Helping women who are refusing to be abused: Stage 4 Stage 4 Clare Murphy PhDStage 4 of making change is the time when new actions take place. Dienemann and colleagues (2007) suggest this stage in women’s relationships in which men abuse and control them, entails breaking away from their relationship – or – it entails the man curtailing his abuse and control.

This is a time when women assess how safe it is to stay or how safe it is to go. Either choice may be frightening, but during this stage women are more willing to commit to putting themselves first to enhance safety. If a woman is in a psychologically controlling relationship where there is not physical violence – this still entails a great deal of fear. Ongoing systematic long-term abuse and control means women may lose themselves, lose confidence and come to doubt themselves. The man’s non-physical tactics of control can also involve making threats – threatening to harm or kill pets, family or friends. So never doubt that safety and fear are issues for many women at this juncture.

Facing religious beliefs and social prejudices

Women with religious beliefs that prioritise loyalty to the male partner may battle with guilt and feelings of sin. It requires courage for women to re-prioritise such values and shift her wellbeing to a higher position on her list of values. However, feelings of anger, and the need to regain power and control over her own life, are drivers that help women take self-determined action to care for themselves at this point.

Social prejudices also create problems for women who leave their partner (whether he is abusive or not). My research shows that many women lose friends when they leave their partner. Some people now consider her a threat – as if she is back on the sexual ‘market’ and will take away someone’s husband. This suspicion, on the part of others, causes disruption in women’s lives, for instance, one woman who left her psychologically controlling husband told me that a man who used to help with car pooling children to school was prevented, by his wife, from continuing to do so.

With the enormous numbers of single parents in our contemporary society, you might assume that there will be no social prejudices for women becoming sole mothers. But research shows this is not the experience for many women. Institutions, such as social support agencies that provide benefits for single mothers, can show prejudice and so can many ignorant bystanders who consider single mothers to be low on the social hierarchy.

Change can cause chaos

If a woman leaves her partner, it still does not mean she is safe, nor does it mean she will remain separated. She might experience emotional turmoil. I liken such change to the chaos that road works create. Before road works begin there are problems with the flow or safety of traffic. The road works are a short-term messy dusty noisy costly business aimed at creating a new safer road that eases traffic problems long-term.

Despite the chaos many women might experience when they start making big changes, this stage is a lot easier for family and friends who want to help, because women are more determined to seek and accept help and they are more able to reject what is not helpful.

How you can help during this time of major change:

  • Affirm the woman’s right to stay in a relationship, and affirm her right to become single
  • Help women connect with their strengths and courage
  • Remember if she leaves, some men will continue to abuse and control her – Don’t blame her if she returns
  • Don’t shame her if she makes decisions you disagree with
  • Let her talk through issues she might have to face: loneliness, financial problems, social stigma of being a single mother, possible stalking, or intimidation, or physical harm by her ex-partner
  • Ask women what small things you can do or say to help her create a new life – whether that is making changes in the relationship, or developing a life outside of the relationship


  • Burman, Sondra. (2003). Battered women: Stages of change and other treatment models that instigate and sustain leaving. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3, 83-98.
  • Burnett, Lynn Barkley and; Adler, Jonathan. (2008). Domestic violence.
  • Dienemann, Jacqueline A., Glass, Nancy, Hanson, Ginger and; Lunsford, Kathleen. (2007). The domestic violence survivor assessment (DVSA): A tool for individual counselling with women experiencing intimate partner violence. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 28, 913-925.
  • Kramer, Alice. (2007). Stages of change: Surviving intimate partner violence during and after pregnancy. Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, 21, 285-295.
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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.