“It is shameful for me, but it doesn’t define me”: Exploring Experiences of Intimate Partner Abuse and Help-seeking among Female Students with a Male Partner
Although a large quantity of research examines women’s victimisation by men in intimate relationships, little is known about the experiences of women who are university students. This is despite intimate partner aggression (IPA) being most prevalent in young people. This qualitative study sets out to address this gap by examining the experiences and associated help seeking of women attending a New Zealand university who have experienced harm from a male intimate partner. Five women voluntarily responded to an advert emailed to clients enrolled with the university student counselling service and took part in in-depth, individual semi-structured interviews. Transcripts were analysed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. This analysis identified four themes related to the women’s experiences of IPA and help seeking. The first theme of A prior vulnerability comprised of three subthemes each representing a factor which contributed to the women’s vulnerability to entering an aggressive relationship. These were 1) a lack of life experience and understanding of partner aggression, 2) pre-existing challenges, and 3) a whirlwind relationship. The second theme Stuck described the barriers that the women faced which kept them in the relationship. These barriers were 1) a controlling environment, 2) not recognising abuse, 3) excusing the behaviour, 4) problem solver, 5) barriers to leaving the relationship, 6) barriers to help seeking and disclosure, and 7) the disempowering nature of negative help seeking experiences. The third theme Becoming unstuck comprised of four subthemes describing how the women were able to overcome the barriers and leave the relationship. These were 1) underlying resilience, 2) knowledge is power, 3) the importance of self-realisation and autonomy, and 4) the validating nature of positive help seeking experiences. The fourth theme The aftermath comprised of three subthemes demonstrating the short term and ongoing impacts of IPA. These were 1) double edge sword of freedom, 2) ongoing negative impact, and 3) healing over time. The findings highlight the importance of understanding young people’s aggression within the context of the developmental stages of adolescence. Importantly the results highlight the insidious nature of control and psychological aggression and its negative impact upon young women. In addition, it highlights how the young women’s lack of understanding and education about IPA kept them stuck, and how gaining knowledge was instrumental in empowering them to leave. Thus it is argued that prevention and early intervention efforts need to enhance this understanding at a societal level to improve women’s help seeking experiences. These findings contribute to a wider understanding of IPA and inform university service and policy design.