TW: This article contains conversation about sensitive subjects.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), one in 20 adults experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2022. During winter months, domestic violence cases increase by an average of 38 percent in the UK. And during key sporting events, like the World Cup, existing abuse can intensify. When Express.co.uk mentioned this to Emma Armstrong, Head of Services at domestic abuse charity I Choose Freedom, she said the statistics didn’t surprise her. But while the 33-year-old helps hundreds of survivors of domestic abuse every year, she has a remarkable story of her own.
On its website, Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as “an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer”.
Although it wasn’t apparent at first, Emma’s ex-partner, Steve*, was coercive and controlling. She was with him for five years “on and off”, before ending the relationship in March 2013.
Love bombing and making Emma feel “like I was the most amazing person in the world” came first, quickly followed by “financial abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse” as the relationship progressed.
“Things moved very quickly, which at the time, I thought was great, and that he just was very keen to kind of be with me all the time,” Emma explained. “I saw that as a positive. But, obviously, now, I recognise that, actually, that is a red flag.”
Steve’s coercive, controlling behaviour played out in the way he would attempt suicide if Emma tried to leave the relationship. “Over the course of five years, there were multiple attempts at suicide, some that he faked,” the 33-year-old said. “There were times where I had to get into his bedroom because, again, he’d told me that he had [self-harmed] and had locked and blockaded the door.
“There were multiple attempts at overdoses. And there were a number of occasions when he tried to [self-harm]. The second to last incident, he was on a heart monitor for 48 hours, and they weren’t sure whether he was going to make it. But it was a mixture of fake attempts, and then actual real attempts, or, as he deemed, cries for help to get me back.”
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Emma went on to recall the time when she was packing her bags to finally leave the relationship. She had planned to leave in the morning, but Steve came home and attacked her.
“Seeing all my stuff packed up, he threw me on the bed and smashed up my phone,” she said. “And at this point, this was the seventh phone I’d had in that relationship. And he threw me against the wardrobe and kicked me.”
Luckily, Steve’s friend was with him and stopped him, saving Emma’s life.
Although her friends and family encouraged her to press charges, Emma was too afraid to go to the police. “I thought he would take his own life or attempt to, and I just carried the weight of feeling like it was my responsibility to keep him alive,” she said.
However, despite Emma’s fears, the police decided to caution Steve for domestic abuse with the coniditions not to contact his ex-partner directly or indirect.
A week later, Steve ended his life.
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Emma’s strife did not end with Steve’s death. “For seven years, I’ve had issues with his mum, who has blamed me for his death,” she said. “He left a suicide letter that blamed me. For at least five years, I blamed myself.”
After moving away, changing her contact number, changing her car, and “starting a life where I felt safer”, Emma qualified as a play therapist and worked with children at one of I Choose Freedom’s women’s refuges. After entering into the charity’s managerial department, her role is now Head of Services, which means she is responsible for the safeguarding of all clients.
I Choose Freedom currently supports 30 women and up to 60 children across three different sites. Families stay in a refuge for up to six months and receive varying levels of support, from emotional to practical. The charity’s employees help them to register at a GP, attend court visits with them, supervise police interviews, offer them counselling, and more. Supporting the children affected by abuse or by their mothers’ abuse is also a large part of the charity’s work. It aims to “give their childhood back to them”, Emma said.
But I Choose Freedom finds ways to continue to support families once they’ve left the charity’s loving arms too. Due to this year’s urgent cost-of-living crisis, it is giving some struggling households money to spend on winter fuel costs.
Although Emma described her job as “challenging”, and the traumas she listens to never fail to shock, upset, or anger her, she said it “is an absolute honour to say that I am able to make a difference to people’s lives every day”.
“And seeing a family – when they arrive – very broken, leaving six or eight months later whole and happy. Just seeing that transition is magical,” she added.
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But the refuge is more than a workplace to Emma. It is a haven that saved her life. After years of feeling guilty for her ex-partner’s death, she eventually acknowledged, through her work, that she was innocent. She also came to realise she had been subject to abuse, in many forms, during her relationship.
“I was suicidal myself, because I just couldn’t see a way out,” Emma recalled. “But the light bulb moment for me was having sexual abuse training at the refuge. That changed everything.
“The trainer told us that rape is not having the freedom to say no. I’d always thought that Steve never raped me because we were in a relationship. And I didn’t say no. I was too afraid to say no. That was a turning point for me because I acknowledged that I had been raped. I went from missing him [Steve], grieving him, and thinking it was my fault, to realising that, no, I wasn’t to blame. I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Now, Emma helps others notice the first signs of an abusive relationship. “I’ve trained police officers, judges, solicitors, midwives, nurses, and doctors to recognise the signs of coercive controlling behaviour,” she said. “I think it’s so important that we educate people on what it looks like to be in an abusive relationship, because the victim themselves may not be able to see it – and I didn’t for many years.
“A woman will leave her relationship seven times before she leaves for good. I know how incredibly hard it is to leave. And I think that’s what makes it so special working at the refuge – I get to be a huge part of their recovery and their journey to freedom. And I know how much that takes.”
The 33-year-old stressed that it is “never” the victim’s fault if they feel unable to leave a relationship. Just as it is never their fault that their partner is abusive in the first place.
“Domestic abuse is all about power and control,” she said. “There is never anything that the victim could have done differently.”
There are no excuses for abusive behaviour either. The World Cup isn’t an excuse. Mental illness isn’t an excuse. Emma listed more excuses, ending with grief. She referred to her ex-partner’s mother – how, when she sent Emma death threats and hacked into her Facebook account, the police labelled her as a “grieving, mentally unstable mother” and decided not to follow up on the 23 incidents that Emma had reported. Emma said she was told to “be kinder to her”.
“I felt hugely let down by the police’s actions,” Emma recalled. She went on to say she believes something needs to be done about the failures of the criminal justice system. Essentially, domestic abuse cases need to be taken more seriously.
She added. “Since I started at the refuge, nine years ago, only three cases have resulted in a criminal charge.”
Although Emma said violence against women “hasn’t got better” as “women are still being killed”, she believes more women are becoming aware of the support services they can use.
“Women are starting to understand that there is help available and they can reach out for it,” she reiterated. “There is support out there.”
*This name has been changed.
If you or anyone you know has been affected by the topics discussed in this article please visit the following websites for further resources and support.
Women’s Aid: www.womensaid.org.uk
I Choose Freedom: www.ichoosefreedom.co.uk
Rape Crisis England and Wales: www.rapecrisis.org.uk
If you or anyone you know is in immediate danger, please call the police on 999.