Domestic abuse often escalates from verbal abuse to violence. And while physical injury may be the most obvious danger, the emotional and psychological costs are also severe.
Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy your self-esteem, lead to depression, and give you a sense of helplessness. Recognising that your situation is abusive is the first step to being free.
Signs of an abusive relationshipRead: 10 signs of an abusive relationship
Abusers use tactics to wield their control
- Dominance– Abusive individuals need to feel in charge of the relationship. They will make decisions for you and the family, tell you what to do, and expect you to obey without question. Your abuser may treat you like a servant, child, or even as his or her possession.
- Humiliation– An abuser will do everything he or she can to make you feel bad about yourself. After all, if you believe you are worthless and that no one else will want you, you are less likely to escape. Insults, name-calling, shaming, and public belittlement are all artillery of abuse.
- Isolation– In order to increase your dependence on him/ her, an abusive partner will cut you off from the outside world by keeping you from seeing friends and family, or even prevent you from going to work.
- Threats– Abusers commonly use threats to keep their partners from leaving. Your abuser may threaten to hurt or kill you, your children, or other family members, and may threaten to report you to child services.
- Intimidation– Your abuser may use a variety of intimidation tactics intended to scare you into obedience. Such tactics include making threatening gestures, smashing things in front of you, destroying property, or putting weaponry on display.
- Denial and blame–Your abusive partner may minimise the abuse or deny that it occurred. He or she will commonly shift the blame onto you.
Survival strategies of abused women
Abused women develop astonishing ways of surviving the violence. Others rarely understand these strategies because they often seem unhelpful when viewed from outside the relationship. Often, a woman's survival strategies are used to support the myths around abuse and to blame her for the abuse.
- Denial or minimising and making light of the abuse: pretending that the abuse isn't happening because it is too overwhelming to face what it means in her life. “I needed to believe that he'd never do it again...I still cared about him...I wasn't seeing... Denying what was happening to me was my way of hanging onto my sanity".
- Learning not to fight back: fighting often escalates violence and causes her more harm.
- Substance abuse: can help her numb the pain. "I was so nervous that I gulped down the Valium".
- Suicidal thoughts or acts: may be the only way out or safety valve she can see. "I thought about killing myself".
- Paralysis: not doing anything because whatever she does leads to more abuse. "I would freeze... I was totally numb and dead... eventually I got paralysed with fear."
- Isolation and fear of intervention from outsiders (includes a woman refusing to contact the police or withdrawing charges): people who do not understand the situation often end up making it worse. "I did try to tell my neighbour and my doctor, but it was obvious they didn't want to hear about it. I felt humiliated and I was terrified someone would criticise me as he did. I lost so much self-confidence that it felt safer to be at home than to go out on the street. I was glad when the phone didn't ring or the day would pass without anyone coming to the door".
- Trying to please the abuser: attempting to prevent violent outbreaks. "At home the harder she tried, the more she failed...I really did a lot of work trying to keep the lid on things, keep things happy... I became compulsive... I did everything right... did everything to perfection."
- Hyper-vigilance (walking on eggshells): attempting to prevent violent outbreaks. "I got good at anticipating every problem."
- Playing "Superwoman": attempting to prevent violent outbreaks. "I could do anything - leap tall buildings, outrun locomotives... you would be amazed what I could accomplish in 24 hours to keep him happy."
- Belief in her own inferiority: The abuser insists that she accept his opinions and be submissive, passive and indecisive. He needs her to be dependent and subservient so he can feel in control. If she is not, he is likely to become violent.
Taking steps to heal and move on
The trauma of what you’ve been through can stay with you long after you’ve escaped the abusive situation. Counselling, therapy, and support groups for domestic abuse survivors can help you process what you’ve been through and learn how to build new and healthy relationships.
After the trauma you’ve been through, you may be struggling with upsetting emotions, frightening memories, or a sense of constant danger that you just can’t kick. Or you may feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. It can take a while to feel safe again. However, treatment and support from family and friends can speed your recovery from emotional and psychological trauma.
Breaking the Silence: A Handbook for Victims of Violence in Nebraska
Melinda Smith, M.A.; and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D, Help for Abused and Battered Women Domestic Violence Shelters, Support, and Protection November 2010
POWA Information Package and the Participant's Manual: Violence Against Women (Criminal Justice Training Project on Violence Against Women),Violence Against Women in South Africa
- (Photo of scared woman from Shutterstock)