Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse
Getting help from family and friends for domestic violence and abuse
Abusive partners can, and often do, isolate women from their family and friends, but when talking about help-seeking in previous research many women identified their families and friends as a source of support. Recent research has shown, however, that there are both physical and psychological impacts for family members and friends who support survivors of abuse, and they will also need support for themselves (See ‘Resources & Information’). Friends and family members can offer both emotional and practical help and support, from child-minding, offering a bed to sleep in, money, or simply being there for someone. These supporters can themselves also become direct targets of the abusive partner.
Women talked to us about their experiences of getting help from family members and friends, the kinds of support they found the most valuable and times when they would have liked more support.
Women frequently said how difficult it was to talk to family members and friends about domestic violence and abuse when they were in the relationship. This was partly because they, themselves, were not clear about exactly what was wrong or whose ‘fault’ it was. Women feared that their partner would find out if they talked about him, leading to further violence. They also thought that family members or friends might not believe them, especially if the abusive partner had manipulated them against her.
When they were ready to seek help, women described mixed reactions from friends and family members. As Sarah said:
‘My best friend … she realised what was going on but I think the problem is a lot of people don't really understand domestic abuse.’
Jessica, married for 27 years to a man she described as aggressive and controlling, and with two children, had just one friend she could trust, who offered her a spare room. Over many months, Jessica hid a ‘survival pack’ of belongings at her friend’s place, and was ‘gutted’ when the friend refused to take her in on the day she left and instead phoned her husband. Jessica eventually found a place in a refuge. Women said that family members (most often a sister, daughter or mother) tended to provide practical support such as calling the police or providing a temporary place to stay, and friends offered emotional support, such as listening and empathising. On a few occasion either a family member or a friend intervened directly with the partner by talking to him or by restraining him when he was violent. Sometimes a woman at a crisis point, fearing for her safety, decided to confide in a family member or friend, and received help to leave their partner. Chloe managed to send text messages to her sister who she had not seen for a long time. Women wanted understanding and empathy
Women said that what they most wanted was someone to listen and understand, rather than being judgemental. They wanted friends and family to be patient, to listen and let them take action, such as leaving their partner, when they felt ready or safe to do so.
Lolita confided in both friends and family members during her abusive relationship but did not find their advice to leave helpful. What she wanted was a listening ear and non-judgmental support for her to stay or leave when she felt ready. Kate valued friends who were prepared to listen and were not judgmental. They also provided practical support in the form of childcare, meals, and help through the court system. Kate did not tell her family about the abuse until after her husband left, as she was trying to ‘shield’ them and also herself from the reality of what was happening. She talked in relief about ‘getting her mother and step-father back’ who were ‘there for her’ once she had opened up in full to her sister about what had happened.
Reaction of family and friends
Women talked about help they had received from family members and friends, sometimes while in the abusive relationship but more commonly at the time of leaving or afterwards. Women were often reluctant to open up as they feared they wouldn’t be believed.
Many women said that if they did try and talk about their relationship difficulties, friends would try to dismiss their partner’s behaviour as ‘normal’. Stephanie, Sarah and Ana all said that their partner’s friends would laugh and joke when their partners treated them roughly or verbally abused them in company. Victoria said her family and friends stopped coming round as her partner was so hostile and abusive. Friends could see her partner ‘sapping’ her energy and her ‘light’ going out. When friends or family members found out about the abuse, their initial reaction was often to advise the woman to leave her partner, advice that was unwelcome if the woman did not feel ready or safe to leave. Ella and Mandy said their family members were judgemental, blaming the woman herself for the abuse. Some family members and friends picked up signs of abuse but did not say anything out of fear or reluctance to get involved or frustration that the woman did not leave. Some family members were reluctant to get involved and preferred to ‘turn a blind eye’. Ana, a recent migrant from Europe, was initially delighted to move in with her partner’s family. However, when her partner started to physically and verbally abuse her, his mother, who heard what was happening, ‘left the house to kind of leave him to it’. Later, when the couple had moved to an isolated flat, Ana’s own mum, visiting from Europe, also witnessed abuse but felt unable to intervene. Reactions to witnessing violence
Witnessing violence first-hand was a trigger for friends to take action, as with Shaina. Alonya’s friend witnessed her partner shouting in Alonya’s face, spitting, jabbing his finger up close, name – calling and attempting to burn her with a cigarette. Her friends told her to leave him as he was ‘not right …there was something mental about him’, but she was not ready to act on this advice as she would have had to return to Eastern Europe. When Irina and her husband stayed overnight at a friend’s house, the friend and her husband witnessed his abusive behaviour, and they had to intervene to restrain him. With the help of a neighbour she contacted the National Domestic Violence Helpline, her doctor and a solicitor. Her friends continue to support her post-separation. Reactions in different cultural groups
The reaction of family members and friends was affected by cultural background. Asian women, for example, said their families had traditional expectations of marriage, with a need to maintain family honour. This made it particularly hard for abused women to speak out or to get help. Kanya, from Thailand, said their family and friends did not want to hear about abusive controlling behaviour as long as the partner was providing for her, such as paying the rent. Khalida, a recent immigrant from Pakistan, went against her parents’ wishes for an arranged marriage by choosing her own husband. 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. Yasmin, a young woman from Pakistan, came to England for an arranged marriage. The couple shared a flat with her married sister who became concerned about the young husband’s sexual demands, drunken-ness and affairs with other women. Trying to improve her sister’s marriage, she asked her own husband to intervene by talking to the younger man, but this led to Yasmin’s husband threatening Yasmin to keep her quiet. Social Isolation
Because of their partner’s controlling or violent behaviour, women often became isolated from their friends and family. Several women said their friends stopped seeing them as their partners’ behaviour was so hostile. Yasmin and Tanya became isolated from family and friends when their partners decided they should move to a new area. Women described how their partners manipulated family and friends, by presenting themselves in a positive light, spreading negative rumours about her and those close to her, or persuading her that family and friends no long cared. During the relationship most women socialised, if at all, only with their partner’s friends, who tended to take the partner’s side, even if they were aware of the abuse. Type of support offered: practical help
Family members provided practical help, especially at a time of crisis, even if they were unaware of the abusive relationship. Tanya went back to live with her mum when she left her partner for ten months. Jacqui’s son took her to hospital following an assault. Sara’s mum bought clothes for the children when she realised that her daughter’s partner gave her hardly any money. Kanya’s father took care of her when she returned to Thailand as a break from her partner in the UK. Both Liz and Stephanie received practical support to move house. Support to leave the relationship
Women found that getting help was easier once they were planning to leave or had left their abusive partner. Jane did not confide in her family until the relationship ended. Women described family members ‘rallying round’ once they had left the abusive relationship rather than during it. Once they had left, Jane and Lolita described the relief of being able to talk about the abuse, ‘a massive weight lifted’ off their shoulders. Jane ‘couldn’t stop crying’ and Lolita was relieved that her family were no longer being judgmental. Jacqui talked about her delight in being able to do ‘normal’ things with her daughter like going to the theatre since her abusive relationship ended.
Both Ana and Yasmin were migrant women living in relative isolation with few friends or family members nearby. For both women, meeting other mums at the school gate provided a crucial opportunity to get help to contact a Domestic Violence and Abuse agency and to leave their abusive partners. Chloe was 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. Chloe said she had ‘amazing support’ for the process of leaving from friends and family. She was able to ‘couch-surf’ at friends’ houses until she got her own place to live. Should family and friends speak out?
Many women said they would have liked family or friends to speak out sooner if they or their partner were behaving in ways that caused concern. They said it was good to know that others cared, even if they themselves were not yet ready to hear their concerns or to take action. Penny and Sara both wished that friends had spoken out when they saw what their partners were like. Catherine said that one friend wished that Catherine had mentioned more about the abuse she was experiencing. 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 is ‘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”’
Mandy’s mum openly told her daughter, before they got married, that there was something about her partner that she just did not like, but Mandy did not want to listen because at that point she thought he was ‘lovely’.
Women said that looking back they could see it was difficult for family and friends to mention their concerns when they had seemed happy in their relationship. Sara was glad her friend had spoken out even though two years went by before she was ready to take action. Sara’s friend could see her ‘dying inside’ during her marriage, and tried to talk to her about her relationship, but Sara was not yet ready to face up to the abuse and take action.
Last reviewed February 2020.