When most people hear the term abuse, their mind typically goes to physical abuse. They think if their significant other is not physically harming them in some way, then they are being too sensitive, too dramatic, and making a big deal out of nothing. Most people don’t even realize they are suffering from abuse until the damage has already been done. I know because I was one of those people.
Truth be told, there is more than one form of abuse. Other forms include emotional abuse, financial abuse, and sexual abuse. So, what do each of these categories of abuse look like? Physical abuse is when a person exerts control over another through physical force. This could be kicking, punching, slapping, biting, strangling, or even something like locking a person out of the house. With emotional abuse, the abusers’ goal is to lower the victim’s self-worth and independence, so they become reliant on the abuser. This may include name-calling, manipulating, humiliating, degrading, and threatening. Sexual abuse is forcing another to have sex or engaging in sexual acts, which can include dressing in a way that the victim is uncomfortable with. Financial abuse is probably the least known form. The goal of the abuser is to make it as difficult as possible for the victim to be able to leave the relationship. They do this by denying access to bank accounts or credit cards or preventing the victim from obtaining a job.
Now, you’re probably reading this thinking, “How can someone stay in this relationship? I would never let my partner control me like that!” While it is easy to pass judgment on the victims, and sometimes even blame them for staying, it is one of those things that someone can’t fully understand unless they have been in a similar situation. In fact, it’s often due to years of psychological violence.
90% of physicians agree that psychological violence is usually interspersed with warmth and kindness to create confusion, which is called trauma bonding (safelives.org). This means that typically, the abuse isn’t sudden. Instead, there are such subtle warning signs that the victim doesn’t even know what is happening until it’s too late and they’re stuck in the thick of it, if they even realize it at all. Even if survivors face new realizations about the reality of the relationship and the abuser’s character, many will stay in a relationship of abuse because they still love and care for the person. According to the Domestic Violence Prevention center, it takes a survivor, on average, five to seven attempts before permanently leaving their abuser. Even when they do leave, victims may face feelings of fear and obsession that go along with “expected” devastating breakup feelings. It is not unheard of for the survivor to miss their abuser.
It is normal for victims to blame themselves, and even ask,“why me?” It’s a question that’s lingered in my mind for years after leaving my abuser. Sometimes I still struggle with it. The trait that victims seem to have in common is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Abusers typically choose empathetic people because they not only take responsibility for their own actions but the actions of the abuser as well. This keeps the cycle of abuse and forgiveness going. In my abusive relationship, I actually felt guilty when my abuser would appear to be remorseful. I would then try to justify his actions, making it easier to talk myself into forgiving him. And I would, time and time again. It went on for years. Until the day I had enough and decided to leave.
When a victim leaves a domestic violence relationship, it’s normal to have conflicting feelings- scared, elated, hopeful, regretful, etc. PTSD symptoms, including anxiety, trouble sleeping, being easily frightened or scared, avoiding stressful triggers that remind them of abuse, difficulty maintaining relationships, feeling emotionally numb at times, flashbacks, and nightmares are common as well. After an abusive relationship, people often congratulate the survivor for getting out of that toxic situation but don’t expect the stereotypical behaviors that come with a normal break-up such as loss, grief, and depression. It’s even more difficult to understand why the survivor would miss and maybe want to go back to their abuser. That abusive partner likely had a lot of control over the survivor, and this can be a jarring shift after they are no longer in the survivor’s life. What the survivor needs most during this important transition is understanding and patience from family and friends. Be aware that it may be difficult for the survivor to reconnect with people after abuse. Oftentimes, the abuser will force their victim to isolate themselves from others, therefore, losing important connections throughout the duration of the abusive relationship, meaning they have no one to turn to for help or support after ending/escaping the relationship. Getting the survivor into individual therapy and/or group therapy is an important piece of helping them heal.
Maybe you’re reading this article wondering if you are in fact, in an abusive relationship, or maybe you’re a survivor like me trying to make sense of it all and prevent it from happening again. Or perhaps you know a family member or friend that you suspect is a victim of domestic violence and you’re looking to help. Whatever brought you here, I’m glad you’re here. Not because of the unfathomable circumstances that led you here, but because it means you’re looking for help, to get out, and to gain knowledge. That takes courage and I’m proud of you. Remember, no one deserves to suffer from any form of abuse, for any reason, regardless of what you’ve been told. If you identify as a survivor of abuse, please know that here at Our Wave, we support you. To anonymously share your story and join our community, click here.