PiAul* manages his finances “down to the penny”. If he buys a packet of crisps when he's out, he records it in his account book at home, noting the exact amount. But it's not just his own expenses that he keeps a close eye on. If Paul's wife Susie* buys something when she's out, Paul knows — and records it, too.
In fact, Paul watches several parts of Susie's life. He and his wife share all their emails and texts with each other. They do “everything together,” he says.
Paul is working through the details of his marriage after calling an anonymous and confidential helpline, run by the charity Respect, which has been set up for people who have been violent or abusive with their partners or families – or fear they might be is. Paul's children accused him of perpetrating a concerted campaign of domestic abuse against his wife.
Although he claims he is desperately trying to find out if he is abusing, controlling or coercing his wife, he also seems unable to see his behavior clearly and honestly.
“We share everything, we make joint decisions,” he tells a helpline worker. “It's a loving, caring relationship. We are very lucky that our chemistry is the same as when we were dating. We do stupid things that teenagers do. There is no oppression. Everything we do is healthy and happy.”
I know all this because I listen to the calls—with the callers' permission—to learn more about how she tries to help those who are victims of domestic abuse.
Paul is one of a growing number of callers seeking support from Respect. Exclusive data from the charity, shared with The independentreveals that the number of people calling the helpline has increased by 28 per cent from 2018/2019 to 2022/23 — rising from 5,521 to 7,093 calls.
Another call I hear involves a man who says his ex-partner claimed he threatened to kill her and was abusive – but she denied it. Other calls include men seeking offender programs to help them deal with domestic abuse.
A woman in her twenties also calls the helpline to admit that she has emotionally and physically abused her male partner. She says she fantasized about treating her partner even worse. The caller explains that she has behaved similarly to ex-partners and has been this way since she started dating 18-year-olds.
But it's clear that most domestic abusers don't seek help. While police in England and Wales receive an average of more than 100 calls an hour about domestic abuse over the course of a year – and two to three women are killed by a current or former partner every week in England and Wales – calls to help line are few. and much in between.
The rise in calls during the Covid pandemic is likely to have been linked to an increase in domestic abuse, as lockdown measures exacerbated pre-existing patterns of behaviour. But it's less clear what's driving the continued increase.
Ippo Panteloudakis, head of services at Respect, says there has been increased awareness of domestic abuse during the pandemic, with the helpline now being promoted more on social media.
But Mr Panteloudakis, who has heard thousands of calls to the helpline, also attributes the rise in calls to a greater emphasis on offenders changing their behavior in wider society. Other factors include seeking help to become more socially acceptable — but also the cost-of-living crisis that exacerbates abusive behavior.
“Where it already exists, it's a situation that makes things much worse,” he adds. “It's more of an opportunity to have conflict in the relationship and when someone is abusive, that can just be another reason for them to be unhappy and want to control them and use violence and abuse.”
Mr Panteloudakis, who has worked at Respect for nearly two decades, says their first port of call when someone calls the helpline is to try to understand why the person is calling.
“This is not as obvious as it may sound,” he adds. “We want to understand what triggered the call and it's really, and unfortunately, very rare for someone to call the helpline completely out of the blue. There is usually an incident that triggered it. It could be that they have been violent or abusive very recently and there was police involvement. Or maybe the extended family found out they were committing domestic abuse.”
Another example she gives involves their partner choosing to leave them — sometimes with the kids in tow. Mr Panteloudakis says all these scenarios can make someone want to change. “It might not be a lasting feeling that you see, but at least there's a window of opportunity and that's what we're trying to keep open,” he adds.
Helpline workers seek to differentiate the person from their behavior, explains Mr Panteloudakis. “We're not trying to label someone as a monster or anything like that,” he adds. “And that's a constant fear that perpetrators have – that they will be judged. But we identify behaviors that are harmful. We explain how they are harmful to others — to the survivor and the children, to increase their empathy as a way to motivate them to access help.”
However, Mr Panteloudakis says this does not stop perpetrators from being “manipulative” and “minimizing” their violence and abuse, adding that they seek to root out disingenuous callers who only call to keep their partners happy. It also reflects the fact that most perpetrators of domestic abuse are unable to ‘connect the dots' and see patterns in their behaviour.
“But for others, on some level, there's some defense mechanism because if you connect those dots, you start to see who you really are,” he adds. “And that's something the perpetrators don't want to do. Because when you start to understand who you really are, that you are not this nice, charming guy, but someone who occasionally or often uses violence and abuse towards his partner. When you admit the truth to yourself, then the next step is to do something about it.”
Mr Panteloudakis says they have a number of safety mechanisms in place – such as not speaking to anyone if they know they are not alone and ensuring callers don't hang up in anger.
“They can get angry on the phone and that has to be managed very, very skillfully and respectfully,” he adds. “Training of helpline workers is entirely bespoke.”
As the number of callers increases, Charlotte Kneer, chief executive of Reigate and Banstead Women's Aid shelters in Surrey, says it could signal “the beginning of a culture change” of perpetrators more willing to confront their behavior because of domestic abuse that become more “socially unacceptable”.
“People seemed in the pandemic to care about domestic abuse because it was talked about a lot more,” adds Ms Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor whose abusive partner was jailed for seven years in 2011. “Potential perpetrators could have been more aware. their behavior”.
Another theory Mrs Kneer advocates is linked to the increase in money the Domestic Abuse Act provides to services. He wonders if the funding has led to more victims accessing services across the country, which in turn causes more abusers to seek support.
“The most likely point that the abuser is going to access an abuser service is when the victim is about to leave and end the relationship,” he adds. “I suspect that often perpetrators access the service not because they recognize that their behavior is appalling, but to demonstrate to their victim that they are trying to seek help and maintain that relationship. They are big perpetrators who reach out, but that doesn't mean they have a big picture of their behavior.”
*Paul and Susie's names have been changed to protect their identities