Domestic abuse: Britain’s dirty secret

I have a secret that I’ve been told not to tell anyone. It damages me and others that I care for in ways I know to be physical, emotional and psychological. If I was to open my mouth and reveal this secret and speak the words I have feared and am too ashamed to voice, then maybe, just maybe things might change for the better, for me and my loved ones. But I’m scared. So many people, including family and friends, tell me not to say anything. That I better not, for fear of what might happen to me or my loved ones. After all, I don’t know what s/he is capable of, I don’t know what form the reprisals could take. So even though, I’m hurting and know deep within me that I should probably talk to someone and get out of this relationship, I think it’s best for now and safer, if I do what I’m told and continue to put up with it. Besides it’s not always this bad, it can be ok at times. And even if I was to leave, I might not be able to cope on my own. Yes, when I think about it, it’s best for everyone if I stay and say nothing.

The above quote is based on statements made by men and woman who have or are experiencing domestic abuse. It highlights some of the ways in which confusion, contradiction and fear mark their experiences. In this article, how and why this happens, as well as the impact it has on those living with the abuse will be explored. This will be followed by a look at how therapy might be for someone who would like to talk about their experiences of domestic abuse, and will end with details of support agencies that can be accessed if you or someone you know is being affected by any of the issues raised in this article.

The cross governmental definition of domestic violence 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.” Source: www.gov.uk

This definition makes it clear that domestic abuse can be physical as well as non-physical; be experienced by anyone irrespective of their gender, age, social class, ethnicity and sexuality. It happens in all types of relationships – bisexual, 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 step-family can be perpetrators. It includes honour-based violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriage abuse.

Domestic abuse is physical and non-physical. Physical examples include hitting, slapping, pinching, burning, biting, arm-twisting, stabbing or strangulation. Non-physical forms include emotional abuse, for example, constant critiscm or belittling, yelling, name calling, blaming and shaming, put downs, or 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 include financial abuse 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; critiscing sexual performance and desirability or accusations of infidelity can take place. Coercive control, a phrase coined by academic Evan Stark, is ever present in these kinds of relationships. It allows the perpetrator(s) to create worlds where their rules govern how their partner should behave and are sustained through the abused person’s “allegiance” to them. These rules are unpredictable and capricious.

The impact

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. Some may trust others too soon, with too much, making them more vulnerable to further abuse. For others, a belief influenced by domestic abuse that people will let them down, belittle, or hurt them, means engagement and trusting others will be challenging leading to further isolation.

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.

Children and others who witness domestic abuse can also be affected by it. They can develop skin rashes, experience sleep disturbances, wet the bed and regress developmentally. On an emotional level – the children I have worked with can exhibit intense feelings of fear and anxiety because they don’t feel safe. Some siblings feel enormous amounts of guilt and shame. This derives from a misplaced belief that they are responsible for the abuse or culpable for not protecting their siblings and/or the adult being abused (normally a parent) from the abuser. Children, like adults, who have experienced domestic abuse, may then suffer from low self esteem and depression. Some may externalise these feelings by becoming aggressive (some become bullies), developing eating or anxiety disorders, whilst others may become more introverted, or withdrawn. Many become victims of bullying. 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 do they stay in an abusive relationship?

Given my experience of working with survivors of domestic abuse, 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 and erratic abuse. It is these conditions, which create dependency and it is the nature of this dependency that marks how strong the relational ties between abused and abuser are. To explain: 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 their 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 one another.

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 L.E. Walker in 1979 can be used to illustrate that both are evident in domestic abuse. There are three main stages : stage 1 where tension is building and there is a breakdown of communication. This can lead 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 is the capricious nature and unpredictable duration and severity of each phase that keeps the one experiencing the abuse “off balance”. Moreover, it provides evidence that the relationship and the abused is “not all bad” giving hope to the abused that the abuser can change. This and the interdependency inherent within each of these stages is what strengthens emotional attachment from the abuser to the abused and the abused to the abuser.

These bonds are 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”,blame them for the abuse, see them as “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 that things will get better, and 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. Thus, they 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? (source: 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. The therapy would be very mindful of safety issues. Additionally, policies relating to safeguarding and confidentiality would be discussed at the outset, so the client is clear as to how these matters would be addressed if they came up in the course the therapy. These assumptions are important because they provide the framework in which all therapy is then conducted: Thus, the therapeutic experience should be one where there is transparency, the client feels safe and contained, leads the process: is heard, understood, respected and not judged; offered hope, compassion and empowered to make the best decisions for them.

Each survivor’s experiences of therapy will be different though. For some, the experience of being able to tell their story, to have it heard, to gain an understanding of why it happened to them could be all they need initially. For others, a longer process may be what they seek, where working through the traumas, and the many losses associated with them takes place. This is not easy work especially when life outside the therapy room may be very difficult for those clients in abusive relationships or those who have left one; so good therapy would look at ways to support the individual in the here and now, and offer strategies for self care. By doing this, it is hoped that therapy would enable survivors, be it man, woman, boy or girl to heal and grow from the many dark, insidious wounds that mark the affliction of what is one of Britain’s dirty secrets – Domestic abuse.

Take good care readers.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse and you live in Britain then please contact the following agencies:

  • In case of an emergency, ring the Police on 999

  • Samaritans: 0845 790 9090

  • Milton Keynes UK – MK ACT Helpline: 0344 375 4307 (Monday to Friday, 9-5pm)

  • National Domestic Violence helpline: 0808 200 0247 (24 Hours)

  • Mens Advice Line: 0808 801 0327

  • Forced Marriage Unit (Foreign Office): 0207 008 0230

  • The Female Genital Mutilation: 0800 028 3550 (24 Hour free phone)

  • Milton Keynes UK- Milton Keynes Council Social Services: 01908 265545 (out of hours)

  • National Stalking Helpline: 0300 636 0300

  • Police Domestic Abuse Unit: 01908 276103

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