Many people think they know what domestic abuse looks like.
Some may have personal experience and with more awareness being raised about the different types of abuse, we’re hopefully moving towards a society which can recognise this and act on it. But what do the people in these relationships really go through? In this article, it's described, among other things, as being "the frog in the boiling water" analogy.
I sat down with Kate* and Sarah*, who both left their abusive relationships over 5 years ago and listened to them reflect on what is was really like, the struggles they faced leaving and how abusive relationships are layered, complex and affect people in different ways.
We’d like to thank these women for offering to discuss their experiences openly and honestly.
Content Advisory: This article contains detailed descriptions of abuse, derogatory language, drug taking and suicide.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of the contributors.
Thanks to both of you for joining me for this discussion. Could you start by telling me a little bit about how your relationships started?
Sarah: We got together about 5 years ago and we were together for a year, he was my friends’ brother, so I had known him awhile which gave a false sense of security. The relationship had lots of warning signs from the start. I should have listened to other people, but you always think they’re being overprotective. I also felt like we were really well-connected. We both had problems and I felt I could identify with him, that kind of brought us together.
Kate: My abusive relationship was about 7 years ago and the red flags were there, not as much as Sarah’s, but they were there. I thought it was just her personality. I was in a really vulnerable situation but oddly quite happy too, I was young. We met online and connected straight away.
And what were your partners like, at first?
Sarah: He seemed really caring and attentive. He sent me meaningful messages and as we’d both come from similar backgrounds and had our own struggles, so we bonded over this. However, he did quite early on, play the “victim” card and from the beginning, was working on me to create alternative stories and an image of him that wasn’t true. You feel like you can trust your judgement, but mine was so wrong. I’d been told he’d stolen money, been violent towards his ex-partners, he was a liar, he was a drug user who gambled. It sounds so daft that I thought “I want to be with this person” but when you’re in a place where you feel vulnerable and low, the fact I felt comfortable with him kind of over-rode anything else.
Kate: I thought she was quite cool and was flattered that she was interested in me. I actually think the reason we connected so well, was because she was trying to fill a hole in her life. From the beginning she constantly wanted my attention and was very jealous. We had a very intense sexual relationship, that was quite addictive.
Sarah: I think that’s actually quite common. With my relationship and others I’ve spoken to, there is often a strong sexual connection, a real attraction, it’s all so intense. Even that though is a bit much though! He’d often go too far and I’d think “he’s going to do something to me I don’t want him to” and then he’d stop himself. He was always pushing it, but that really strong connection kept me going back, I haven’t had that with other people.
Did your partners have much to do with your friends or family?
Sarah: He was my friend’s brother so sort of. He didn’t have a lot of friends or go out a lot.
Kate: Some of my friends did like her, most didn’t understand her. My family did not, but I just thought they didn’t like the fact I was with a woman, but actually they really just didn’t like her.
Sarah: How did she interact with your family?
Kate: She made an effort sometimes but in general she was “off”. I thought she was just a nervous person. A few months into being with her, I tried to call it off because of these red flags, but she wouldn’t let me. She encouraged me to believe we could make it work… then it just spiralled out of control.
"He sent me meaningful messages and as we’d both come from similar backgrounds and had our own struggles, so we bonded over this."
How did it spiral out of control?
Kate: It started subtly with her trying to control what I would wear, telling me things wouldn’t “suit me”, I started throwing stuff out I’d had for ages, wearing my hair a way she preferred. It was these little bits of controlling behaviour that started to escalate, and I was like the frog sitting in the water as it boiled, I didn’t realise it was happening.
Sarah: What did you think about all this stuff at the time?
Kate: I was just really naïve. I just thought she wanted to help me be a better me and after being together a few months, I moved to London to be with her and I just had a horrible time there – everything started going wrong with my new flatmates and my job as well. It was this rollercoaster of trauma to trauma. I was so isolated from family and friends and the more I tried to gain autonomy and independence, the heavier the weight of her control became. We got together in November and by Spring she’d beat the s**t out of me. I had to find comfort in this world I’d created with her, but the world just felt so small to me.
Sarah: What’s she like?
Kate: That’s hard to describe. She’s insecure and kind of manic when she loses control. She screamed a lot and threw things around and would scratch at things. She was like a child trapped in an adult’s body, rather than a coercive, organised abuser. It was still hell, can’t believe I then moved in with her.
Kate, when you moved in with her, did you have concerns about her behaviour?
Kate: Hmm… well, before I moved in with her, I’d actually moved from London and gone back home to Wales after she beat me up, but I didn’t tell anyone that was why. At home I was bored and disengaged, so I started seeing her again – it was easy for her to pull me back in. I was stuck in a cycle and I felt like I had no other option but to move in with her. People close to me started to label my relationship as “drama”. Nobody sat me down to help me, I think they thought I was as bad as her because I kept going back. I thought moving in with her might help things, I just totally blamed myself for all of it for years. Six months after moving in with her, I left her. But even then, I still hadn’t left, I was stuck in a cycle of this for about 3 years.
Sarah: What was the worst thing she would do?
Kate: Erm, she’d scream and beat me up if she thought I was cheating on her. She’d also stalk me at my flat and work and laugh at me almost manically… it reminded me of the Joker on Batman which sounds funny, but it wasn’t. She tried to control my clothes, who I was friends with, my interests.
After I broke up with her and moved out, I tried to get on my feet but I kept getting sucked back in. One night she took a bunch of drugs and kept contacting me, it made me really worried about her, I had this fear of her being dead in a ditch somewhere and it being my fault. I found her and she was fine. She just tried to ruin anything nice I had planned that wasn’t with her.
Sarah: Sounds like any chance you had of getting away she just stopped it, so you eventually didn’t have a choice.
Kate: Yeah, every time. I don’t even know if it was intentional, she was just out of control. I think she loved me, but in a really unhealthy way. What’s the worst thing he did?
Sarah: At the start he didn’t like it when I went out with friends, he wouldn’t stop me but he’d make comments like “oh, I thought you were seeing me, why can’t we spend more time together” – he’d make me feel guilty. I didn’t stop going out, but I toned it down… I tried to pick times when he wasn’t around. He’d always be phoning me, messaging me and if I didn’t reply straight away he’d flip out and message my mum saying I was cheating on him and I was a slag and a slut. I eventually started to feel like I couldn’t talk to any other guys – I started monitoring my own behaviour and went into myself.
"It was these little bits of controlling behaviour that started to escalate, and I was like the frog sitting in the water as it boiled, I didn’t realise it was happening."
Kate: I went into myself too… I became a completely different person.
Sarah: Yeah, I wouldn’t talk to anyone if I was out. I’d feel uncomfortable with men at work and I started to get wary about what I was doing. He played on insecurities I already had. My friends would ask me why I wasn’t coming out and I would explain “It’s not because HE doesn’t want me to, it’s because I don’t want to”.
He’d also turn up to anywhere I went without him. Once he followed me to a festival with my friends and told all my friends he was going to kill himself because I was out. He followed me home and I was so drunk, I don’t remember what happened, but when I woke up, he was next to me. My neighbour spoke to me the next day and said she heard me screaming during the night. I can’t remember any of it really. I had tried to split up with him at that point, which is why he’d followed me.
Kate: Was he physically or financially abusive?
Sarah: Hmmm… yeah. Around 3 or 4 weeks into our relationship there was an incident where he chased me down the street and pinned me against my car, there’s still a mark in it now. I hardly remember it at all, but he told me I started it. I just remember screaming and shouting to try to get him off me, he was so angry. He also moved into my house even though I didn’t agree to it. He wasn’t working and I’d give him money because he said he’d pay me back. At this point, I couldn’t get rid of him.
Sometimes he would pull his fist back and shout in my face when we argued. He’d tell me he was going to smash my face in, smash up my windows, slit my throat. These were intense threats but he never did those things. He was aggressive though, he would grab me by the throat and push me around – he once grabbed a knife and stabbed his own hand. I never knew how far he was going to go – he’d flip from a nice person to an absolute monster.
One of the problems is that if you’ve been around violence when you’re younger… that is normal for you. Especially if your friends have similar relationships too.
Would you agree Kate?
Kate: I think you don’t know what a safe, healthy or happy relationship looks like until you’re in one. Even if you’re not in an abusive or toxic environment, even if it’s just unhealthy, if you don’t know what healthy or safe looks like… you haven’t got a comparison. The longer time goes on, the more I look back and think “that was messed up”. I also think if you move in circles where people have healthier relationships, they’d look at your situation and say “no, this is a load of s**t and we gotta get you out”.
I think mine and Sarah’s exs are quite different too. When she hit me it wasn’t like she was trying to hurt me, it was just like she was so out of control and I was just the thing that was in front of her.
Sarah, you mentioned your ex-partner would take money from you, can you tell us more about this?
Sarah: By the end of my relationship, he owed me about £3,000, which was from all these smaller bits that built up. He’d get money off me by playing a victim that needed the financial support and I was the one who would step in and rescue him. It was in my nature to not want to see people struggle and he wouldn’t look after himself.
Kate: My ex wouldn’t look after herself either. A few months into us dating, I noticed all her friends were starting to disappear with no explanation. I thought “is that my fault?” and I kept pushing her to see her friends but one by one they all distanced themselves from her, until she only had a couple left and they weren’t particularly healthy friendships or reliable people. I thought it was my fault and I felt responsible for her.
Sarah: That’s the thing, when you feel responsible for someone, but you want to leave them, you wonder what’s then going to happen to them. They’ll also clearly make that point to you – if you leave me, I’ll have nothing.
Kate: Yeah… so you feel like you can’t leave and every time you try to navigate it, in a healthy or productive way, you just end up in their spiral of toxicity and it doesn’t get anywhere.
Sarah: You can’t see the wood for the trees.
Kate: Yes! That’s a perfect way of putting it.
When did you realise you were in an abusive relationship?
Sarah: I think it’s when I’d found drugs in my house and I knew he’d been lying to me about getting clean. I thought to myself – no, that’s it. I’m going. If he’d lied to me about this, it’s all probably a lie. I tried to leave him but kept going back, it was during that time that I could see it - he’s violent, he steals from me, I don’t see my friends anymore. I could see it but I couldn’t get out of it. Before then, I thought I’d had some control, but then I realised… no, I’m powerless.
Kate: I kept going back too. To be honest, I realised after the whole thing. It sounds crazy but she’d always apologise, say she knew her behaviour was wrong. But then again, when time passed, she tried to justify her behaviour. Only in the past few years have I been able to reflect on what happened properly and accept it was an abusive relationship. At the time I just thought we were bad for each other.
"One of the problems is that if you’ve been around violence when you’re younger… that is normal for you. Especially if your friends have similar relationships too."
You both mentioned you kept returning to the relationship, can you tell us a bit more about that and what were the main struggles with leaving?
Sarah: Well, when I tried to leave him, I started getting notes on my car, following me, begging to see me, offering to pay me the money back. I did need the money so I met him for that but as soon as I saw him face to face, it all just started again.
Kate: The same thing happened with me in the sense of… when I’d see her, it would just all start happening again.
Sarah: Yeah, they reel you back in don’t they? He told me he’d get help, so I went back to him. That’s when I realised I was in a BIG mess. I would say about once a month for a year I tried to leave.
Kate: I took way longer. Three months in I tried to leave and couldn’t, so the years passed. I eventually did leave after a few years and just had to be really strong about it, even when she’d be unpacking my bags, screaming, throwing things, stalking me, threatening to kill herself. I cried all the way through it and had to look at myself in the mirror every day and convince myself to stick to it – to leave. When I finally left, people in my life did step up. I really do wish somebody held some sort of intervention before that though.
Sarah: What would you have needed them to say or do?
Kate: I… god I don’t know. I think I actually needed what arrived in my life years’ later with a new support network. I made friends with people who had a good read on the situation and understood it better than me. I also pushed myself for different things – moved to a different city, got a new job, a new apartment, a new life. These new people and this new life I built for myself became strong enough that eventually I could stay in it and never go back.
How did your ex-partners respond, when you tried to end things?
Sarah: He started threatening to commit suicide and sent me message after message. The fear he would actually do something was just awful. I rang his friends and family and called the police who went looking for him. I finally got through to his boss, he was at work and he was fine. He’d totally played me.
I rang the Domestic Violence Helpline because I was so scared and worried. That was actually really helpful, it reassured me that I wasn’t crazy. I never even told my family what was going on, they weren’t very supportive of me and none of my friends liked him and I’d gone back so many times they didn’t want to hear it anymore.
Kate: She stalked me too and kept pulling me back in. When I finally cut off all contact she spread horrible rumours about me. I never responded to any of this, I don’t actually talk about this publicly. I just stay away from it all for my own sanity.
Were any authorities or agencies involved at all?
Kate: No, I didn’t go the police because I didn’t think it was actually abuse at the time, I literally wouldn’t have known what to say. Afterwards, it didn’t feel worth it, I just wanted to escape as far away as I could.
Sarah: Yes, I’d called the helpline and the police were involved. I didn’t find the police very helpful, I felt blamed for going back to him.
Do you think your ex-partner has awareness of their behaviour?
Sarah: Yes. I think he thinks he is a victim though, of his own lifestyle and choices. He’d be aware, because every time he said “sorry” he’d list what he did wrong. That was something that actually pulled me back – he was able to be so open about the problem. But, he never followed through on those things.
Kate: I’m not 100% sure, I haven’t seen her in years. From what I’ve heard, she’s created this kind of convoluted narrative that includes a lot of lies. I think she’s built a fake idea of what happened in her head so she can deal with it. I think she blames me because I left and went back so many times.
Sarah: Well you do leave and go back, you leave and go back and then they blame you for that.
Kate: Yeah but actually… we’re not the problem. That’s not the problem. The problem is their behaviour.
"I think you don’t know what a safe, healthy or happy relationship looks like until you’re in one."
From portrayals of domestic violence in the media, people can often be experiencing or perpetrating domestic abuse but not realise that’s what it is. Do you think domestic abuse “looks” one particular way?
Sarah: I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s always clear cut what a perpetrator of abuse looks like.
Kate: I don’t think there is either. I’m happy the discourse is changing and moving forward. The story is never set, it’s always so layered. Especially with LGBT domestic abuse… it can look different so more awareness of this is necessary. I think part of the reason I didn’t recognise what was happening was because it was two women, in some ways, those relationships are very different.
Is being a victim or survivor part of your identity? Do you characterise yourself in this way?
Sarah: Because this wasn’t my first abusive relationship, I identified with being a victim before I got together with him. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I got together with him. When I was with him I was reading stuff about being a survivor and I started to identify more with being a survivor. I think when you’re a survivor you’re not in it anymore, you’re out of it. Being a victim was keeping me in those feelings and making me feel powerless and helpless. Shifting that perspective to a survivor one helped me feel strong enough to get out of it. I do actually think the terminology can make you stronger. That being said, the term “survivor” doesn’t quite fit me. I don’t think I “survived”, but… it’s more positive than being a victim.
Kate: I find these labels difficult, whilst they’re useful for others, they’re not really for me. I didn’t realise I was a victim when I was in it. Yes, I was a victim to her behaviours, but I really struggle with the idea that I was a “victim” because I guess I feel like it wasn’t abusive enough for me to claim that identity. I definitely don’t regard myself as a survivor because it doesn’t feel like my situation was big enough to warrant that. I don’t judge others, but for me… I don’t feel I’ve done enough to deserve a survivor status. I just don’t fit these narratives or boxes, it just makes me uncomfortable.
Sarah: Isn’t it interesting how different people see it? They’re just two words aren’t they. They were powerful for me at the time.
Where are you at in your life now? Do you still think about it all?
Sarah: So, this is the thing. There was an addictive element to my relationship, so I do think about him but I haven’t seen him in years. I’ve tried to have healthy relationships since then, but I’m still having counselling to work through things. I’m still working out what I want. But, I have a good job, I have self-respect, I hardly drink. I’m in a better place.
Kate: I haven’t seen her in years, but she sometimes comes up in my dreams. I only think about it in the sense that I have this fairytale idea of closure where you sit down and talk it all out with someone and then move on with your life. I used to wish that I could do that and she’d take some responsibility, but not anymore, it’s not realistic. I also of course have to make sure I avoid anywhere she might be, so I think about her then, which is rare as we live in totally different places now. In my life, I’m in a healthy relationship, have a good job, a supportive network, I’m happy.
"None of my friends liked him and I’d gone back so many times they didn’t want to hear it anymore"
What advice would you give to somebody in a similar situation to you were, who wants to leave the relationship?
Kate: I have loads! Where do I start?! Block them on social media. I avoided it because I was scared it would create chaos, but if you remove yourself entirely from the situation as much as possible, you become somewhat inaccessible – give that gift of peace and safety to yourself if you can. Go off the radar if you have to, move house, move cities, become somebody new.
Sarah: The more you seek support and the more people you tell, the easier it becomes to move away from the person. Although you think telling people will make it worse, it’s must be pretty bad anyway if you’re feeling scared and trapped. The more knowledge you have about your options, the more able you will be to plan to get away from it and it’ll help you feel stronger in yourself. The best thing I ever did was call the police when he told me he was going to kill himself. I was really scared but it allowed somebody else to take responsibility for it and help me.
Kate: I wish I’d gone to seek some professional help, like a counsellor or relationships service and confided that I think I’m in a bad relationship. I could have started to understand what was happening quicker. Also what helped me was writing things down, I started to keep track of things. I know that can be difficult if they’re checking your phone, but find somewhere to do it. It helps you keep track if you need evidence, but I mainly used it to see patterns and make sure I wasn’t going insane.
Sarah: I think it also helps to read up on abusive relationships and the different types of abuse. Understanding this can help you see things more clearly. You get told trying to leave is the most dangerous time and that can be scary. But that’s why trying to get support and logging everything is key. If it does get really difficult and you have to make a case against them, you need that information saved.
You can use Clare’s Law, which is a Law that means if you’re in a relationship with someone and you’re concerned they may be a perpetrator of abuse, you can confidentially contact the police and request any information they have on them. I would do this as soon as possible, because if you leave them or you’re in that cycle of trying to leave them and regard them as your ex-partner, you can’t access that information.
Lastly, the best think I did was decide my freedom was more important than the money owed to me. If this keeps you going back, try to find a way around it so you can let it go. Prioritise your safety.
Kate: Know that when you leave, it will probably be difficult. But just try to do it. Just because it feels bad, it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision. You may come out of this looking bad, you have to ignore what they say, push through every hour and every day and every month – you will get through it.
Please note: the descriptions outlined within this interview are the views and experiences of the participants. At TLC: Talk, Listen, Change we know that experiences of domestic abuse can be different for every person. If you have concerns about your relationship and would like information, please visit our Useful Links page here.
Or, if you are unsure about yours or somebody else's behaviour, or have been affected by anything you read in this article, please don't hesitate to book a Counselling Appointment with us here.