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.

Age at interview 46

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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).

Age at interview 58

Gender Female

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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.

Age at interview 32

Gender Female

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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’.

Age at interview 42

Gender Female

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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.

Age at interview 44

Gender Female

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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’s to leave her abusive partner on the narrow boat they shared.

Age at interview 62

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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’.

Age at interview 20

Gender Female

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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’.