Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

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.

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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.

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