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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

What women found helpful in violent and abusive relationships

All of the women who we interviewed had left their abusive partners. None of the relationships had ended by mutual consent or with a partner recognising or showing remorse for the abuse. In fact the trigger for most women to leave was an escalation of abuse, particularly if it had turned towards their children. At the time of the interview the women were generally living alone or with their children or with a new partner in a healthy relationship. Many, however, were still experiencing ongoing harassment from ex-partners or were involved in ongoing court cases. 

We asked women what or who had been most helpful for them in their journey away from abuse. Most women said that a key professional had made all the difference in helping them to recognise the abuse and to leave. Whilst many women talked about the important role of family members, friends or other contacts, this was usually in combination with professional help. Min said simply: ‘people started believing me’.

Triggers to leaving

The final decision to leave often involved children. Although it was traumatic, women felt more able to take action to protect their children than themselves. A turning point was usually when their partner turned his violence towards the children. This was the final straw for a number of women, such as Tanya whose daughter was ‘beaten up’, Lindsey whose daughter had a hot iron put on her back, and Liz who discovered her partner’s sexual abuse of their daughter. Other women, such as Anna, Irina and Alonya took action after their children witnessed a violent attack on them, the mother.

For both Jane and Khalida it was their children who first disclosed abuse to a professional (a school counsellor and a GP), which set in train the support necessary for the women to leave their partners.

 

Jane’s daughter told her school counsellor about the abuse at home, which led to her, her mum and sister getting help to leave the relationship.

Jane’s daughter told her school counsellor about the abuse at home, which led to her, her mum and sister getting help to leave the relationship.

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Because she was absolutely hysterical whilst this was happening, you know. And then again afterwards it was my fault. He didn’t really think he’d done anything wrong. My eldest daughter actually reported that to her school. And because I was travelling to school that morning, taking the two children, and I was still very upset I kept saying, you know, I said to myself in the car out loud, “Something needs doing about this,” well it was then that my daughter took it upon herself to disclose that to the school. And as soon as that was disclosed then Social Services got involved and the police.

Right.

And I was able to leave that night. But even then, when Social Services was following me because he was following me back past my house to be able to go to my friend’s house he had the gates open like he was expecting me to come home. And the shock on his face when he realised that I drove by and that the Social Services was behind me, was a picture.

Yeah.

It was like, “What’s going on?” you know.

I think that was my main that was my main form of support in the first place, was that she was so nice.

Yeah.

There was her and there was her area manager.

OK.

And they made me feel so at ease and, you know, she was really, really nice to me and said, “Look,” she said, “use this as your opportunity to get away,” she said, you know, “from this moment in, if you want to, if you work with us, then he’s never had to, going to have to bother you again.”

And how did they support you then through that time?

Well literally as I’ve gone to pick up my eldest child, because they wouldn’t let him pick her up, he was obviously waiting at the school, and there was a police officer outside. So he wasn’t allowed to enter the school premises or try and attempt to get our oldest child away. From that moment, you know, when I walked into the school, was when I felt safe. Because there was, there was my daughter’s class teacher there, there was the head of year there, there was the parent support worker there, they was there on behalf of the school, and there was also two lovely social workers. And at that moment I felt actually safe because there was a policeman outside.

Yeah.

Because there was all these people there that was willing to help me.

Was that the first time you’d felt safe in a long while?

That was the first time I’d felt safe in a long time, yeah.

And thinking back to that time, was there anything that was done particularly well for you?

The school were fantastic. You know, they supported my eldest really well. She was, all she kept saying all day was, “My dad’s going to kill me, my dad’s going to kill me for this.” And she was really, really scared. She was white. She was wondering what I was going to do 

Yeah.

And what I was going to say, whether I was going to diminish it. And they kept reassuring her all the time throughout the day that now she’d said something there was absolutely no way that they are going to let like even Social Services or even the school is going to let her live with her father again.

Yeah.

Yeah, and if I chose to come with them then, you know, all well and good. But if I decided to choose him and go home then they would, they would have to go somewhere together.

Yeah.

You know, so that was incredibly frightening for her, but at the same time they made her feel, you know, that this was the right thing to do and that, “Obviously mum’s not going to go and go home, she’s going to go with you, she’s going to choose the children, she’s not going to choose an abusive partner.” You know, so they put her mind at rest there. And once I realised the enormity of the situation and then looked back as to what I’d put up with, I couldn’t believe it. You know, I was a totally different person when I came towards the end as what I was in the beginning.
When Khalida’s partner turned on their chronically sick son, she could no longer ‘keep quiet’. Khalida’s husband psychologically and physically abused both her and their son but she could not confide in the doctor as her husband always went with them. The boy, aged 12, had a chronic bowel problem and had attempted suicide, but he managed to create an opportunity for disclosure to their GP.
 

Khalida reveals how her son took the initiative to disclose abuse and she talks about the repercussions she would have faced if she had tried to visit the doctor alone (read by a professional).

Khalida reveals how her son took the initiative to disclose abuse and she talks about the repercussions she would have faced if she had tried to visit the doctor alone (read by a professional).

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He was shouting at the boy all the time, and he was upset all the time. So I said, “I can’t cope with this. It’s happening, it’s like all the time now. There’s no respite.”

Yes.

It was stress, stress, stress, stress, stress. So the poor boy is suffering.

Yes.

And then I realised. Then in the morning, one morning – oh sorry, then I took him to the doctor’s. He said, “I’m not going to let you take, take him to the doctor’s. You’re going to come with me. I’m going to go to the doctor. I’m going to talk to the doctor about this disgusting devil of a child, this and that. He’s not bleeding, he’s not anything. He’s lying, he’s this, he’s not, he’s not going to kill himself, he’s not.” So anyway, we went to the doctor. And the doc – and my son 

The three of you together?

Three of us together. Obviously we couldn’t, we couldn’t say anything in front of him. But my son, being, became brave and said to the doctor, “Can I speak to you without my parents?” He said it with me included, in case my father thought, his father thought that, you know, I’m included in it or something, in what he’s going to say. So after he the doctor asked us, “OK, would you mind if you went outside for ten minutes?”

So the boy had asked in front of both of you?

Yeah hmm.

Wow.

Yeah, so he was very brave.

Yes.

So I said I said, “Of course, yes, of course.” Because I knew that he was – whatever he wanted to tell the doctor. So anyway my husband was fuming when we came home. “What did he tell the doctor? You bastard this, you bastard that.” I said, “Well I don’t know, whatever was upsetting him, I guess,” I said, “he’s probably talked to the doctor about whatever was upsetting him.” And when we came in to came in to see the doctor afterwards he said, “Well I understand what’s happening with your son. And Monday I will arrange for a therapist, a therapy for him. I will arrange for someone to do counselling for him. And I will see, you know, see what I can do on Monday. Because now it’s Friday evening and I can’t do anything right now.” So anyway, Monday morning came and at eight o’clock in the morning I phoned the doctor’s, because I wanted to see the doctor, because my son wouldn’t go to school. He didn’t want to go to school and he was bleeding again. And I said, “They need to give him some medication. The colonoscopy was inconclusive. They need to give him some medication.” So the medication so he didn’t, because he didn’t have it, I said, “I need to take him to the doctor’s to get medication, see why he is bleeding, to stop the bleeding.” But my son had already told me that the doctors, “One doctor wants to see me and you together, he doesn’t want to see dad with us.” So I decided that, yes, we are going to go on Monday. I wanted it done urgently as possible. My husband wouldn’t let me go. He said, “You’re not going to the doctor. You’re not going to see to the doctor again. You’re never going again to the doctor with him. I don’t know what you’re telling the doctor. I don’t know what’s going on.” I said, “Yes I am. My son is bleeding, my son is suicidal, I am going to take him to the doctor’s and I am going to see what the doctor is going to do about it.” He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t let me go. I had my keys in my hand and my coat on, everything, got him ready. He wouldn’t let me go. And then I phoned my eldest daughter up. I said, “Listen, dad is not letting me take [participant’s youngest son] to the doctor’s. I need to take him to the doctor’s to stop the bleeding, it won’t stop.”

What would have happened if you’d just physically gone?

He’d got the keys on him, outside keys. Because that’s what he did. Whenever he didn’t want me to leave, he would keep the keys on him. Obviously, if I tried to snatch the keys he would beat me to death or something or whatever. You know, I would be too afraid to snatch the keys from him.

Yes.
Emerging from a ‘bubble’

Several women described their isolated lives with their abusive partner as living in a kind of ‘bubble’. Victoria, with the support of family and friends, found her eyes opened and she finally managed to step out of the bubble. Sophie and Sarah both had some time apart from their abusive partners and during this time they each realised they did not want to stay with their partner. When Sophie’s partner went away for two weeks she made her decision and filed papers for divorce. Sarah attended a work training course away from home and realised how liberated she felt being able to chat to people normally.
 

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.

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. 
Professionals 

Many women said that attending the Freedom Programme was the turning point for them, helping them to recognise they were experiencing abuse, meeting other survivors and realising that they were not to blame. Some women, like Melanie and Lindsay also went on to do the Recovery Toolkit that ‘builds on your self-esteem, your trust ….everything that you’ve been stripped of’. Melanie feels she has come ‘full circle’, becoming a co-facilitator on the Freedom Programme.
 

Melanie was ‘too frightened and panicked’ to get help but someone from ‘Shelter’ rang the Freedom Programme for her. She ‘cried and cried and cried and cried… finally it felt like I’m going to get some help’.

Melanie was ‘too frightened and panicked’ to get help but someone from ‘Shelter’ rang the Freedom Programme for her. She ‘cried and cried and cried and cried… finally it felt like I’m going to get some help’.

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And has that come from within you or have you had help from any other agencies or people to get to that point?

The Freedom programme [relief in voice].

Yeah. How did you manage to find out about the Freedom programme?

I was quite distressed and I think I was having a problem with my housing, there was a lot of things going on all at one time and I think I spoke to Shelter as well about that, at this stage and I think I was just, and I went to the police. 

What stage was this? What year are we talking about?

I think in 2012.

Was this after you’d …

Yeah.

… told him to go?

Yes. I think everything just [knocking] I was learning to pay my bills, so I had to go to Shelter to help, for help with finances and putting things in place. I was being taken to court for my water bill. I was being taken to court for my television license. So I was reaching out then at that point.

And I think I just screamed it to anybody that would help me. That I need help, I need help. And I think they pointed me in the right direction. I think somebody, I don’t know if it was somebody from Shelter actually that rang somebody through Freedom and then they rang me.

Right, so someone from Shelter rang them and then, so they actually rang you back on your …

Yes.

Right.

Yes.

Was that helpful, that they did it like that? Would you have followed it up do you think if …

I don’t think I would have followed it up because I was, I would have been too frightened. I think I was, at that moment I was in fight or flight, I was definitely panicked about everything and everybody and every, you know I was quite frantic at that point and I knew I needed help [knocking] but I didn’t know how to get it. 

So the fact that they sort of rang for you …

They rang for me. And I think that finally, I started my, I started to realise that I’m going to get some type of help. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know if it was going to help me but I was definitely going to run for it. 

And you went to the Freedom?

Yeah. 

Yeah. Was there a space almost immediately for you? 

Yes, there was, yeah. And I sat in that group that day and I listened to a women’s story and I just cried. And cried, and cried and cried and cried. And finally it felt like I’m going to get some help. Yeah. Yeah.

And you, have you continued?

I have. I have continued. I’m doing a mentoring course that, well, I’ve just finished my mentoring course with the Freedom programme as well. 

Meaning? What does that …

Helping other women within the Freedom, I co-facilitate the Freedom programme now, so I sit on the side and I help women if they’re in distress or if they need to talk to somebody. I signpost women as well. Yeah, so yeah, I’ve, I’ve come full circle. Hopefully [laughs].
Crucial avenues of support to leave were specialist domestic violence and abuse support workers and the Women’s Aid help-line. Min said her support worker and counsellor ‘took her under their wing’. A few women mentioned their GP, health visitor or counsellor as being influential. Kate said her health visitor was ‘crucial’ after she confided in her about difficulties and violence at home.
 

Kate’s health visitor was ‘marvellous’ in supporting her when family counselling went badly wrong and Kate realised she had to end the marriage.

Kate’s health visitor was ‘marvellous’ in supporting her when family counselling went badly wrong and Kate realised she had to end the marriage.

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My health visitor was an absolutely crucial form of support. She worked out what was going on and around about my daughter’s two year check. And she just kept checking in with me and she kept saying, you know, we were talking about things, getting me to talk about things, not in a, “Does he do this?” or, “Does he do that?” but, you know, “How are things going? Tell me a little bit about home. Tell me a little bit about the children. Tell me what your worries are.” And, you know, I started to open up a bit. And then she’d say, “Oh I think we’ve got more to talk about. Maybe we could meet again in a couple of weeks. What do you think? Would you like to meet for coffee?” And, and so we just kept meeting and kept meeting and there was this ongoing conversation that kept going and kept going and kept going. And then it got more and more clear what was going on. And she was the person I turned to when I accepted that this was an abusive relationship. 

It was the worst, one of the worst hours of my life, that session. And we came out and I walked down the road and he was going, “What? What? What’s your problem?” And I just said, “Right, well that’s it, isn’t it? It’s over.” And he was, he just didn’t believe me. He got angry and said, you know, “What’s the problem? You know, you’re just making problems up, you know, and you can’t do that,” kind of thing. And I said, “Well I’ll see you at home later. I need to think and I need to be by myself. I need to have a think.” So I walked up the road, sat by my car and I thought he had left. And I phoned my health visitor and I said what had just happened and I said that I thought that I had to end the relationship and ask him to leave. And she very diplomatically said, “Well I think you’ve tried everything you can to mend this relationship, haven’t you?” And I was like, “Yes, I don’t think it’s going to be mended.” And she went, “No, I don’t think so.” She was just marvellous. 
After having her abuse previously overlooked by doctors, Lindsey finally found a ‘person-centred GP’ who really understood and supported her. Jane and Nessa found support to leave from social workers, Charlotte had a helpful solicitor and Yasmin talked to the Imam’s secretary at her mosque. Sara went to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau for information about divorce, and without Sara disclosing anything, the worker gave her a card for the domestic violence helpline. The ‘look on her face’ was a trigger for Sara to take action. Only Chloe mentioned a police officer as the most helpful person. He used a questionnaire to identify and respond to domestic abuse.

Friends, family and others

Friends, family members and a neighbour were an important source of help for some women to leave, or provided valuable support afterwards. In combination with her domestic violence and abuse support worker identifying the abuse she was suffering, Penny finally plucked up the courage to leave when she received an email from her partner’s ex warning her: ‘For God’s sake get out!’
 

Penny described the ‘final push’ to leave her abusive partner on the narrow boat they shared.

Penny described the ‘final push’ to leave her abusive partner on the narrow boat they shared.

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Because I was talking to a friend of mine in the folk world, a lady who knew [Name of perpetrator] ex. 

Right.

And she had warned me off him and said, “Look, you know, [Name of perpetrators ex-partner], his ex, is still in a bad place, still scared of him and she’s moved house. She’s still scared that he’s going to find out”. And she, because I wanted to talk [Name of perpetrators ex-partner] about him but [Name of perpetrators ex-partner] was too scared that [Name of perpetrator] would find out. 

How long into the relationship…

Oh, probably …

…was that?

… three or four years I suppose. 

Right.

But she, [Name of perpetrators ex-partner] was too scared to talk to me for fear that he would find out.

Yeah. 

And then eventually when I was on the narrow boat, I got an email from the mutual friend saying, “[Name of perpetrators ex-partner] says, for God’s sake get out”. And I read this email with [Name of perpetrator] sort of hovering around and I thought, “I’ve just got to do it”. And that’s what pushed me into just walking off the narrow boat and got the bus back here. And that was that really. There’s a lot more to it than that but that’s the gist.

So in terms of the verbal abuse and when he’d kind of become really, really nasty to you when you were alone…

And I just felt belittled, I just felt well my confidence, confidence just went down and down and down and I was so depressed really that I wasn’t in a state to get out of it. 
Ana and Yasmin were both trapped with highly abusive, controlling partners and rarely left the house. Their key helpers were other mums at their children’s schools, who picked up on signs of their unhappy home life. One gave Yasmin a card for the local Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency and another introduced Ana to her friend who worked in a women’s refuge. 

The few women who had started a new relationship said how important their new partner had been in providing support to re-build their lives after leaving an abusive relationship.

Inner strength

Some women, like Ella, Jane and Lolita, said that they managed to leave eventually because of their own inner strength or resilience. Lolita’s sense of self-worth was partly built by friends who encouraged her to really think about what she wanted out of life.
 

Talking with her friends empowered Lolita to feel that she could ‘achieve anything’.

Talking with her friends empowered Lolita to feel that she could ‘achieve anything’.

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And out of everything that you’ve told me, what would you say was the most important thing that helped you to eventually make changes to the situation so that he did in fact leaveA?

I think it was self-worth, people telling me that, you know, I am better than that and reminding me of what I want in life, you know. When I was with him I was focused on what he wanted. He wanted a child. I wasn’t necessarily ready for a child, but I was working towards being in a position where I could give him one.

Right.

And I feel like, for me to have people around me who were telling me, you know, “Well what if you do have a child? You’re not going to be able to achieve what you want. Or, you know, if you do give him what he wants, what are you going to give yourself?” And not a lot of people, you know, will turn around and tell you, you know, “What do you want?” It’s more, “How are you going to get out of the relationship? You know, what about your children?” It’s not, “What do you want, you know, what do you want from your life?” and then helping you to realise that you can get it. A lot of it is not thinking that you can achieve all the things you want. Whereas if you have people to empower you and to make you feel like you can achieve anything, I think the possibilities are endless, especially towards your relationship. I feel like, you know, if you believe that leaving this man isn’t going to be the end, that you can leave this man, and if you believe that, leaving this man, somebody else will love you and you will find love with another person, you can do it. I believe that it’s all the support and the people pushing you for more. You know, even if they were to say, “I believe that if you want to be with him you can be with him, but don’t ever forget that your life goes on too. You know, you’d still achieve your dreams and you’d still go on every day for yourself.”

And who do you think these people are that have been empowering you in this way, helping you?

Definitely my friends. 
Ella
 had three abusive relationships. At the time of the interview she said she felt free of abuse and was in a healthy relationship, thanks to her own inner strength in combination with support from Women’s Aid. For her it was about ‘being strong …you have to be strong and not give up and …the light at the end of the tunnel, just keep pushing’.

Last reviewed February 2020.

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