Okay, all month I’ve been talking about abuse. I talked about it in general, and then I broke down each section: physical, sexual, phycological and neglect. Now I want to talk about the effects that abuse can have on women and their relationships, as well as the cycle of violence.
Effects on romantic relationships
Though there are many women who were abused as girls and yet were able to develop stable relationships as adults, not all women are that lucky. The effects of abuse can vary from minor to severe.
According to a study at the University of Washington led by Mavis Tsai, the two most important factors in a woman’s ability to move past the abuse are support from her friends and family, and understanding partners who will help her to trust again. The study also shows that many women have a hard time moving past what happened to them. For these women, the abuse lingers and prevents them from forming healthy relationships. Some have a hard time separating their abuser from men in general.
One of the most occurring side-effects is the development of trust issues.
Feeling betrayed by their abuser can lead to a generalized mistrust and disgust with men. These victims usually have attachment issues, leaving the women avoidant and dependent. There can also be a negative feeling towards sex, usually felt along with anxiety and dissatisfaction. The sex can even be painful both emotionally and physically for these women.
Promiscuity is not uncommon in victims of sexual abuse.
Women who were abused tend to become sexually active earlier in life than non-abused women and usually with more partners, despite the negative feelings towards sex. It is also common for the women to be distant and controlling. Sex is not only a way that women know how to get attention, but also a way of coping with what happened to them. These women have higher odds of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Women who have been victims in the past are also more likely to be victims again.
The cycles of violence
One of the most common reasons that people abuse is because they’ve either seen or been abused. For these people, ‘normal’ includes abuse. Those with experience as a victim can sometimes chose to abuse simply because abusing is the opposite of being victimized; they only see two roles. Choosing to be the attacker can give them a sese of control that they never had as a victim.
The typical cycle of violence includes a few key phases along with intermittent periods of calm.
The first phase is the tension building phase where the attacker gets angry and stops communicating. This is where occurrences of abuse begin. Next comes the crisis phase, where the abuse really starts to occur. The third phase is the honeymoon phase. Here, the abuser usually apologizes and acts lovingly, trying to reassure the victim that it will not happen again. And then the tension building phase begins again.
During the calm periods in between the phases, the abuser might even claim that the abuse never happened. (This is called gaslighting.) They shower the victim with attention and ‘loving’ behavior. Depending on the people involved, the cycle of abuse can last from a few hours to years. When the cycle of violence is initiated, there is no possibility that they abuse was isolated or a one time thing. There is a pattern of abuse in many cases of domestic violence that can occur and reoccur, sometimes incorporating setup and fantasy into the cycle. The fantasy stage is when the attacker fantasizes about abusing the victim while the set up stage is where the abuser begins to create a situation in which the abuse can begin.
Seeking the familiar
Often times, victims of childhood abuse will unconsciously seek out people in their lives who are similar to the abuser. There is a certain strange (and false) comfort in the familiar, even if it is a bad familiar. Your brain knows what to expect and that helps to relieve a bit of fear. By staying in this ‘comfort zone’, the odds of being surprised are less and that means we can be better prepared for what is to come.
We spend years feeling weak, small and unloved. Missing out on so many possibilities and settling for constant disappointment. But stepping out of this comfort zone and facing the unknown is risky and terrifying. Who knows what to expect? What if you let your guard down and get hurt even worse than before? At least with the familiar, you know what’s coming.
There is also a desire to recreate situations of the past.
As victims of abuse, many of us take on some self blame. We convince ourselves that we are the reason for the abuse; that it is our fault. Because of this conviction, we believe that if we behave differently, the result will be different. Recreating the past allows us to test this theory so that we can prove to ourselves that we can be better. That we can be loved. We think we can change the outcome and finally find acceptance.
Recreating toxic and abusive relationships is extremely common. You’ll see daughters of alcoholics end up marrying a man with a drinking problem. A woman who watched her mother be cheated on ending up with a serial cheater. Girls who were hit by their fathers staying with violent husbands. It isn’t a conscious desire and makes absolutely no sense. But it’s more common than you’d think.
Again, we repeat what is familiar, but we are also doing what we’ve learned and enduring what we were taught was normal, embracing toxic coping systems and bad habits that were formed from a need to survive. We will do anything to find control. There is also the fact that our self-esteem is usually so destroyed that we don’t think we deserve better. And so we either settle for worse or try to ‘earn’ better by trying to change the outcome.
Therapy is one of the ways that has been proven to help break this cycle.
While some victims might be able to function in their daily lives many of them still suffer and need help. There are many ways of dealing with being abused. One of the most important ways is therapy. Abuse can lead to confusion, pain and trouble letting go. Therapy is a proven tool in helping victims work out what happened to them. But it has been found that while regular talk therapy works great for some, it doesn’t work for everyone.
Multisystemic therapy helps improve family and community behavior.
It increases parenting skills, improves the family and helps better the surroundings of the patient with a support system while it focuses on determinates of antisocial behavior. Many studies have proved its effectiveness. One of the goals is to increase parenting skills and parental control while also bringing the treatment to the patient. The therapist will go to where the patient lives or goes to school as the environment of the patient will affect her life and therefore will affect her therapy. Usually the therapist will also meet with the people in the patient’s life. Most multisystemic therapists are constantly on call and deal with the day-to-day, rather than removing the patient from the situation for only a brief period of time.
Art therapy is a another fantastic tool.
This is a combination of art making and therapy, used to increase awareness and to cope with experiences and stress. It came around in the 1930’s when psychiatrists began studying patient artwork for extra insight into the patient’s issues. Over the years, it evolved as a process of communication and treatment. Art therapists are usually trained in art and psychology in order to combine the two in treatment, assessment and research.
Victims of abuse can have trouble letting go of pent-up emotions like anger and fear. Art therapy can help them in this necessary process of healing because art has a way of tapping into emotions. This combined with the fact that it is pulling from emotions rather than intellect allows the victim to express themselves in a way that feels safe. in most cases, the art starts off simple and then evolves. Different mediums can encourage different approaches to art therapy. While crayons encourage control and paint encourages expression, pencils can promote the use of detail.
Art therapy helps create a safe place.
It can give the victim the confidence to face her experiences. A traumatic experience, such as abuse, tends to be hard to verbalize and leave the victim with non-verbal images. One of the ways to face the abuse is creating art, be it graphic narratives, drawings of abuse, or anything else. Art therapy doesn’t mean struggling to make great art, but about the expression and feeling that goes into and comes out of making art.
A study was done combining art therapy with cognitive behavior therapies in order to treat victims of sexual abuse. The study used a trauma symptom checklist for children before and after eight weeks of the therapy. The combination reduced most symptoms and effects of the abuse. Many women’s shelters also support the use of art therapy, displaying works by battered women.
Parent training is also beneficial to children who have been abused.
Some of the key points to parent training are that the parents learn the children’s rights so that they can better advocate for them, as well as understanding that all children have strengths and talents. The importance of education in the home, school and community is also stressed. Family support and development are two other parts of parent training. In the area, the family learns to get involved and help behavioral, emotional or developmental problems. Knowledge, skills and confidence are all improved as well.
AMAC Therapy is a good option for some.
AMAC stands for adults molested as children, meaning that this therapy is geared towards helping adults who were abused in their pasts. There are many negative affects that are common among adults who were abused as children. Some are lower self-esteem, depression, guilt, role confusion, rage, anxiety, fear, panic attacks and self isolation. It is also difficult for many victims to trust or form relationships. Things like difficulty swallowing, poor self image, addictions and phobias are also common, along with the repression of memories. Adults who have been abused are sometimes trained to ignore their needs and wants and have a hard time communicating with others.
While the negative effects of being abused can last into adulthood, it is possible to seek help long after the abuse has taken place. Programs like AMAC which was created by the ChildSafe organization, have been created for this very purpose. The programs are intended to empower victims through individual therapy followed by group therapy.
Many victims repress memories of the abuse or are filled with confusion, shame or fear. In-depth psychotherapy can help with this. Psychotherapy helps to interactively relate a therapist with the victim in a way that helps the victim understand what has happened to her.
Another focus of treatment is reassuring victims that they are not to blame. This is especially true of victims of sexual abuse who may have felt pleasure at the time of abuse. Group therapy is a great way of helping victims to see that it can be completely normal by giving them the opportunity to relate to other victims. This can be a big factor in healing, while also alleviating the sense of isolation.
There are other types of therapy as well.
Hypnotherapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, journal therapy or integral psychotherapy can all be useful in recovering from being the victim of abuse. The key factors in finding effective therapy are that it is non-pathologizing, empowering and collaborative, as well as in depth, in relationship and dealing with the ‘self’. Empowering therapy holds the belief and hope that the victim can heal and therefore grow. Collaborative means that the victim works along with the therapist rather than waiting for the therapist to ‘fix’ her. In depth means that the therapy needs to explore all factors of the issues rather than just focusing on the obvious while the relationship means that the victim and the therapist need to form a bond of trust. The self refers to the therapists’ ability to work with the patient in a calm and compassionate way without re-traumatizing her.
It’s never too late.
Regardless of what happened to you or when it happened, please know that it is never too late to seek help or treatment. You deserve to find happiness and peace. Healing is hard work, but I promise you, it is worth it.
**If you or someone you know has been or are being abused in any sense of the word, please make sure that you seek out some support. Find a way to keep yourself and those you love safe.
The national domestic violence hotline is available 24 hours at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233). They can help in many ways, from answering questions and talking through your options to helping you find a temporary shelter.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, you can dial 988 for immediate access to mental health crisis services.
And if you believe you are a witness to abuse, please speak up. If you are unsure, call one of the above numbers or talk to someone you trust. Don’t wait until it’s too late.