Individuals “who are victimized in a domestic abuse relationship can have multiple problems that are a direct result of such abuse. These problems can affect all aspects of functioning and can be short-lived or chronic. The following is a list of possible effects of domestic abuse…While this is not a comprehensive list, it suggests the wide-ranging effects of domestic abuse upon the victim/survivor.”
Isolation, Control and Dependency
Abusive partners isolate their victims from all other significant supports and establish themselves as the center of the victim’s world. They gain power and control over their partners by ensuring that any ‘outside’ interference in the relationship is eliminated or minimized. Contact with friends and family members is typically considered threatening to an abuser as is contact with any other supports such as counselors or support groups that the victim may seek out. Since an abuser is generally motivated by an intense dependency upon his partner, tactics designed to ‘protect’ the relationship from threatening influences will universally be used to monopolize the victim’s time and attention. Consequently, victims become ‘trapped’ by this dynamic in many ways.
Psychologically, victims develop their own obsessive focus upon the batterer and construct their lives with their abusers as their primary concern. This can be a matter of keeping the peace or, in severe instances, a matter of survival. After victims leave such a relationship this focus can linger and, in fact, be quite persistent for some time. Victims may find themselves unable to identify their own feelings, make even simple decisions, know their own preferences and desires or establish goals. The control used to isolate victims can create a strong dependency in victims. Having been forced to look to their ‘captors’ for everything victims can lose the ability to feel comfortable alone. While abusive, such isolated and controlling conditions provide intense structure without which victims can feel lost and insecure.
Responsibility, Guilt and Shame
Abusers blame their victims. They deny responsibility and focus on the victim’s ‘problems’ and ‘shortcomings’. They attempt to convince their victims that abuse is a justified and rational attempt to solve problems that begin with the victim. Victims in such relationships can irrationally begin to feel responsible for their abuser’s behavior. This mistaken sense of responsibility can cause victims to change themselves in an attempt to stop the abuse. Even after the relationship, victims may find themselves feeling overly responsible for others. A sense of responsibility is at the core of feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt suggests that one has done something wrong or made a mistake. In battering, a victim who feels guilty believes at some level that she is responsible for the batterer’s behavior. Similarly, shame suggests that the victim is flawed, not good enough and not deserving of the respect and dignity that others are. Victims commonly feel both guilt and shame about having been victimized. The abuser reinforces this by denying his own responsibility for his behavior and blaming the victim.
Despair, Helplessness and Hopelessness
Victims in controlling and/or violent relationships begin to lose hope. The abuser’s control and abuse thwarts any effort their victims make to act independently. Abusers create an opportunity to abuse whenever their victims make independent decisions. After repeated incident, victims feel helpless and believe that they are unable to assert themselves, improve their lives or make meaningful contributions. When abusive relationships end, victims are apt to continue struggling with feelings of despair, helplessness and hopelessness learned in abusive situations. Even when free of coercion and intimidation, survivors of domestic abuse must overcome the helplessness and hopelessness felt in domestic abuse.
Victims of domestic abuse are prone to health problems of all types. Conditions typically associated with prolonged and severe stress such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems are common. Additionally, victims in abusive relationships tend to have a lowered immune response leaving them vulnerable to respiratory ailments and other infections.
Another risk for victims in violent relationships is physical injury and long lasting complications from them. Injuries caused by domestic violence may not be treated because victims feel too much shame to seek help or are too fearful to do so. Some abusers coerce victims to forego treatment for injuries. Consequently, untreated injuries may only partially heal resulting in chronic problems such as back pain. Additionally, victims of all types of assaults are especially vulnerable to head injuries which can have profound and chronic effects upon thinking, memory, mood and behavior. If domestic abuse involves sexual violence, they are at risk for unwanted pregnancy, injury and infection as is any victim of sexual assault.
Depression, Anxiety and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Survivors of domestic abuse are vulnerable to mental health disorders that are direct results of their victimization. Depression and severe anxiety are common problems for victims of battering relationships. These develop within the adverse conditions of violence and control, but can continue to be clinically significant when the relationship is over. Survivors may also develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder which is a persisting reaction to trauma. Many survivors will require mental health treatment for symptoms of such disorders along with counseling that deals specifically with domestic violence recovery.
Victims of domestic abuse are at risk for developing problematic substance use to cope with ongoing abuse as well as the after effects of abuse.
*All original gender-specific nouns have been replaced by “victim” or “survivor”, though the original post focuses on the effects of women in particular.