The cross governmental definition of domestic abuse is “”Any incident or pattern of behaviour of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 and over who are, or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional.
The definition makes clear that domestic abuse can be physical as well as non-physical; be experienced by anyone irrespective of their gender, age, social class, ethnicity, sexuality and that it happens in all types of relationships- bisexual and transgender, gay, lesbian or heterosexual. Partners, husbands or boyfriends, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and grandparents whether directly related, by marriage (in laws) or stepfamily can be perpetrators. It includes honour-based violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriage abuse.
Domestic abuse is physical but it also includes emotional abuse. Examples of this are constant criticism or belittling, yelling, name calling, blaming and shaming; silent treatment; isolating the abused from others- including friends or family; inducing fear by threats such as saying children will be kidnapped; blackmail, harassment, destruction of pets and property, stalking or mind games. Other kinds of abuse include financial where individuals are not allowed to work, or the perpetrator/s maintain control over financial resources. There is also sexual violence and abuse where rape, forced prostitution, non-consensual fondling, sodomy or sex with others; criticising sexual performance and desirability or accusations of infidelity can take place.
The impact on those experiencing domestic abuse is profound. This is even more so where there is prolonged exposure to it. In this situation, belief systems around “self” can be distorted, leaving individuals with a fragmented sense of who they are, poor and negative self image and very little self worth.They can view the world as bleak and unsafe and their perception of people and trust may be affected. A range of mental health conditions can also affect many people who experience domestic abuse. This includes post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterised by flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts. Other symptoms include anxiety and panic attacks; and /or depression -where individuals experience prolonged and intense feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, loss of interest and pleasure in activities previously enjoyed. Some also experience dissociation. In some instances this is akin to daydreaming but for others it can lead to difficulties remaining present in the here and now, thus making it very challenging to concentrate on tasks.
Survivors of any age who have experienced or witnessed domestic abuse may use drugs or alcohol, or engage in other self injurious behaviours like cutting to bring a sense of control to their lives and/or manage the overwhelming feelings of fear, sorrow, confusion, hopelessness, rage, guilt and shame they may live with on a day to day basis.
So, why stay?
The reasons are complex and unique to the individual. For some, including those who have grown up surrounded by unhealthy abusive relationships, some may think it’s the norm for a relationship to be abusive in the way outlined above. Moreover, because of the impact that domestic abuse can have on self and self worth, the abused may believe they deserve no better or unable to survive without the abusive partner.
The idea of trauma bonding provides a theory as to how this comes to be: Trauma bonding is the development of strong emotional ties between two people in a relationship characterised by a marked power imbalance. When the power imbalance amplifies, the abused can feel unable to survive or cope without the abuser. S/he feels dependent upon the abuser for her/his survival. At the same time, the abuser and his/her grandiose sense of power is dependent upon him/her maintaining the power imbalance and control in the relationship. Both then become dependent upon the other but in unhealthy ways. We also know that trauma bonding seems to be most powerful, when physical abuse is sporadic and dispersed with friendly contact. The cycle of abuse – a theory developed by LE Walker in 1979 shows both to be evident in domestic abuse. There are three main stages: stage 1 where tension is building and there is a breakdown of communication, leading to the abused becoming fearful and feeling a need to placate the abuser. The second stage is the acting out stage and is when the abuse becomes significantly more intense and extreme. The third is the honeymoon/reconciliation stage where the abuser shows remorse for their acting out behaviours. It is at this point in particular that the abused experiences loving feelings from the abuser. It provides evidence that the relationship and the abuser is “not all bad” giving hope to the abused that the abuser can change.
These bonds and the reasons for people not leaving these relationships may be influenced by a range of socio economic and cultural factors: For those who have become economically dependent upon their partners, having no money, confidence or employability skills and the fear of loosing their home may make it difficult to leave. For others, family cultural practices and beliefs and in some cultures, the stigma associated with divorce or separation, can stop people from leaving. Moreover, worry that family and friends will judge them as “failures,” “bad” partners, or not support them if they were to leave makes it even more difficult for them to do so.
Another reason why so many stay is out of fear of what the abuser will do if they were to leave: We know for instance that women are much more vulnerable to being violently assaulted by their partners after ending an abusive relationship and abusers are likely to make threats to kidnap or harm their loved ones. Others may still love the abusers. They may only want the abuse to stop and not the entire relationship. They might hope things will get better, that the abuser will change. And indeed, for some, they might believe this change in the abuser’s behaviour will come about by the non-abusing partner changing their behaviour. They thus believe it’s their fault –not the abusers.
Did you know that 1 in 6 men have experienced domestic violence since the age of 16? . (Home Office Statistical Bulletin -2008 -2009). Men can find it difficult admitting to themselves and to others that they are experiencing domestic abuse. This is influenced by traditional gender based roles and expectations, on how it is to be a “man ‘ in society and more specifically how it is to be a man in a relationship. Consequently, some men fear they might be ridiculed, despised portrayed as weak, or even disbelieved if they were to tell. It is perhaps easier to understand now why so many people who experience domestic abuse remain silent or do not leave these relationships.
Therapy and domestic abuse
So if these survivors were to start talking about their experiences of abuse within a relationship, how would this be? A therapist will work with the premise that no one deserves to experience abuse, that survivors make the best choices available to them at the time, that it is possible with time to heal from the effects of violence and abuse and that the survivor is the expert on their recovery process.
At the Well Being Therapy Centre, there are counsellors/therapists who specialise in working with victims of domestic abuse. In Northampton we also have a counsellor who works with perpetrators of domestic abuse.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse then please contact the following agencies:
In case of an emergency, ring the Police on 999
Samaritans: 0845 790 9090
Milton Keynes – MK ACT Helpline: 0344 375 4307. Open Monday – Friday, 9-5 pm
National Domestic Violence helpline (24 hours): 0808 200 0247
Mens ‘Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
Forced Marriage Unit (Foreign Office): 0207 008 0230
The Female Genital Mutilation (24 hour free phone): 0800 028 3550
Milton Keynes Council Social Services (out of hours): 01908 265545
National Stalking Helpline: 0300 636 0300
Police Domestic Abuse Unit: 01908 276103
Take care readers.