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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Why women couldn’t ‘just leave’ a violent or abusive partner

Since the early 1970s one of the most frequent questions asked in relation to domestic violence and abuse is why women don’t “just leave”? Research over the last 45 years shows very clearly the rational and logical reasons why this is not the right question to ask. We seldom ask why a perpetrator, who is using abusive behaviours towards someone they say they love, doesn’t leave. Asking women why they don’t leave places the blame on women for the abuse they experience by suggesting that they are somehow responsible for ending it. The women we talked to found it very difficult when they received advice from others to ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship. They said that others - professionals, family members of friends, should be sensitive if they suspect domestic violence or abuse, and they need to be aware of women’s anxieties about disclosure so that they do not feel pressurised into taking action when they are not ready or safe to do so. 

One of the reasons that professionals and others ask this question is that they feel powerless to resolve the issue, but it can lead to women being more isolated in the future. As research shows, leaving can be the most dangerous time for a woman as the partner’s control starts to reduce and he may retaliate. Assuming that leaving will make everything better, especially if the right support is not in place, is wrong.

All the women we interviewed had left an abusive relationship but they said leaving was not that easy. Women described the obstacles, difficulties and dangers they had to overcome, which are summarised in eleven points below:

1. Leaving an abusive relationship was dangerous as abusive partners often sought women out and continued to abuse them.

In the topic ‘Leaving a violent or abusive partner’, women talked about the importance of leaving at the ‘right time’ when they felt ‘ready’ and safe to do so. Jane reported her social worker’s words: “Actually when women leave, that is the most dangerous time, is when they leave.” Yasmin was desperate to leave her husband who controlled and monitored all her movements, demanded sex in return for money to feed the children and physically abused her. When she got away, she said that was when the ‘real abuse’ started.

 

Yasmin described struggling practically and financially whilst being afraid that her ex-partner would ‘come any minute’ to get her.

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Age at interview: 32
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I went council back, they send me in that borough which I am living right now.

So that’s where you are now?

Yes, but that accommodation was on … fourth or fifth building, there wasn’t any lift going up sixty-seven stair.

Oh.

Three children.

Oh my Goodness.

Going up, going down, I just don’t know what to do. And I had to start benefit, so I thought okay, well … that was physical abuse, that was sexual abuse; I think the real abuse started now.

In what sense?

No money.

Uh-huh.

No strength to walk. Don’t know where to go [tearful]. Struggle six weeks a lot, until I find somebody … to take me to women refuge, and that fear he’s going to come any minute.

Oh right, yeah.

The knife scene stuck in my mind …

Of course it did.

… so badly [tearful].

Of course it did, yes.

And then I had it to go. They said, ‘Oh there is a women refuge’, I said, ‘Just take me anywhere.’

So who … who was the lady who found you and took you to a refuge then? Who was …?

She was from the police department.

Right.

She was a … like sensitive department of raping and everything.

Right. Uh-huh.

And because she took me to family justice centre, I even don’t know do I want any police against, against him? Do I want to get divorce first? I was just running.

Yes of course.

Though without knowing, without having that knowledge …

Of course.

… what I am doing.

Yes.

I was just running from this man.
2. Abusive partners made threats to kill or harm them or the children if they left.

Following continuous harassment and threats to kill her, Ana’s partner turned up at her house fuelled with alcohol and drugs. She managed to escape to a friends’ house, and the police went looking for him. Ana realised she needed to find safety in a women’s refuge.
 

After threats to kill her, Ana with the support of a Domestic Violence and Abuse agency and the police, moved into a women’s refuge to keep her and the children safe after her ex broke a non-molestation order (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
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Anyway, he, my ex-husband , because he was paying the bill, the phone bill, he just went through the messages and he just, obviously he rang, I think he rang everyone I was ringing and rang his friend’s number, and that’s when it gone terribly wrong. He just rang me one Friday and said, “I’m, I’m coming to kill you. You’ve been sleeping with …” the friend.

His friend, yeah.

And I tried to explain. I said, “No, I haven’t.” I said, I swore, I said, “I swear I haven’t.” He just wasn’t having it. He got, he got really, he got really, he drank a lot and he took drugs that night and I tried to go to bed. I was, I was very stressed and very afraid.

Yes.

Knowing, knowing him and his …

Yes.

… jealous ways and, so he, he’s showed up at three o’clock in the morning, woke the children up, and started just shouting and, “Tell me, tell me you slept with him. Tell me.” And then it just continued for like an hour, da-da-da, the shouting and the name-calling. And at that point, like the children were screaming. And then he left. He said he’s going to kill him, and then I didn’t sleep, it was like five o’clock in the morning. I rang [support worker] and then [support worker] said, “Right, enough.” I think it was Saturday, anyway, I went to my friend’s house, and then he rang me and then I heard his brother call me names as well. He called me a cunt and just horrible things on the phone, and he said again, “Where are you? Where are …” I think at that point he took more drugs and he just said, “Oh, I’m going to … you just watch, I’m going to …” Yeah, he’s just said again, “I’m going to come and kill you.” and then like the police were searching for him. Sorry.

It’s alright.

So he got, he had to hand himself in because they couldn’t search, they couldn’t find him, so they … no, he, the policeman come and, and said, “I’ll ring him,” and then he said, “Mr …” blah, blah, blah, “can you come …”

Yes.

“Can you hand yourself in or we’ll put a warrant out.”

Right.

And then I had court and all the, just having injunction done. Oh sorry…

Yeah.

After that, he broke the orders and then just I think it was June, [support worker] said, and I said, and [support worker] said, “Right enough now.”
3. Women were brainwashed and emotionally dependent on abusive partners which made it hard for them to leave.

Tanya’s support worker suggested she had Stockholm syndrome* so that what happens is ‘no matter how horrible your abuser is, you’re in love with them’. Abusive partners often covered up controlling behaviour to make it look caring, as with Tasha’s partner.
 

Tasha’s partner manipulated her to make it appear that he was being helpful, as he took increasing control of Tasha’s life and behaviour.

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Age at interview: 40
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No he didn’t actually hit me when we were together, it was more emotional but I think I used to appease I used to know what sort of mood he was in so I would just try not to upset him really. He was quite physical towards the children He used to over-chastise them. Even when I used to say to him not, you know, not to he would always undermine me with the children and stuff, but he did mark one of the boys once and I recorded it, well I took a photo of it when he wasn’t looking … but I didn’t realise that he was stood behind me and he told me to delete that now So, yeah, I think I tried not to upset him on purpose, you know, but it was mainly, as I had nobody to talk, talk to because well he basically stopped me from talking to my family by causing problems within the family, so we’d all sort of fallen out. He made out that it was in my best interest because they were no good for me and stuff. But like I said I had nobody to turn to so …

Yeah.

… I was basically, we were in our own little bubble and I thought that was how it should be. 

And the, the emotional abuse that occurred throughout the relationship, are you able to give me any specific examples of things that he would do or say?

He would, he would make it feel as though everything was for me He would sort of manipulate me into making me feel as though he was, he was doing the right thing. I [sighs] it’s hard to explain I had no self-confidence at all I got my disability and I was actually made to be worse because he said, he would tell me that I couldn’t do it so he would take charge of things and stuff. He used to, you know, take the children to school in the mornings and tell me to stay in bed because I couldn’t get up In, yeah, I mean, at the time I didn’t, didn’t see it, I thought he was helping me. But he wasn’t, he was actually, you know, I, he’d made out that I couldn’t live without him.

Yeah.

Or had children, with children nobody would want me with children and you know, and a disability. So, yeah, I had to sort of rely on him.
4. Women had little knowledge about domestic violence and abuse and thought that their partner’s behaviour was all their fault, so they felt they should try harder to make it work.

The majority of women believed it was up to them to change their own behaviour in order to stop their partner’s abuse, so this became their initial strategy, before deciding to leave.
 

Liz, a senior manager at work, believed she had caused her partner’s abuse because she was too directive and needed to be weaker and more subservient towards him.

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Age at interview: 46
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And he then walked out. And then I didn’t call the police. I said I was going to call the police to my daughter.

Right.

And she said, I think she said something like, “Oh mummy, mummy,” you know. And but instead I called his parents, I don’t know why. I didn’t see that what they are, at that point. And yeah, and to my shame, I then went out and I looked for him, because he’d left the house.

And rather than, I wanted to apologise because I’d made him angry and called his parents.

Right.

And, you know, because I thought I deserved it.

Right.

And I’d pushed him.

Yeah.

Not that he pushed me first, not that what he’d done to me, hurting me, but I pushed him so I deserved what I got.

Yeah, yeah.

And I didn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t cope without him, couldn’t cope.

I sat next to a director of a bank, of one of the big High Street banks, and she told me about the abuse that she had suffered. And it was only because I shared first that she shared with me.

Right.

I think it’s certain personality types that are very often – you know, and it’s, it’s a said – it’s an unsaid thing that, in a way, domestic violence is something that’s done to weak people. I, when I walk into the workplace, I don’t think anybody would think I was weak. I can out-man most of them and their, but, in a relationship, people are different, in a personal relationship. And it’s, I think it’s where women are not policing boundaries. I think that’s where I went wrong. I should have set up in my mind what was acceptable in a relationship. And when those boundaries were breached, I should have realised that what was happening to me was not good and not acceptable and not my fault.

Right.

I just personalised it all and thought, “I can do better. I will clean more. I will do more. I will do all these things and everything will be fine if I’m a better person, if I’m a better wife, if I’m a better mother. If I can earn more and maybe then he could go more part-time, because maybe he’s not coping with his job. He’s got work stresses, that’s why he’s angry. He’s angry with his parents, he’s angry with his son, he’s angry with his general family. He hasn’t got the career that he should have.” Oh, the excuses that women make. And I think it’s a woman thing more than men.
5. Family members, friends and work colleagues generally knew little about domestic violence and abuse and found it difficult to offer help.

Looking in from the outside, it could be difficult for friends and family members to understand what was going on, or to voice their concerns. In the early days of her relationship, a few of Chloe’s family and friends met her partner and felt uneasy about him but did not speak up.
 

Friends and family did not mention their suspicions about Chloe’s new partner because she was so ‘besotted’ and ‘in love’ that they decided not to (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
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But at that time you were really happy and?

I was incredibly happy. I’d never known anything like it so yeah.

And how about family and friends, had they met him, and people?

The few people who had met him, very briefly met him, it was not quite a long, you know, over a long few hours, it was sort of over dinner or something like that. And he did his usual sort of, you know, charming, charming thing. Most of them said, “Wow, you seem so happy. That’s, you know, and you both kind of sparkle and bounce off of each other, it’s amazing to watch.” And they loved that atmosphere. Later, speaking to them after we split up, some of them would say, “Ooh but there was a weird feeling, you know, there was something else, a gut feeling or a...”

Another friend who is a mental health nurse, he met him for like ten minutes and he was not OK.

Really?

Hmm, he didn’t say anything at the time. He was polite at the time and basically took himself away from it all. But later he, you know, he said to his wife you know, “I’ve seen enough people to know a personality disorder when I see one.”

Right.

And she was like, “Ooh,” because she was then in a space of, “Do I say something or don’t I say something?”

His wife?

Hmm, hmm.

You’re a friend of hers?

Yeah, good friends with both.

Did she say anything at the time or is it only now, recently?

She dropped some hints. But because I appeared to be so happy, she sort of thought, “No,” and she brushed it off.

Right, and how did you react to those hints? Did you also want to brush them off in that way?

I completely brushed them off because I was…

You were in love.

I was in love, I was besotted, you know [laughs]. I was completely gone, yeah.
6. Women, particularly from minority ethnic groups, were under cultural and family pressure to stay with their husband.

Khalida was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. When her husband became abusive, neither her family nor her in-laws supported her and they expected her to fulfil her commitment to the marriage.
 

Khalida called her family for help after 13 years of no contact, after she was attacked at knife-point by her husband, but later returned to him following family pressure (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 58
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My sons weren’t home that day. I went there and I took my daughters from him. His mother was there and he was there. And I took my brothers and I just said, “Come, I’ve got a court order, I want my daughters right now. And I will get my sons later then if they’re not here.” The sons had coincidentally gone to visit the aunt, his sister.

Right.

Not because of me coming or anything, but he’d just left them there to play in the house. They’d never been before, but never mind. But I couldn’t get my sons. So the court order, then I went to court and then they got an injunction, I got an injunction against him not to even go near, I got the house, the, my, that he lived in, to tell him to get out of the house, he got the letter to get out of the house.

Right.

He knew I was serious.

And also, because the children were in my custody, all of them, they had to be in my custody, the boys had to come. Because I didn’t go back to get my boys. It was a week later when I saw them again when I was supposed to get custody of the house.

Yes.

But that’s, I saw them, I didn’t get custody. But before that my husband started phoning my parents. My parents in their naivety of not wanting me to get divorced and not wanting me to, you know, have this big thing about – they had a big thing about divorce, you shouldn’t get divorced, “You’ve got five children. How can you get divorced?”

Yes.

They said, “Well, when they grow up then you can get divorced.” I said, “What do you mean, when they grow up you will get divorced, when they grow up a bit more?” Because my daughter was now, I think, eldest was 12/13 and my boys were 9/10 and the girls, the last girl was 5 years old, and the other girl was 6 years old. And I said, “This is not, this is not right. I can’t go back to him. He just, he just threw me out at knife point.” “Well he didn’t knife you. He didn’t actually do anything, did he?” Then my husband did the sweet talking, “I’ve never known you, my in-laws, you know, you sound like really nice people. I think I’ve missed out on the 13 years of not knowing you. I think you’re nice people. I think you’re wonderful people. I didn’t mean to do that to her. I was really angry. I was really this, I was really that. I don’t do anything like that. I’m not a violent person, I’m not this.” He was trying to brainwash them and trying to, you know, con them.
​7. Women were afraid to tell any professionals about what was happening at home in case they lost their children.

This was a major obstacle for women in seeking help or leaving their partner.
 

Ana urges health professionals to be sensitive to women’s fears about disclosing abuse, such as losing their children, and to take things gently (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
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What would you like to say to health professionals, if you had the chance?

Yeah, yeah, I actually, I actually work in a children’s centre. We have like health visitors, midwives …

Right.

… come and we have a lot of families and …

Right.

… when I’m not going to kind of say names or nothing.

No, of course, yeah.

And we had a case of a young mum, pregnant mum being in an abusive relationship, and she left and I kind of put her into contact with the notice board with someone.

Is there someone on the staff of where you work or …

This was a mum that come to see a midwife and so I gave her the number and the midwives were talking next week, week after, “Oh she didn’t ring them,” and I just said,“You need to, you need to let her decide for herself.”

Right.

Obviously there’s an issue of, you know, safeguarding and if they need to contact …

Yeah, yeah.

… social services, there is that. But I said, I did say to them, “You, with women, it’s really important not to pressure …”

Right.

It’s, they need to be kept safe and if there’s immediate danger, which I get … is the pressure of if you don’t leave, I think all women have that, which I had that thought, social services will come and take your child away. It’s very scary, just all of a sudden people [pause], you know, jumping on, on, on her case and like, “Oh you have to, you have to ring them or X, Y and Z will happen.” So I think that’s my main … just kind of being considerate of that and just a woman, a woman will kind of hopefully have that, you know, point and just say, do you know what, enough, in herself.

When she’s ready.

When she’s ready, yeah.
8. Women’s self-confidence became very low during an abusive relationship, they often became very depressed, anxious and unable to make a move.
 

Jessica described her partner isolating her from her friends and the impact that this had on her self-esteem.

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Age at interview: 46
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He made an awful lot of people disappear throughout my life. And when I was, at my 40th birthday party he only had his friends at my birthday party, none of my friends, because he said he didn’t like their husbands. And it was all of his relations there, none of mine. Apparently he told his family that I was having a separate party, but I wasn’t.

So how were you feeling at that time?

That everybody seemed to be deserting me and I was all on my own and my self-esteem was really low and, especially when you’ve got young children, because you’re very isolated then anyway, and, like I’d always worked and suddenly you can’t work, you’re isolated with the children you’re a new mum. Which, you know, you’re just stuck in the house. Extremely lonely. 

He broke me. Totally.

Yeah.

I didn’t have any say, I had no self-will any more. And …

So, he’d broken you?

Literally.

Over the relationship?

Yeah. Totally broke me.

Hmm.

Yeah. So I became a nothing. Yeah.

Gosh.

Hm. Yeah. I was the strong one in the relationship and he broke me. 
9. Women were rarely able to go out unaccompanied and seek help.

Many women said how their homes became a ‘prison’ and, if they left the house, their movements were monitored and timed.
 

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.
10. 
Women with children did not want to break up the family and take their children away from their father.

Many women wanted to avoid their children having to experience a ‘broken family’.
 

Kate stayed in an abusive marriage for years, trying everything she could think of to ‘fix’ the relationship for the sake of her children.

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Age at interview: 44
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The thing that had kept me there so long was not wanting to break the family, not wanting to give my children a broken home, not wanting to have that future for them with what we have now, which is parents living separately and having to cope with that. I didn’t want that for them. and it didn’t help, of course, that he turned around and said, said very angrily, you know, how it was all my fault, that I’d broken the family, you know, how could I do this to the children? So he was laying on the guilt and it was very hard to hold to the fact that I knew I had tried absolutely everything I could to try to fix the relationship and get him to hear me and to understand what the issues were and why he couldn’t behave like he did and the damage that he was doing. And I’d almost, I felt like I’d almost destroyed myself in the process. And he hadn’t changed one tiny bit. He couldn’t accept anything of what I was saying. And so in the end he was the one that broke the family and caused all this. It is his fault.
11. Women often had no money of their own and nowhere to go to, with no knowledge of support services that might be available.

Many women said their partners never gave them any money, partly as a way of maintaining control. They had to find a way to get some money before they could leave. Ella had to sell her car to get enough money for a deposit on a flat when she left. Kanya, a Thai immigrant, lost her job and had to return to her partner.
 

Kanya became suicidal when she realised there was no escape from her partner, who kept the child benefit, when she lost her job.

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Male
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He just talked to me like a animal.

Yeah.

Just swearing every word he just say, he swear in everything. So I just and I said to him like, “I’m going to move out. I don’t want to.” And he said, “You can move out, do whatever you want.” I have separated from him about three months before, but I have, I have nothing. So even the kid’s benefit he always take everything, I never have that.

Right, so you didn’t have your own money?

No, I don’t have anything. I only work and then got that money. If I don’t work I don’t have money. He don’t really give anything.

So you separated for three months, but then you went back again?

Yeah, because I find really hard. I had nowhere to live so I had to ask my boss in restaurant like to stay you know, really like garage or something they keep for staff, and then I just got bed in there. And then I bring the kids to stay with me and then I said like, “I need somewhere to live. I don’t want to live with you anymore. So I need some of the benefit and then I will go, help to get somewhere to stay, just me and the kids.” And he don’t want to give me anything. He said, “You can take the kids. You can go.”

Right.

And then he just said like and that time he just stay in the house on his own, drinking, don’t care about anything. But he don’t, he won’t give me for the transfer the benefit or anything. Just tried to give me a hard life and, and thinking like, “Let’s see,” and he always said like, “You don’t know anything about England so you’re not English people, you don’t know. You think you know better. No one can help you,” and blah, blah. And he said like, “I can send you back to Thailand any time I want.” And I was just like, “Well, it’s really difficult for me.” I’ve been to ask help and everything but they’re just like, “We’re sorry, we can’t do anything.”

Who did you ask for help from?

I’ve been to the housing and benefit.

Yes.

And they said, “Everything works by paper. You need to get the kid’s benefit and then, you know, or maybe you have to be homeless,” and blah, blah. And really, really difficult that time, because I have to cope with work and cope with the kids and cope with somewhere to live.

Yes, yes.

So I’d been like that for a year and it was making me so ill, and I’d just like even become more and more. And then I start to feel like I don’t want to live anymore, so I tried to kill myself twice, so that. And then after that I feel, because the kids around here and then I just I can’t again. But that time I just feel like, “That’s it, only way I can deal with this, die, that’s it.”

Yes, yeah I can understand that. So the three months you were just living by the restaurant?

Yeah.

Then you had to go back really because

Yeah, I had nowhere to go.
*
Stockholm syndrome refers to feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor.

Last reviewed February 2020.

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