Oh right so, say, after you had been out with your friends how would he then be with you?

Yeah, he'd either be sulky or he'd pick an argument or he’d question me so aggressively about other men as if the assumption was that I'd cheated on him. 

Right. 

So it became difficult to go out because then I always knew that that was coming. 

Yeah, yeah that makes sense. 

And also he'd - he would make it difficult before as well by analysing what I was wearing and things like that. 

[Mm] right.

He just made it very hard for me to go out. 

Right and...

Did everything but physically restrain me. 
 

Sarah described the ‘turning point’ of realising how much better she felt away from her partner. She had stayed with him through lack of experience of relationships.

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So you're developing this picture of what was happening in this relationship and how did it move towards ending?

There was a very specific turning point for me which I could talk about. 

Yeah. 

So I talked about how I'd been in this temping role ... 

Yes. 

... and then after a while ... in fact I got that slightly wrong. They offered me full time employment whilst I was still with my boyfriend. 

Right. 

As part of that they needed to send me away for a week on a training course, like a Sunday to Friday, something like that. 

Right. 

So I went away with a group of other new employees, stayed in a hotel, and it was kind of ... we were all quite young so it was kind of studying in the day and then going out at night kind of thing. 

Yeah, sure, yeah. 

And that was a real turning point for me because it was the first time actually I was separated from my boyfriend. 

Yes. 

So I was able to kind of take a step back and realise what was going on and... he didn't want me to go, unsurprisingly, but I did and he was harassing me quite a bit while I was away. It drove him absolutely potty that I wasn’t there under his control I guess. And it was a real turning point because it was almost like a bit of a light bulb moment of like hold on I'm not with him and I feel so much better. 

Yeah. 

And I feel like me again and I'm going out and I'm meeting these new people and these new like nice guys [laughs]. 

Yeah.

And I suddenly felt a little bit like my confidence is growing, it was a matter of days, and I was suddenly a different person again. And so that was a real, that was the turning point for me actually and I got back home and I think I left him within a couple of weeks after that. 

Gosh. 

Yeah so that was it. Until that point I hadn’t even considered leaving him and then... 

You hadn’t. 

No. 

No so it was literally a big transition for you. So it wasn’t like you'd been thinking about it previously but... 

No. I, kind of knew I was unhappy I did know I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t happy a lot. It was like a rollercoaster I guess but having had no other relationships to base it on I didn't really understand... I'm lucky I came from a very stable home with loving parents and everything but... 

Yeah. 

... but in terms of my own relationship that was my first experience of it so it's difficult to know what's good and what's bad. 
 

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. 
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