What is Domestic Abuse or Violence?
Domestic abuse or violence refers to patterns of behaviors within relationships that are used to gain or keep power over another member of the family. Typically, it is a spouse against a spouse or a parent against a child. In some situations involving the elderly, it may be a child against a parent.
Domestic abuse or violence can be physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological. Domestic violence behaviors are typically meant to scare, physically harm, or control a person. Common behaviors include name calling, threat making, manipulation, humiliation, blaming, and similar violations. Other behaviors associated with domestic abuse or violence may involve the aggressor attempting to isolate the victim from others or monitoring the victim’s behavior.
In many cases, individuals who experience domestic abuse or violence are hesitant to report it to the authorities out of fear. Yet, for some, it is the hope the abuser will change their behavior. While possible, this rarely happens, and in most cases, the behavior gets worse over time.
How to Handle Domestic Abuse
Domestic violence can happen to anyone. Yet, statistically speaking, women are most commonly affected by domestic abuse and violence. In fact, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one out of every five women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime.
And while women are the most likely to be victims of domestic violence, according to the American Bar Association, “835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States.” Domestic violence and abuse is an endemic problem with deep-seated personal and societal ramifications. Thus it is imperative people know what to do if they find themselves (or someone they know) in an abusive situation.
Once victims are able to leave a violent relationship behind, the next step in the process is moving past the emotional damage.
Cut Off Contact
Leaving an abusive situation is often the hardest part of the process. And as important as the leaving part is, making sure the abuser has no ability to contact the victim is equally imperative. Often, victims feel the urge to contact their abuser after having left. Either way, it is better to sever all ties. Remember that domestic abuse is about control, and once a victim has left, the abuser loses much of that control. By contacting them, the opportunity they have to regain some sense of control is initiated.
While the choice to not contact the abuser is within the victim’s control, whether or not the abuser contacts the victim is not. Yet there are things that can be done to greatly decrease the likelihood of this. Victims are encouraged to change their phone numbers, delete any contact information of abuser from their phone number, and potentially even block the abuser (if this function is available).
Additionally, victims are also encouraged to delete and block the abuser from any social media accounts in which they might be connected.
Domestic violence victims almost always bear emotional scars as a result of the abuse. These emotional scars often develop into depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or substance abuse. Seeking counseling is a good first step in the process of healing these scars. Getting support through counseling allows victims to sit with mental health professionals who can listen and offer helpful tools and skills on ways to manage the difficult emotions, heal from the trauma, and move forward with life.
Group counseling is another option available. During group therapy, victims of domestic abuse get the opportunity to connect with others who have lived through similar abuse situations. Group counseling also provides victims with ample support, not only from peers (other victims) but also from the mental health professional leading the group.
Group settings can be helpful, especially for those who have been in an abusive relationship for an extended period of time, as these victims frequently become isolated from friends and family, and subsequently, a lack of a support network. Additionally, victims are encouraged to seek new supports through other venues as well (i.e. – volunteering for a charity, joining a neighborhood book club, taking a class at a local college, etc.).
Methods Typically Used in Therapy for Domestic Abuse
There are many different approaches to therapy that are effective in working with domestic abuse victims. One of the main methods is psychotherapy or talk therapy. In the early stages of individual psychotherapy, the therapist will likely do much listening and validating. Through this process, a trusting therapeutic relationship can be formed, as well as allowing the therapist to learn more about the specific abuse and effects of that abuse.
Trauma-focused therapy approaches and other, more experiential approaches (such as hypnosis) are also often used with victims of domestic violence. Medication may also be prescribed for anxiety attacks and any other difficult side-effect of the abuse.
Reasons for Hiring a Therapist
Domestic abuse can be hugely traumatic and dehumanizing. It’s not uncommon for victims to be terrified of the repercussions of leaving the abuser, and many times end up finding ways to blame themselves for causing the abuse. Many victims are left feeling fearful, anxious, depressed, worthless, the list goes on. And these negative feelings can lead to a variety of unhealthy behaviors (substance abuse, self-harm, compulsive behaviors, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, etc.)
These negative behaviors and beliefs are best addressed in therapy, and the sooner one seeks treatment, the higher the likelihood they will heal from the effects of the abuse.
What to Look for in a Therapist
In most cases, it’s best to work with a therapist who specializes in domestic violence and abuse. If there is not one available, that is not to say other mental health professionals cannot be helpful. Family conflict psychologists, trauma and abuse therapists, and relational therapists all tend to have a background in, and experience with, domestic violence. Establishing trust is a critical component of the client-therapist relationship. You are looking for a therapist who calms you down or someone whom you can talk to eventually without feeling the need to self censor yourself.
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Prepare for Custody
Unfortunately, children can also be the victims of, and/or witness to, domestic violence and abuse. If children are involved, then it is extremely important to support children in any way possible. It is believed that, around the world, almost 275 million children are exposed to domestic violence. Even worse, studies show child abuse occurs in 30-60 percent of family violence cases that involve families with children. Researchers also believe that children who face exposure to violence in their homes are more likely to later become perpetrators of violence themselves.
If there is a dispute involving child custody after separating from an abuser, it may be helpful for the family to go through a formal custody evaluation. There are evaluators available who have received training in domestic violence cases. They will interview both parents, as well as evaluating the relationship the child has with each parent.
In cases where the parents can’t agree on a parenting plan, the court may ask a mediator to intervene. These mediators are also trained to work with situations involving domestic violence. They will support the family in putting together a parenting plan on who will be responsible for making important decisions and where the children will live. Lawyers or domestic violence agencies can offer legal advice on any custody questions you may have.
Take Care of Your Health
While domestic abuse and violence counseling is important for one’s mental health, it is also vital to pay attention to one’s physical health as well. While things like stress and anxiety are mental health issues, they can significantly impact one’s physical health. Blood pressure, sleep patterns, and eating habits are just a few of the areas commonly affected by stress and worry. But there are things a person can do to help combat the physical effects such as yoga, meditation, and other self-care practices. Additionally, choosing foods containing high amounts of omega-3, such as fish, flax, and nuts (omega-3s are considered natural mood boosters), may be helpful in managing both the physical and mental health issues. Also, nourishing the body throughout the day by eating small, well-balanced meals can help keep blood sugar stable and thus, stable energy levels. Also, try to avoid drugs or alcohol, as substances tend to exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety, and make it easier to become overwhelmed emotionally.
Exercise is, of course, essential to physical health. But exercise has extraordinary mental health benefits as well. Through moving the body, natural chemicals (serotonin and endorphins) that promote elevated mood are released. To benefit from these natural chemicals, it is recommended to get somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes of light to moderate exercise on most days of the week (this recommendation may vary based on factors unique to a particular individual).
Address Your Fears
After some time has passed, many victims feel ready to start engaging in romantic relationships again (while often feeling hesitant at the same time). It is possible to have a healthy and loving relationship with another person, even as a victim of domestic abuse in the past. It is important to learn what a healthy relationship looks like (ones based on honesty, mutual respect, and trust), especially if you have only experienced violent relationships in the past.
If you’re ready to start looking for a long-term relationship, you must first decide the qualities in a partner that are most important to you. Remember not to make the search for a new relationship your entire life. You still have friends, family, and other outside activities to focus on. Also, remember to take some time to get to know a person since you can’t always rely on first impressions. Finally, be alert for relationship red flags. If you ever have feelings of insecurity, you should always take a step back and reevaluate the relationship.
Once you leave an abusive relationship, it’s important to remember that healing from the effects of the abuse will take time. The recovery process can also be difficult at times. However, with the right emotional and physical care, it is possible to move forward and live a happy and healthy life again.
- Alejo, K. (2014) Long-term physical and mental health effects of domestic violence. Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science: 2(5).
- Holt, S., Buckley, H., & Whelan, S. (2008). The impact of exposure to domestic violence on children and young people: A review of the literature. Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal. 32(8). 797-810.
- Iyengar, R. & Sabik, L. (2009). The dangerous shortage of domestic violence services. Health Affairs. 28(6).