Obstacles to seeking help for domestic violence and abuse
‘I knew I needed help but I didn’t know how to get it’
Women said that it was difficult to get help because they did not realise for a long time that they were experiencing domestic violence and abuse (see ‘Recognising domestic violence and abuse’). They also did not know who to talk to because, as Sarah said, ‘I think the problem is a lot of people don't really understand domestic abuse’. Women felt that people they knew would not understand ‘if they haven’t been there themselves’.
Other obstacles included not recognising abuse, blaming themselves, not knowing who to turn to, being socially isolated, no-one stepping in to help and living in fear. Women said they had been conditioned by their partner to believe that everything they did was wrong and the abuse was all their fault. They also described living in fear of making things worse if they talked to anyone and their partner found out, leading to more violence or abuse. Fear was also a major obstacle for women in getting professional help, fear of having anything written on their medical records and fear of other services getting involved, such as social services. Once violence or abuse was revealed in the household, women feared they would lose custody of their children.
All the women we interviewed had overcome obstacles, sought help and had left their abusive partners. Their accounts showed that they needed to wait for the right time to seek help, when they were ready to face what was happening to them and had safety plans in place. Some women, such as Julia, Tina and Philippa all eventually escaped their abusive relationships without any help or support. Philippa said, ‘I just felt isolated, I just felt I had to do it all on my own’.
‘I didn’t realise that’s what it was at the time... I ended up having to work it all out for myself really, so it took a long time’.
Not recognising domestic violence and abuse
Most women assumed, at least initially, that their relationship was ‘normal’. This was particularly the case if they had grown up with abuse in their household, or if they were young and inexperienced and had no idea what to expect in an adult relationship (see ‘Recognising domestic violence and abuse’). Ella met her first abusive partner at the age of fifteen, and feels that, had she had help to understand abuse at that point, she would not have gone to have two more abusive relationships. Often there was a specific trigger to seeking help, such as a ‘light bulb’ moment when a woman realised she was experiencing domestic abuse. Julia and Ana both responded to TV programmes that gave the helpline number at the end. Being manipulated and blaming themselves
Women tended to blame themselves for their partner’s behaviour. This led women like Jessica, for example, to believe that she must ‘work harder’ at her marriage to make it happier. This feeling was echoed by many others who believed the best way to cope was to change their own behaviour so that their partner would treat them better. As Jacqui put it, you ‘try and become the person they want you to be’. As Jane said:
‘You start to think he’s right in everything and it’s easier to change your habits and change the person you are’.
Partners often behaved like ‘Mr Charming’ in front of family members or friends, to ‘trick people’ into believing that all was well, while privately threatening to kill their partner or harm the children if they tried to get help to leave. This made it hard to women to be critical of their partner to others. Their partners also manipulated them to feel critical of previously close family members, cutting off avenues of support. In contrast, Jane described how her partner had a diagnosed mental health condition, had a breakdown during their relationship and used his vulnerability as ‘emotional blackmail’. Alonya’s partner used a fake illness to manipulate her feelings and prevent her from talking to others or leaving him. Not being ‘ready’ to ask for help
Some women felt ‘too ashamed’ to talk about abuse or, like Penny and Ella, felt ‘too emotional’ to speak out, ‘too low’ or ‘not in a fit state to push for help’. Some women were not ready to talk about abuse as they did not want to ‘bore’ or ‘burden’ others with their troubles, especially if their family and friends disliked their partner and just told them to leave when they were not ready or safe to do so.
Women generally found it safer to keep up a pretence to others that ‘everything’s fine’. Shaina wanted to protect her partner from getting into trouble with the police. Kate was trying to shield both herself and her family from what was happening. Some women said they still loved their partner and really wanted the relationship to work. They hoped, like Tasha, that in time their partner’s behaviour would get better. For many women, the trigger to overcome obstacles and to seek help was an escalation of abuse, or a desire to protect their children, when violence was turned towards them. Jacqui sought help when violence moved from ‘the odd slap, the odd push… to him breaking my ribs’. When her partner hit their four year old son, Kate knew she had to take action. Feeling unwell was sometimes a trigger for women to seek help, such as Anna who felt ‘low and tearful all the time’, and Julia who was ‘distressed, ill and isolated’. Melanie only began to seek help once the abusive relationship was over. Once she was on her own she finally realised the full extent of her partner’s controlling behaviour. She was left penniless and began to reach out to others for support.
Women described little opportunity to contact friends, as their partners rarely allowed them out of the house on their own, and all their movements and phone calls were monitored (see ‘Coercive Controlling Behaviour’). Sophie, Ana and Yasmin all said that their only opportunity to leave the house was to collect the children from school. If they went anywhere else or invited a friend to the house, the partner would become physically abusive and make them ‘pay for it’. Chloe described being kept a virtual prisoner and was ‘allowed’ twenty minutes to ‘visit the bank’ when she made contact with a friend and asked for her help to leave.
Both Ana and Yasmin eventually found support from other mums at the school gate, who picked up their unhappiness and helped them make contact with a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency. No-one stepped in to help
Many women wished that family and friends had asked more questions. Mandy, whose mum noticed how much happier she was since leaving her partner said ‘I just wish they’d noticed at the time and maybe just had a word. I probably wouldn’t have believed them and I’d have argued black was white but …I might have had somebody to talk to’.
Penny said: ‘No-one suggested he was a bastard and I should get out’, and she only took action eventually when she was warned by her partner’s ex. As she said, however, it’s ‘difficult’ for friends because:
‘Nobody wants to interfere with a relationship that‘s sort of happening. And friends don’t say, “Actually, get out, he’s treating you rubbish”. On the whole. But it would be, I think it would have been nice if friends had been brave enough to say, “He’s not treating you very well”’.
Difficulties seeking professional help
The majority of women had ‘no idea’ where to go to get professional help. They had little or no knowledge of services available to them and they also had a fear of social services involvement. Anna’s partner played on this fear by threatening that she would lose her children if she spoke out about abuse to health professionals or the police. She was shocked by the lack of understanding of abuse by the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) that her son attended, and by the police. Anna was also fearful of talking to police as she believed the family’s problems were her fault. She feared the police would blame her
‘I would be the one in trouble. Because that’s how he used to keep me, made me feel for years. I am in the wrong and I was so scared of him …that stopped me…’
When she went for professional help, Sophie was shocked by how ‘acceptable’ domestic violence appears to be. During court proceedings, she felt pressurised to return to her abusive partner. Women felt that the police and health professionals need more training in recognising domestic abuse. Catherine, Liz and Sarah, who were successful career women, experienced difficulty in getting help owing to stereotyping of how an abused woman ‘should’ look. When she sought help at the local Housing Department, Catherine was mistaken as a social worker and Melanie felt she was not taken seriously.