Domestic Abuse – An NHS self help guide
Dealing with physical, sexual or emotional abuse from those close to you
These are the stories of three people who have experienced domestic violence/abuse from their partner:
“I’ve had a knife to my throat, he threw all of my stuff out of the house, he has kicked my car door off. I was isolated, I lost a lot of friends. It was torrents of verbal abuse. I wasn’t allowed out, I couldn’t speak to people. I didn’t feel capable of doing anything at the time, it just chips away at your self-esteem”.
Things were great at first, but when we moved in together they began to change. She started to check my emails, texts and Facebook account, and insisted I end friendships with people she didn’t like. She hated me working as a nurse so eventually it was easier to pack it in, especially when our son was born. Her first assault on me left me with a broken nose, and she has since thrown plates and pans, even a lap top. I feel stupid and embarrassed to be in this situation.
“The worst abuse was more emotional. It was very subtle, little put-downs. He started controlling the money. I wouldn’t have any money to buy things for myself. He was timing me when I did go out and asking me “Who’ve you been talking to?” If I spoke, I was talking rubbish and I wasn’t to speak. He used to keep the car away from me and he wouldn’t let me have contact with my family. He said I was thick and stupid and I would never get a job, nobody would want me. I honestly thought I was going mad”.
What is domestic abuse?
Domestic abuse is also known as domestic violence, and is much wider than physical violence alone. On December 29th 2015 a new criminal offence of domestic abuse “coercive and controlling behaviour” came into force, and one study found that 95 out of 100 domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing coercive control.
The definition of domestic violence and abuse is: any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. It can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: emotional, physical, sexual, financial. Stalking behaviour is also considered to be domestic abuse when carried out by partner/ ex -partner. Cases of forced marriage and so called ‘honour killings’ are also domestic abuse.
If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may be in an abusive relationship.
Does your partner/family member ever:
- Belittle you, or put you down?
- Blame you for the abuse or arguments?
- Deny that abuse is happening, or play it down?
- Isolate you from your family and friends?
- Stop you going to college or work?
- Make unreasonable demands for your attention?
- Accuse you of flirting or having affairs?
- Tell you what to wear, who to see, where to go, and what to think?
Threats and intimidation
Does your partner / family member ever:
- Threaten to hurt or kill you?
- Destroy things that belong to you?
- Stand over you, invade your personal space?
- Threaten to kill themselves or the children?
- Read your emails, texts or letters?
- Harass or follow you?
- Send you threatening texts or emails
- Make you feel afraid?
Does your partner/family member ever:
- Slap, hit or punch you?
- Push or shove you?
- Bite or kick you?
- Burn you?
- Choke you or hold you down?
- Throw things?
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, whatever their gender identity. Does your partner ever:
- Touch you in a way you don’t want to be touched?
- Make unwanted sexual demands?
- Hurt you during sex?
- Pressure you to have unsafe sex – for example, not using a condom?
- Pressure you to have sex?
Does your partner/ family member ever:
- Keep cash and credit cards from you?
- Make you account for everything you spend?
- Prevent you from working?
- Take money from you?
- control your money, or not give you enough to buy food or other essential things?
There are many different kinds of abuse, but it’s always about having power and control.
Who is this guide for?
This guide is for anyone who is affected by domestic abuse, whatever their gender identity. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of age, race, occupation or social class. Because the majority of people experiencing domestic abuse are female, we have tended to use the pronoun ‘she’, but most of the information in this guide applies to any gender.
How might this guide help me?
This guide describes what domestic abuse is, how to recognise it and how you might seek help if it is happening to you.
There is a lot of information in this guide and it may be helpful to listen to it several times, or to listen to it a bit at a time, to get the most from it.
You have the right to live free from violence or fear. But the most important thing is for you to be as safe as possible. If you are worried that someone could find this guide, you might want to put it in a safe place or leave it with another person that you trust.
How common is domestic abuse?
- One woman in four will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.
- One man in six will suffer from domestic abuse in their lifetime.
- 8% of women and 4% of men aged between16-59 surveyed in England and Wales said they had experienced domestic abuse within the last year (approximately 2 million people).
- On average the police receive an emergency call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds.
- Four out of five victims do not report partner abuse to the police, although figures show an increase in reporting in recent years.
- Over 200,000 elderly people (60-74) experienced domestic abuse in 2017/18
- On average two women a week are killed in domestic-violence related attacks.
- On average the police receive an emergency call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds.
- On average two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales.
Who is likely to be a victim of domestic abuse?
The simple answer is domestic abuse can happen to anyone. However, we know that:
- Most domestic abuse happens to women.
- Some men also experience domestic abuse.
- Younger women, women who are pregnant and women who have young children are more at risk, but domestic abuse also happens to older people.
- Domestic abuse happens in some lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) relationships.
Why might I find it difficult to believe that what I am experiencing is domestic abuse?
Perhaps you are beginning to think that you are a victim of domestic abuse, and it has been going on for some time, but you haven’t realised it.
There are lots of reasons why this might be the case:
- You may not want to believe that these things are happening to you.
- Your relationship may be affectionate at times.
- You may love the person who is abusing you.
- You may have been persuaded that this isn’t abuse.
- You may have been abused before and think it is “normal”.
Why don’t people always seek help or support?
Even if you do recognise that you are being abused, you may find it difficult to do anything about it. In fact, it is very common for people to live with domestic abuse for years before seeking help.
There are lots of reasons why you might not have done anything about the abuse:
- Perhaps you think that people might not believe you.
- There may not seem to be an alternative.
- You may feel that nothing can be done to help you.
- You may have had bad experiences of others not wanting to get involved.
- You may feel too afraid to seek help or support.
- Perhaps you hope that the relationship will improve.
- You may fear being judged by other people.
- You may think that you will lose your friends.
- You may feel ashamed or guilty.
- You may love the person who is abusing you and not want to get them into trouble.
- You may be afraid that your children could be taken into care or that they could lose their home.
- Perhaps you don’t know what help is available (this guide can help you to find out).
What sort of thoughts may stop someone seeking help or leaving?
People who are being abused may try to make excuses for their partner (or other abuser), or they may think of other reasons why they should put up with the abuse. You may have had thoughts like this yourself:
“It’s my fault”.
FACT: It never is, no-one deserves to be abused in a relationship that is meant to be based on love and respect.
“It will stop soon”.
FACT: Abuse tends to continue, and if anything, gets worse.
“They are only abusive when they drink”.
FACT: Alcohol is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.
“I wouldn’t be able to leave or cope on my own”.
FACT: People often lose their confidence as a result of abuse. But many people do leave, and with the right help and support feel much better in the long run.
“I can’t deprive my children of their parent and home.”
FACT: Children are always affected by domestic abuse. They need to feel safe.
“I love my partner and he loves me”.
FACT: Abuse has no place in a loving relationship.
“If I tell anyone, my children will be taken into care”.
FACT: Telling other people that you are being abused does not automatically mean that your children will be taken into the care of the local authority. This would only occur if your children were being neglected or were at risk of physical or sexual abuse.
What do people think about domestic abuse?
Most people nowadays know that domestic abuse is never acceptable, and can happen to anyone, but there may be a few people in the community who believe in some old myths. You might have come across these. They are very unhelpful and completely untrue:
“Domestic abuse only happens in working class, unemployed or problem families”.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone.
“It can’t be that bad or she would leave. She must really enjoy being treated in an abusive way”.
People may stay with an abusive partner for a number of reasons; they may love their partner or be afraid to leave their partner. Victims may not have told anyone about the abuse because they think no one would believe them. They may have nowhere to go or no money to leave. They may be concerned for their children’s welfare, even if they take their children away from the abuser. They may not leave because they think they may become isolated and are frightened to live on their own.
“She must ask for it/deserve it/provoke it”.
No-one deserves to be beaten, harmed, humiliated, controlled or treated without dignity or respect. Someone may blame them self for being abused but there is no justification for violence and abuse.
“It isn’t really domestic abuse because it doesn’t happen all the time”.
It doesn’t matter whether you experience abuse daily, weekly, monthly or infrequently – it is still abuse.
Has my own behaviour changed to try and cope with the abuse?
You might find that you are:
- Staying at home and not wanting to leave the house.
- Not socialising with friends or family because your partner doesn’t like it.
- Relying on your partner for money/having little control over finances.
What other problems might I have?
You might find that you experience:
- Low mood, sadness, tearfulness.
- Irritability, poor concentration.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Appetite loss or weight gain.
- Despair or a sense of hopelessness.
- Have flashbacks to the abuse.
- Thoughts of harming yourself or suicide.
- Feeling anxious, a strong sense of dread, or having panic attacks.
There are further guides in this series on dealing with these specific difficulties. Titles include: Depression and Low Mood, Social Anxiety, Sleep Problems, Panic, Stress, Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it is important that you think about whether these problems may be happening because of abuse. For example, you may feel depressed, anxious and have low self-esteem because of someone being psychologically and/or physically abusive towards you.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or of suicide you should seek help from your GP or other health professional immediately.
If my partner only does these things occasionally, am I still being abused?
Domestic abuse can vary in how often it happens and what actually happens. You may not think you are a victim of domestic abuse because there is no obvious pattern to the abuse. It might not happen every day or every week or even every month. Some people who experience domestic abuse don’t suffer physical harm very often, but they may be emotionally abused daily. You may have been forced into unwanted sex frequently or over a long period of time. You may have not had control over money for a long time. Your partner may tell you that he is sorry after incidents and that he will not behave in an abusive way again.
Domestic abuse can start at any point in a relationship. However, research shows that marriage, pregnancy and childbirth often mark the beginning of abuse, which usually continues once it has started.
Sometimes abuse shows a cycle. Does this happen to you?
Tension Building refers to times when your partner is critical of you – your relationship is difficult, and it may feel that a big argument is brewing. Following this time, abusive behaviour becomes worse and may be followed by a violent incident. After such an incident, your partner may become very sorry and they may promise that the abuse and violence will never happen again. This better behaviour may lead you to forget about the seriousness of the abuse but will not stop the cycle from beginning again.
If domestic abuse is affecting me, who can I tell?
If you think that you are experiencing domestic abuse, it can be helpful to tell someone about it so that you can receive support or help.
There are people who will listen to you, believe you and help you. You can use confidential phone lines (such as the National Domestic Violence Helpline) and local services to talk about your difficulties or you can talk to your GP, Health Visitor, Midwife, District or Practice Nurse, Community Psychiatric Nurse, Social Worker or Psychological Therapist if you are seeing any of these people.
Remember that abuse, violence and rape are crimes, and you can report them to the police.
What do people who have experienced abuse say they find helpful?
People who have been affected by domestic abuse say that the following things have been helpful to them when they have tried to deal with an abusive partner:
- Having a safe place to go.
- Support from friends, family, and professionals.
- Practical help with transport to appointments, money advice and advocacy, childcare provision (e.g. Crèche facilities).
- Early helpful responses from professionals.
- Time and privacy with friends and professionals.
- Someone to understand your point of view, taking your side, offering sympathy and empathy.
- Clear information about sources of support.
- Accurate legal, housing, financial and other advice.
- Someone to be supportive even if you cannot act quickly or consistently.
- Knowing you are not alone and talking to people who have been through similar experiences.
What do people who have experienced abuse say they found unhelpful?
People who have experienced abuse say that unhelpful actions and attitudes include:
- Others blaming the victim or not taking the situation seriously.
- Others blaming the victim for not protecting their children.
- Tolerance of domestic abuse and violence by society.
- Not having a safe place to go.
- Having no one to confide in.
- Professionals not asking about domestic abuse.
- Professionals, friends and family not recognising that domestic abuse is unacceptable.
- Being isolated.
What can I do to deal with the abuse?
To make a change you need to:
- See that there is a problem.
- Think of doing something about the situation.
- Talk to someone.
- Prepare to do something about the situation.
- Make things happen.
- Keep on with the changes you have made and try and stay
Making changes often needs you to tell a trusted friend, family member or colleague. Or, you may confide in your GP, Health visitor, a solicitor or a support agency.
Victim Support may be able to help in a practical way, with childcare or money. You may need to spend time discussing the pros and cons of different options before making decisions.
To deal effectively with domestic abuse may not necessarily mean that you have to end the relationship with the person who is abusive towards you. The problem of abuse may be stopped by support and mediation if both parties are willing to try this. No agency expects you to leave your partner in order to receive help and support from them.
However, you may decide yourself that you do need to leave your home to stop an abusive relationship. This may be very difficult for you and your family but may be the only safe option. There are agencies that can help you to find somewhere to live, and provide financial and practical help and emotional support for you and your children, if you have them.
How can I keep myself safe?
If you do decide to leave your home, you will need to consider your own and your children’s safety during this time. It is extremely important to stay safe and make sure you have the support and legal measures you may need to do so.
- Two women per week on average in the UK are killed in domestic-violence related incidents.
- Being separated from an abusive partner doesn’t always reduce risk of harm, and can in fact increase it.
- 35% of households where there is domestic violence have a second incident within five weeks of the first.
How can I plan to be safer during a violent incident?
You might want to think about some or all of these strategies:
- Plan which stairs, doors, windows you would use if you needed to leave your home in a hurry.
- Where could you keep your purse, bag, car keys, medication etc., so you could pick them up quickly if you needed to?
- Leave an extra set of house keys with a trusted friend or family member, so that you can come back later to collect belongings.
- You could warn or tell a neighbour that if they hear suspicious noises or shouting coming from the house that they have your permission to phone the police.
- Think about whose home you would go to, or take the phone number of the local Women’s Aid Refuge or local housing department, so that you can arrange emergency accommodation.
- Contact the police – telephone 999, if you are able to do so.
- Teach your children to call the 999 number in a crisis and tell them to give their name and address and telephone number.
How can I plan to be safer when preparing to leave home?
If you have decided that you need to leave your home or your partner, you will need to plan some things in advance. Even if you are only intending to leave home for a short while, you may need to take the following with you. Make a list of what you think you would need and tick them off on the list to be sure you have everything you need ready.
- Money – including change for phone calls and transport to a safe place.
- Emergency phone numbers of friends and family.
- Emergency phone numbers of services
- Benefit payment cards.
- NHS number.
- Bank books.
- Rent book.
- Marriage and birth certificates.
- Driving licence.
- Court injunctions or court orders.
- Spare house keys.
- Any medication you need for yourself or for your children.
- Your children’s favourite possessions or toys, your own sentimental items.
- You may want to leave an ‘emergency bag’ with a trusted friend or family member in case you do leave, containing toiletries and a change of clothes.
- Your mobile phone, charger and top-up card.
Do people manage to stop domestic abuse?
Yes – these are the stories of how some women dealt with domestic abuse:
“I would bury my head in the sand. I didn’t know how to cope, what to do. I started off going to see a doctor. I needed help, I knew I was in trouble. I went to the doctor, said I’m in trouble, I had never told a professional before. Then I found out about women’s domestic violence groups and went there. I got a lot of help from them, a lot of courage. The worker talked me through it. Listening to other people’s stories, you did not feel totally and wholly alone”.
“The first people I called were the police. Then I rang the council, told them what happened, went to the solicitor and Victim Support. I knew I needed money, so I rang the benefits agency. I started going to the women’s group, and go and have a chat, like counselling. The counsellor told me “it was his fault, it wasn’t mine”. I was able to tell her how I was feeling”
Here are some examples of how women left their abusive partners and how they felt after leaving:
“I wouldn’t put up with stuff like that now. I feel strong because I have had two children; I have to be the provider for them. I’ve got to look after them, make sure they’re loved and nurtured. I want to get my own business going, I want them to go on holidays and have nice things. I want to do some living now”.
“I’m just so happy, happier that I’ve left him. I’ve never been happier. I love being single, I love living here. I’m going to start my GCSE’s, I’ll do my Access course, then after that I’ll do my degree. I’ll do it because I want to, I really do. I’m taking driving lessons. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, leaving him. I don’t have any regrets at all. I’m really happy and things are looking up”.
The process of dealing with an abusive relationship is not easy but there are people who can help you. Although it may be difficult to ask for help, there are organisations and professionals who can help and support you at your own pace whether you choose to leave your abusive partner or not.
Who can I contact if I need help?
In an emergency you should always dial 999
A list of useful contacts, books and references are available in the written version of this guide.
- Dr Lesley Maunder and Lorna Cameron, Consultant Clinical Psychologists.
- Janet Bostock, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
- Maureen Plumpton, Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
- Staff and service users at Northumberland Domestic Abuse Services (NDAS)
Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust has developed this resource with the support of NHS healthcare staff, service users and local voluntary sector groups.