The Impact of Intimate Partner Violence on Survivors
Our society tends to dismiss the impact of trauma and instead view the symptoms and behavior of a survivor as personality characteristics or mental illness. Individuals without trauma training see a survivor who expresses anxiety, fear, sadness, confusion, powerlessness, indecision, anger, resentment, etc. and use this to explain “why she stayed” or to otherwise diminish the abuser’s accountability.
For example, imagine a common scenario witnessed by law enforcement: in responding to a 911 call of a disturbance by a neighbor, you find a woman who is disheveled, crying, panicked, unable to express herself in coherent or meaningful way, and inconsolable. Next to her you see a calm, apparently reasonable, and charming man who explains that she is mentally ill and frequently “loses it.” He explains that she has been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts in the past and that he is doing the best he can to help the poor woman. How do you imagine that many might respond to this? What might you think?
While it makes sense that an individual who has been experiencing on going abuse and has just been assaulted or threatened might respond as the woman in this scenario, many are quick to listen to the calm man’s explanation. After all, she appears out of control or mentally ill compared to him.
It is important to realize that survivors of domestic violence ARE trauma victims!! While there is no one way to respond and every individual reacts differently to trauma, there are some common reactions. Many survivors of domestic violence experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, fear and anxiety, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, anger, diminished self-esteem, distrust, guardedness, and immobility.
PROGRESSIVE EFFECTS OF ABUSE
- At first victims stay because they love or care about their abusers. Victims believe that the violence is temporary and/or caused by unusual circumstances. They hope that the violence will soon stop. (This hope is typically reinforced by periods of time in which there is no abuse and their partner is loving or at least civil.)
- The belief that victims should understand their attacker’s needs and help them stop the abuse. For women especially, this is part of the spousal role. She may believe that her inability to help her partner means that she is failing in the role of nurturer.
- The value of holding the family together may be more important than the victim’s personal physical or emotional pain, fear of injury, etc. Victims may feel pressure/ responsibility from family, religion, and others to “hold” family together.
- Feelings of personal incompetence such as believing that one must have a partner to get by in the world, even if they are abusive.
- Self-blame. Victims believe that they are in part responsible for the abuse. Their abuser punishes them for their inability to act properly or to meet the abuser’s expectations. NOTE: Self-blame is a recognized side effect of repeated traumatic stress.
- Increasing mental and physical exhaustion due to unpredictability of abuse. Victims experience increased confusion and difficulty in thinking clearly as a result of the pressure of living with someone who changes from kind to cruel without warning. Victims never know what’s going to set the abuser off next. They live in a continual state of alert.
- Growing self-doubt about their value as a person, their judgement, capabilities, and attractiveness as the effects of abuse eat away at their self-esteem. (Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m exaggerating and anyway, how could I manage on my own?” “How will I ever find anybody else?”, etc.)
- Need to defend the abuser. Battering reduces faith in oneself and increases isolation. Victims come to feel that they cannot survive without the abuser. At this point any threat to the abuser may be perceived as a threat to them, and the victim may act to protect the abuser.
- Belief that all men are abusive. Growing up in a culture in which physical aggressiveness is considered manly reinforces this. It may also come from growing up with an abusive parent(s).
- Belief in omnipotence of abuser caused by abuser’s control tactics. (This may be stronger if the victim has separated and been forced or enticed into returning only to have abuse continue).
- Terror induced by prolonged abuse.
“There is no better way of making people compliant then beating them up on an intermittent basis.”