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Speaking to the Survivor: Why People Abuse, Types of Abuse, and Safely Leaving

Speaking to the Survivor: Why People Abuse, Types of Abuse, and Safely Leaving

Sad girl sitting. Your brain on trauma Triune Thrapy Group Los Angeles, CA.

The image of domestic violence is often painted as a woman clad with bruises; an image that depicts the physical pain her partner put her through. Visuals of women with black eyes and black and blue limbs are jarring and mostly empathized with more than hidden forms of abuse. Physical violence is a horrifying, real experience that many women and men unfortunately experience, but what happens when the abuse one is experiencing is not visible? How do you visually demonstrate the pain someone goes though when their partner is constantly lying and gaslighting them? How do you visibly showcase the post traumatic stress someone can experience when they endure prolonged verbal abuse, name calling, put downs, and character assassinations?

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a topic that deserves a voice, understanding and empathy. The most prolific style of abuse is physical, but many people fall victim to more covert and insidious types of abuse as well – sexual abuse, emotional and verbal abuse, and financial abuse. These types of abuse are harder to visualize because the pain can not always be seen with the eyes. The pain is often emotional and mental and sometimes survivors do not even know for themselves that they are in a toxic relationship. In order to understand the complicated and nuanced dynamic of abusive relationships, it’s important to understand why people abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, domestic violence and abuse stem from a desire to gain and maintain power and control over an intimate partner. The abusive partner often feels an entitlement or right to control their partners and oftentimes even enjoy the feeling that exerting power over their partner gives them. In a healthy relationship, both partners’ needs lie on an even playing field, whereas a partner that has abusive tendencies often believes that their needs are a much higher priority. The effects of these tactics, over time, start to erode the non-abusive partner’s confidence, trust, and self-esteem which makes the idea of leaving their partner feel impossible.

Abusive behavior is learned, oftentimes in early childhood. People with abusive tendencies may have learned abuse by seeing it in their own family dynamic or through the culture or environment they grew up in. In these situations, abusive tendencies are normalized and the cycle continues in their relationships, eventually potentially exposing their own kids to abuse and further perpetuating the cycle. It’s important to note that even if someone develops abusive tendencies because of witnessing or experience abuse or trauma as a child, it does not excuse the abuse that person is placing on others. As individuals, we are responsible for our own actions and should work on developing the strength and self-awareness around behaviors that are toxic and need changing.

In order to understand the types of abuse that exist, it’s important to know what the more covert strategies are.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes actions that pressure or coerce a person into doing something sexually that they do not wish to do. It can refer to actions and behaviors such as rape and restricting access to forms of birth control. It is also very important to note that consent plays an important role in sexual abuse. In many toxic relationships where an individual is being sexually abused, they often do not feel safe to say no, especially if they are dealt consequences for rejecting their partner’s sexual advances. A few signs of sexual abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Unwanted kissing or touching.
  • Unwanted rough or violent sexual activity.
  • Rape or attempted rape.
  • Refusing to use condoms or restricting someone’s access to birth control.
  • Keeping someone from protecting themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Sexual contact with someone who is very drunk, drugged, unconscious or otherwise unable to give a clear and informed “yes” or “no.”
  • Threatening someone into unwanted sexual activity.

Emotional/Verbal Abuse

Relationships can be abusive, even if a partner is not physically violent. Verbal and emotional abuse may not cause physical damage, but the psychological damage covert abuse can have can be significant and long-lasting. Signs of emotional and verbal abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Calling you names and putting you down.
  • Yelling and screaming at you.
  • Preventing you from seeing or talking with friends and family.
  • Telling you what to do and wear.
  • Damaging your property when they’re angry (throwing objects, punching walls, kicking doors, etc.)
  • Blaming your actions for their abusive or unhealthy behavior.
  • Stalking you.
  • Threatening to commit suicide to keep you from breaking up with them.
  • Threatening to harm you, your pet or people you care about.
  • Using gaslighting techniques to confuse or manipulate you.

Financial abuse can be extremely traumatizing as money is a large part of one’s security. It pays for food to eat, a place to live in, and other expenses that one needs in their lives. A partner is being abused financially when they have limited or no control over their financed. Specific red flags of financial abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Giving you an allowance and closely watching what you buy.
  • Placing your paycheck in their account and denying you access to it.
  • Keeping you from seeing shared bank accounts or records.
  • Forbidding you to work or limiting the hours you do.
  • Getting you fired by harassing you, your employer or coworkers on the job.
  • Using your social security number to obtain bad credit loans without your permission.
  • Maxing out your credit cards without your permission.
  • Refusing to give you money, food, rent, medicine or clothing.
  • Spending money on themselves but not allowing you to do the same.
  • Using their money to hold power over you because they know you are not in the same financial situation as they are.

Physical abuse occurs when someone intentionally makes contact with another person that is unwarranted and non-consensual. Physical abuse can be anything from assault that is painful or leaves marks/bruises, but it can also take the form of grabbing, pulling, and forcing someone in a way that isn’t necessarily visible to the eye. Physical abuse can include, but isn’t limited to:

  • Scratching, punching, biting, strangling or kicking.
  • Throwing something at you such as a phone, book, shoe or plate.
  • Pushing or pulling you.
  • Grabbing your clothing.
  • Using a gun, knife, box cutter, bat, mace or other weapon.
  • Smacking your bottom without your permission or consent.
  • Forcing you to have sex or perform a sexual act.
  • Grabbing you to prevent you from leaving or to force you to go somewhere.

Violent and otherwise abusive relationships are debilitating to the individuals that endure them. Being in an abusive relationship can feel very isolating and shameful. It can be extremely difficult for someone experiencing any type of abuse to come forward out of fear, guilt, and other complicated emotions one may feel towards their partner. The process of leaving these toxic relationships are vastly complicated and oftentimes terrifying. It’s important for individuals in abusive relationships to know that they are not alone and they do not deserve the pain they are enduring. As scary as leaving a toxic relationship may be, it is possible.

The stigma around abusive relationships is one major factor when individuals attempt to leave toxic relationships. “Why did he/she stay?” is a question that is often unfairly asked of survivors. Even if the person asking that question does not mean to harm the survivor, it can still feel shaming to the survivor’s experience and invalidating. For survivors, reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, domestic violence resource hotline, or mental health professional is a first step in asking for help and eventually safely leaving the relationship. It is also advantageous to develop a safety plan if a survivor has made the decision to leave. A safety plan is an organized, mapped out strategy for a survivor to leave their abusive relationship. A safety plan can involve strategies to leave their abuser, especially if their abusive partner is threatening or has threatened violence or retaliation against them should they decide to leave. Safety plans are also crucial if other parties are involved such as children and pets. For more information on developing safety plans, The National Domestic Hotline provides a thorough planning strategy for many types of situations.

Posted on behalf of Triune Therapy Group

Resources:

https://www.loveisrespect.org/is-this-abuse/types-of-abuse/
https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/why-do-people-abuse/

FAQ

Ask the experts

Often, when anger is the first response, it’s considered impolite, crazy, bitchy or dismissed as overly emotional. Yet, there are many instances in which one’s anger is stirred, and the key is putting it to good use. For instance, when a loved one is unfaithful, or when insensitive remarks are made concerning one’s ambitions or dreams, when feelings are questioned or when a woman is told to be more vulnerable and subservient. Though family and social expectations place unnecessary burdens on women (and men too), they can channel their anger-filled responses into action by going against the grain, pursuing their own interests or business, going to graduate school and much more. In turn, they’re encouraged to surround themselves with like-minded individuals, committed to supporting and cheering on one another, and ultimately helping the other discover their true potential. This system of support will continue to help individuals convert their anger into action, and perhaps enjoy a few laughs, too.

Yes. One hundred percent. Women are socialized to put relationships before themselves, and this often leads to stifling anger or any feeling that might compromise the bond between two people. This is especially the case in their relationships with men, or in competition for men, and over time, women’s anger and aggression has become more user wraps, or covert. Passive aggression seems to be both the only “acceptable” means of communicating anger, but women are also labeled “manipulative” when they attempt to express themselves indirectly. It becomes a vicious circle of anger, denial or minimization of anger, and then make ourselves smaller just to avoid being a “problem.”

While it is becoming more acceptable for women to show anger, progress is slow. Most of the time, female anger is couched in comedy or parody, and only accepted in small soundbites. Those invested in a patriarchal perspective, men and women, hold firm in their beliefs that women ought to act a certain way, or not make waves. The vary act of saying “we’re angry!” is a bold and pioneering move. Further, some women hold more internalized oppressive views, and refuse to participate in a movement that is labeled feminist or angry. For some women, to do so would compromise their social standing, romantic relationships, financial security, etc. It is scary, because the backlash is real. To take a stand is mark of bravery, and not everyone is ready to avail themselves to the fiery response of those in opposition. My opinion is that over time, the backlash will subside and change will take place. Cultural growth is a slow moving process, and with every voice heard, the collective voice of a paradigm shift grows louder and more effective. I don’t think women (or men) should care about acceptability. The more those who are angry attempt to hustle for the approval of their oppressors, the more power is given away. From my perspective, those who are angry a well suited to unite and establish new norms, refusing to tolerate mistreatment any further.

There are so many way to channel one’s anger constructively. I do not condone any violence (unless in self-defense) and instead think about using anger as a collaborating force within and with others. Being of service to others is one way to channel anger. This is especially relevant because so many women today do not have strong female role models, who they can turn to for advice. Get engaged. Mentor younger women, get a mentor, get creative. How can you pass along the resources (i.e., emotional, financial, logistic, etc) that were not available to you and resulted in your marginalization? What do you wish existed that could have helped you through a particularly challenging experience? Create it. I did, and it changed my relationship with anger and helped me take it for what it is a healthy emotion that lets us know when we feel disrespected or mistreated. This is key information that keeps us psychologically and rationally healthy. Anger is invaluable and an essential part of the human experience. When we embrace that, we can make it work for us in myriad ways.

As a psychologist, patients, friends and family are always asking me advice on their relationships and, let’s be real, everyone else’s relationships. One of the biggest questions they have, is why are there no good men or no good women out there? There are good people out there, I reassure them, but they inevitably come back with some retort about having to settle or face being single forever; for some, a fate worse than death. So herein lies the conundrum stay single forever or settle. Well, let’s back out of the black and white thinking that keeps us stuck for a moment and think about what it means to settle. Most of us have arbitrary ideas or checklists we drag around to assess our swiping situation. Does he make a certain amount of money? Is she pretty enough to take around my friends? Is she/he tall enough/too tall? Is she/he fit enough? What kind of car does he/she drive? Do they like dogs? All-important questions, but what do they really mean about a person’s character or how well you’ll get along? When considering the question of settling, it is important to ask what we:

  1. need in relationships
  2. want in relationships and
  3. won’t tolerate in relationships?

No two relational blue prints will look the same, and there are no right or wrong answers. Let’s look at needs first. We all have intimacy needs, like support, trust, security, communication, touch, respect, etc. They may change over time. That’s okay. Its hardwired in us. We also have relationship wants, the qualities that might ignite our fire a little more intensely. Physical appearance, fitness level, similar hobbies, values, job, financial standing, etc. are examples of wants. There is nothing wrong with wanting whatever you want in a partner. But many times, we mistake our wants for needs and then we feel like we’re settling if the want boxes are not checked, because we’re ignoring the meaning we assign to these traits. For example, consider meeting someone who is two inches shorter than your preferred height in a partner. He or she is funny, witty, charming, consistent, honest, and generous with their time, all of the other wants and needs you’ve identified. They just happen to be a little short-changed in the height department. What does height mean to you? Does it represent strength? Safety? Protection? Status? What does it mean about you if you date this person anyway? Whose judgment do you hear in your head? Why is their judgment so important? Asking these tough questions can help you decide if this is a want or a need, and if the underlying meaning is a need, can that need be met in other ways by this partner or other people in your circle? We often expect our partner to meet all of our needs, and overlook the inevitable disappointment in that expectation. Many people do not know what they need or want in relationships, because they are so eager to be in a relationship that they haven’t stopped to consider what they are looking for in their other half. They accept what is available, to avoid being alone. One day, they wake up and think, “Hey, I think I want more than this. I wish my partner would….” and realize that they might be settling but are afraid to leave. This brings me back to the last point, knowing what you won’t tolerate in relationships. It is just as important to know what doesn’t work for you when considering whether to start, stay in or leave a relationship. For some, deal breakers might include violence or infidelity. For others, perhaps smoking or liking heavy metal is the end of the line. Knowing yourself is key in defining your needs, wants, and deal breakers for relationships. If you don’t know some answers to these three factors, perhaps you’ve been neglectful (and settling!) in the most relationship of all, the relationship you have with yourself. Only when you set intentions and cultivate a relationship with yourself can you invite in the kind of love you are seeking and deserve to have. Until then, you’ll be running in circles, chasing ideas and looking to define yourself in the reflection of another.

Obsession, a thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind, is often what drives addiction. Obsession is about hypervigilance. When we feel the object of our affection (whether real or in fantasy) may not feel the same way, we perseverate about them, ourselves and the relationship. This rumination and over-focus is an emotional survival strategy that keeps our brain playing out all of the what-ifs and looking for answers to the sometimes unconscious ques- tion, “How can I make sure my partner doesn’t leave me?” A milder version of obsession can look like ruminating thoughts. “What if he likes her more than me?” “Did she talk to her ex-boy- friend last night?” “If only I lost those last 10 pounds…” Perhaps you find yourself checking their social media accounts for proof they are with you, or have moved on. Maybe you enlist your friends or family to investigate or check on your desired. At the extremes, obsession can morph into stalking and domestic violence. If we feel threatened at the loss of someone, and re- taliate with this level of possession, it can be dangerous for everyone involved. Contrary to what may be glamorized in movies, extreme jealously and stalking are not healthy courtship behaviors, and can lead to emotional and physical trouble.

Obsession with another person may be a symptom of love addiction, which is essentially an ad- diction to the experience or “high” of being in love, and generally appears on the form of putting another person on a pedestal, creating the fantasy that they are perfect or the one, ignoring their faults or certain red flags that point to the contrary. Love addicts often expect their partners to care for all of their needs. Love addicts often neglect to care for or value themselves while they in the relationship. There often exists a toxic bond or an obsessive attachment in love addicted relationships. Love addicts often continue to engage in the relationship, trying desperately to connect as they search for their self-worth in the relationship, even if the object of their desire is pejorative, hurtful, or abusive. Inappropriate boundaries, abuse, neglect, intimacy issues, chaos, drama are some of the deleterious characteristics of these relationships. Love addicts suffer from profound feelings of shame, anguish, and fear of abandonment.

Since love addicts typically suffer from an anxious or preoccupied attachment (hypervigilance about their partner or the relationship), some signs to watch out for would be someone who is wanting speedy closeness, says “I love you before the first argument, has poor boundaries, is constantly expressing insecurities and worrying about rejection, is often very unhappy when not in a relationship, plays games to keep your attention, has difficulty with direct communication, struggles to effectively express their wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings, expecting you to guess or read his or her mind, acts out, tries to make you jealous, always makes things about him/her- self in the relationship, lets you set the tone of the relationship, seems preoccupied with the relationship, calls or texts excessively, stops by your home or work unexpectedly, fears that the small acts will ruin the relationship, seems to be trying too hard to keep your interest, and is extremely jealous.

If you suspect that the person you are getting to know has obsessive or love addicted tendencies, this does not mean you have to cut them out of your life completely. However, it is important to take things slowly, establish very clear boundaries, assess what works for you and get consulta- tion from friends and loved ones about your experience, pay attention to any attempts to get you to change or disregard your boundaries or needs, use direct, clear communication, and effectively verbalize your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. – Dr. Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., CSAT-S, Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, and Lauren Dummit-Schock, LMFT, CSAT, CoFounder

The first step to getting help from this type of toxic relationship is to recognize narcissism in your partner or spouse. This involves identifying the traits and warning signs of this disorder, which you may have been living with for quite some time. At Triune Therapy Group, we have skilled clinicians who are highly trained to treat those that are in a relationship with a narcissist.

To help you understand the condition and how you may or may not have been affected, please explore the following Frequently Asked Questions and Answers provided by Licensed Psychologist Dr. Kate Balestrieri: Read More FAQs About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Perhaps the greatest hope surrounding the #MeToo movement and other similar movements is that it will generate an awareness of the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace. In doing so, maybe it will initiate and rebirth conversations regarding equality that have since gone underground. This is important, because many people fail to see the ways in which others misuse power and privilege, and how this leads them to engage in predatory behaviors. In another sense, the #MeToo movement could educate people on how to avoid being exploitative, while enlightening them on affirmative consent, power imbalances and how to classify and pursue intimacy and happiness in a authentic, healthy manner.

I work with new mothers and I have on multiple occasions worked with mothers who have experienced a the loss of a pregnancy close to becoming a mother. It is indeed a double whammy. There is so much that gets stirred up, and it intensifies the transition into motherhood and the processing of these loss, exacerbating common life-cycle events, and resulting in undue pressure on new moms, emotionally, physically, spiritually. When we’re trying to understand how motherhood and losses affect us, it is imperative to remember that the transition into motherhood and assimilation of loss are multi-dimensional and encompass physical, social, emotional, spiritual aspects of humanity. Although we mostly associate motherhood with new beginnings and joy, the questions of loss and death and endings actually also come up. Becoming mothers is a definite end to our earlier self, our pre-motherhood bodies and relationships, and mothers must mourn how the idealized fantasy of motherhood is never matched with the reality of the day to day. This is all considered “normal” to go through unless it gets complicated with trauma or major stressors. But if the transition to motherhood coincides with a loss, mothers get all of this thrown at them at the speed of light. It’s like existential pressure overload. – Helena Vissing, M.S., Psy.D. Clinical Associate, Psychological Assistant

The mental health of mothers is a major public health concern. Research demonstrates that depression and anxiety in mothers impact their children. The exact ways children are impacted by their mothers’ mental health involves a complex interplay of factors. We always have to look at the unique combination of risk factors and protective factors for each mother-child couple. If you grew up with a mother who suffered from postpartum depression, you are not necessarily determined to suffer. But we know that on a large public health scale, there is a clear connection between mothers’ mental health and lifelong mental health of their children. The immediate effects of mothers’ depression is that babies become withdrawn and irritable. This is happening at a sensitive time when babies are beginning their lifelong development of emotion regulation. Development is layered and scaffolding throughout life, so a baby who is experiencing these challenges already during their first years will be What we often experience in the consulting room is adults who struggle with feelings of shame and inadequacy or “never being enough”, even when they are normally functioning. They might describe a vague sense of unworthiness that has always “haunted” them. Although it’s widely acknowledged now that our sense of ourselves is rooted in our earliest relationships, it is still overlooked how issues in this area can stem from the emotional pain the child of a depressed mother experienced. This pain does not just disappear as the child grows or if the mother’s mental health improves, as it has influences the very core of the child’s sense of self. Infants and children are developmentally unable to make sense of the intensity of their mother’s depression, but they still feel it. This is because our earliest sense of self is built from our early nonverbal and physical experiences of being cared for. The only way and infant can interpret the signals from a depressed mother is to internalize it, which manifest as a sense of never being enough. Even when the child grows up to be an adult who can rationally separate their mother’s emotions from their own self-worth, the early experiences can still linger and manifest as issues with unworthiness. For each person, it’s a unique story of with all the risk factors and the negative impact on one hand, and then all the mitigating factors and strengths on the other hand. The adult who describes feeling shame and unworthiness might struggle to pinpoint the root of their issues, especially if their mother’s emotional issues were hidden, denied in the family, or minimized. The mother’s emotional state during the crucial early years is often that missing piece to help an adult fully understand their development and life story. Often they are not in a position to communicate about sensitive material with their mothers. This is why it’s crucial that maternal mental health is addressed clearly at all levels of society. The taboo still surrounding motherhood and postpartum emotional issue has devasting consequences for the entire family. I know this is a lot. Feel free to use what makes sense, and let me know if I should clarify things? I tried to use language for laypeople. – Helena Vissing, M.S., Psy.D.