For Anna*, dreams of a happily ever after complete with the obligatory white picket fence have been replaced with one simple wish.

"I just want my kids to be safe and happy."

This was the motivation for Anna needed to leave a violent relationship this year.

"I realised my children were seeing too much. The violence in the home was affecting everything. They heard it, they saw the evidence of it, they began to live in the same fear I had been living in, and I realised I needed to make a change before they saw the life we were living as being normal."

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The life Anna was living was one of constant fear.

"I was constantly checking the house to see it was perfect. I didn't dare voice my own opinion as he would tell me I was stupid or wrong, so I stopped having my own thoughts really. I just let him tell me what to think, what to do."

Anna says this fear of getting things wrong meant even ordering a takeaway became a minefield.

"I would panic thinking he would tell me my choice was wrong, too fattening or something. So I wouldn't be able to order, I would tell him to choose for me and then he would have a go at me for being indecisive."

Anna says before this relationship, she was a strong, opinionated woman who would never have let someone else order her meal for her, let alone raise a hand to her in violence.

"I can't believe how much my personality changed over the years. I used to be loud and proud, really happy to own my own opinion and tell anyone what I thought. I prided myself on being independent. I was going places and believed in myself."

Then, Anna met Caleb*.

"He was lovely. We met through friends and were friends for a while before we began dating so I thought I knew him well. He was charming, hardworking and caring. He ticked all the right boxes, I honestly thought this was someone I would be building my white picket fence dream with."

The couple moved in together and things were going well.

"Then I got pregnant. Obviously looking back I can say it was too early in the relationship, but at the time, it all felt okay."

When Anna was six months pregnant things changed.

"He started being quite horrible to me and very controlling. I had gone away to see friends and he rang me and said 'you can come home now". It was like he didn't want me to be having fun away from him.

I was still my old self back then, with my own opinions, so when he said that, I reacted by saying no, I will stay longer. You don't own me. When I did come back he was so angry, saying I had disobeyed him. He was shouting, in my face, yelling at me."

"Then he assaulted me."

Anna says at first she was in shock that this had happened, especially as she was pregnant with his child.

"I just didn't know what to think."

A few days later, it happened again.

"This time, I called the police. I had to let him know this was not okay."

Caleb was charged with male assaults female and moved out.

"When it went to court, I couldn't believe how light the sentence was. He got community work for the assault but at the same time, the judge agreed to cancel his fines of several thousand dollars, replacing them with about the same amount of community work hours as he got for the assault. It felt like they were saying owing the government money was as bad as hitting a woman."

Pregnant and feeling vulnerable, Anna agreed to give the relationship another chance.

"I didn't want our baby to not know their dad. I felt he and the baby both deserved the chance for it to work and I really did have hope it would be okay. I thought he would turn back into the man I had fallen in love with."

This pattern of anger, assault, forgiveness and hope continued for the next four years however, with Anna becoming increasingly isolated from her friends and family.

"After the assault went to court, a lot of my friends weren't happy I took him back. They didn't like him, and he didn't like them. I couldn't have them come and visit as he would play up, so I saw less and less of them.

Caleb told me they didn't like me anyway, that no-one did, and I started believing him. In a way, it began to feel like it was him and I against the world, so I had to stay, I felt I had made my choice and had to stick with it."

The violence at home however, was increasing.

"I got pregnant again this year, but that didn't stop him hitting me. He had stopped hiding it as well, so now my eldest child was aware of it. I realised she was beginning to think this was what all relationships were like."

Determined to break the cycle before her children repeated it, Anna started making plans to leave.

"When you have kids it isn't as simple as just packing your bags and walking out. You need to think abut them every step of the way, making sure you can leave safely, and making it as easy for them as it can be."

With this in mind, Anna sought help from a women's group in Hawera, working out what her options were and how best to get herself and her children to a safer place.

"We are lucky that we have options like women's refuge. While I didn't need it in the end, I felt safer knowing it was an option if I needed."

Anna says she hopes Caleb and his children will continue to have a relationship.

"He was always a good dad and that hasn't changed. I don't want to stop him seeing the children. The problems were between him and me, not them. To be a good mum however, I needed to leave and I need to continue to show my children that violence is never acceptable."

* Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

GET HELP:

* Women's Refuge: Free national crisisline operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
* It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
* Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisisline 24/7 0800 742 584
* Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
* National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
* White Ribbon: www.whiteribbon.org.nz
* Tutaki Youth Inc: Stratford based organisation. www.tutaki.org.nz, 88 Juliet Street, Stratford. Call 06 928 4517