“TO THE outside world, he was perfect. He was a loving husband and loving father, he did everything for his family. It made it incredibly difficult at the end to say actually, he’s not.”

It took nearly a decade for Sarah, not her real name, to escape imaginary rules, aggression and no control over her own finances or life.

Sarah first met her partner as a teenager at school, before they later began a relationship as adults, going on to have two children together.

An abusive relationship, she now recognises, doesn’t always have to be a black eye or broken bone. 

It can be emotional abuse and controlling behaviour, something the mother-of-two accepted was just “normal”.

“For me it became so normal that that was how other people acted, it was just my life,” she said.

“There were rules that were never really said. I broke them a lot but I didn’t know what they were, didn’t even know that I could.

“It could have been anything, literally anything; the washing up might not have been done properly, I might not have cooked the right thing for dinner, might have been late to collect him from work. 

“I knew I was in for it the moment he came through the door. There was threats of violence, I was shoved up against walls, thrown out of the door literally, had stuff thrown at me.”

Becoming a mum changed Sarah, and it was this change where she noticed the difference between her and her partner’s behaviour.

Sarah never wanted to leave, but in the end she felt she had to; losing her friends and life as she knew it.
“The thing is, even though it is so hard to start again, it’s worth it. Everything I have been through I think that still it has been worth it.

“The lowest point was the day I had to tell my mum I hadn’t got any money to buy sanitary towels. I had nothing, money went on what he wanted.

“My mum, by that point, just came out with it. She was the one that found a [phone] number for an organisation, a domestic violence helpline. She was the one that made me phone them and get help.”

From then on, the shop assistant was kept in constant contact with the helpline. Making sure her children and herself were safe was the priority.

Sarah also found the process of realising she didn’t want to be with an abusive person anymore made her feel empowered.

“There was never any talk of leaving, or moving away, they [the helpline] aren’t there to tell you to leave they are there to make sure it was safe in whatever decision I made, that was the biggest thing.

“Probably the worst thing you could do is say ‘I’m going’ – they make sure to say not to do that.”

However, after a tipping point came around six months later, the mum waited for her partner to go to work before she packed her bags, took the children and left in a taxi arranged by the helpline.

The 33-year-old knew she was coming to Andover, a town she had no connection to, and she couldn’t think of anything worse than living in a refuge, which conjured up an image of a “horrendous” place in her mind.

However, Sarah recollected: “From the moment I arrived they are just the most friendly, lovely women in the town.

“My kids loved it, absolutely loved it, they saw it as a big house full of lots of friends. It was quite daunting at first, the first time I had been on my own for years.

“I spent the first couple of days crying my eyes out, that just didn’t last very long - that feeling of ‘oh my god what have I done’ - you don’t have time to feel that because everyone’s there and everyone’s in exactly the same thing.

“It becomes a big house full of family.” 

Sarah and her children lived at Andover Crisis and Support Centre for a year, and in that time the town became her home and other women she met in the centre became her friends.

The centre staff also helped set up a new bank account for account, benefits claims and help with budgeting, where to get furniture and anything else needed to help the family start over again.

Sarah added: “I was me again, and that was the biggest thing for me by being in there. I found the person that I lost.

“The biggest thing for me in the centre was making a dish that I knew would have been breaking a rule – fish fingers and chips – something so simple. I got it out of the oven thinking ‘oh my god I can eat that’. It is the best meal I have ever had.”

More than five years down the line, Sarah is confident to say “decent human beings” are out there having delved back into romance with a new “very lovely partner” and she continues to live in Andover.

She has also now begun the centre’s “Freedom programme”, a 12-week course to learn more about domestic abuse and build confidence, for the sixth time.

She added: “When you come out of an abusive relationship, it is quite easy to try and bury everything you have been through and five years down the line, it is not the best thing to do. 

“Every session we do have a good laugh, we can be crying one minute and the next minute be in absolute hysterics, over horrendous experiences.

“We don’t offer advice on anything but if you can offer a shoulder to cry on or a positive word, they might go out of it thinking ‘you know what, it is worth doing that’.”

Sarah now owns the experience she was once trapped by, and while the future looks bright, her eldest son is still on a two-and-a-half year waiting list for child counselling to deal with the impact of the abusive relationship.

Andover Crisis and Support Centre staff “don’t finish their job when you leave”, according to Sarah, and their child support worker is doing her best to support the family still.

For others out there that could be going through abuse, Sarah advised: “At the time it wasn’t something I wanted to even do. I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to start again. I couldn’t have thought of anything worse than living in a refuge. 

“Looking back now it is the best thing I have ever done.”

*This name is being used to protect the individual’s real identity.