Learn / You’re Still You: Resources for Recovery from Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is more complicated than it sounds. Until you’re in the thick of it, you might imagine the lines are clearly drawn. “If it ever gets physical, I’ll leave right away.” But then it happens on a holiday, or while you’re between jobs. It happens in private, and you can’t remember all the details. So you tell yourself it wasn’t as bad as it felt. Or, it could have been worse. Or, it didn’t really happen at all.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how bad it is. You don’t get a prize for withstanding more abuse. By the time you’re wondering if you need support, you probably do. That means different things for different people. Maybe it’s time to text a friend and ask them to have coffee. If things are more serious, you can call a hotline or find a shelter. And once you meet your basic needs for safety, you might consider rehab that treats domestic violence survivors.
If you’re in a violent relationship, you can get immediate support. These hotlines and resources can help you make urgent decisions and get to safety.
You might not be sure if a relationship is abusive. Maybe the aggressor’s actions seem justified. And if you can empathize with someone, it’s hard to think of them as an abuser. But at the end of the day, even if you understand their motivations, violence is never acceptable. Look for these signs to recognize domestic abuse:
Cultural norms can make it hard to admit that abuse is happening at all. In the media, domestic violence usually takes place in heterosexual relationships, with a man as the aggressor. And it almost always includes a physical attack. But in reality, abuse can be much more complicated.
Domestic violence can happen within any close relationship: between partners, parents and children, or even platonic friends. And it can happen to anyone, including men, CEOs, and people with other types of privilege. Your identity doesn’t protect you from being abused—and it doesn’t have to stop you from getting help.
Approximately 25% of women and 14% of men experience domestic violence1 from a partner. While women are at a higher risk, men are still vulnerable to this dynamic. And the stereotype that men can’t be abused2 may prevent them from getting support.
One study interviewed staff members at an organization that supports male abuse survivors. A service manager for their hotline described a typical conversation with a new client. “I have guys that call me and say ‘I can’t be a victim of domestic abuse…I am a police officer, I’m a judge, I’m a solicitor, I work in the field, I can’t be a victim.’ Even though they know what is going on.”
This reluctance is so common, there’s a word for it. Denial, or minimization, is a common response to trauma.3 It may come from the abuser, who tries to convince you they did nothing wrong. Or it might feel like a way to protect yourself from your own feelings about their abuse. But denial can be invalidating. And no matter who you are, or how society views you, you deserve to be healthy and safe.
Stereotypes can also make it hard to acknowledge abuse between people of the same gender. The narrative that “men can’t be abused and women can’t be abusers” hurts everyone—even LGBTQ+ clients. And the numbers make it clear that abuse goes beyond gender or sexuality. In fact, bisexual people are at greater risk for domestic violence than either gay or straight people.
Even in healthy LGBTQ+ relationships, stigma can prevent you from getting social support.4 And if your partnership gets violent, it gets even harder. LGBTQ+ abuse survivors face unique barriers5 to social services, treatment, and other resources.
There are several reasons for this. First, not all clinicians are experienced in LGBTQ+ issues. And when you’re in crisis, the last thing you want to do is spend time educating a therapist. Some clients might even be afraid to come out to their provider. If that’s your experience, you can connect with an LGBTQ+ affirming program to get effective support.
Drug and alcohol use complicate any relationship. That’s true whether it’s healthy, abusive, or somewhere in between. You might go out drinking with coworkers, and end up kissing your work crush for the first time. Or, you might stay in a violent relationship because it’s the only way you can access cocaine. These are extreme examples, but they’re both on the same spectrum.
Coercion is common in abusive relationships.6 In that dynamic, one person convinces the other to do things they don’t really want to do. This reinforces the imbalance of power. It can also make you feel ashamed of your own actions. And if they’re coercing you to take drugs or drink excessively, there’s a direct impact on your mental health. Drug use can stop you from thinking clearly, so it’s impossible to make an escape plan. It can also dull your emotions and interfere with your memory, so you have a harder time proving there was abuse in the first place.
Drug abuse increases the risk of domestic violence.7 These two patterns also follow a similar rhythm. The high of being on drugs is often followed by the crash of a hangover. The same thing happens in abusive relationships—the good times are the very best, and the bad times are awful. In some relationships, there’s little in between.
When it’s time to leave an abusive relationship, you’ll have some urgent priorities. And your long-term mental health might not be one of them. That’s okay. Start by securing a place to live, an income stream, and other basic necessities. You can plan your emotional recovery when you’re ready. At that point, you’ll have several options.
Trauma-informed care is a general style of treatment, not a specific type of therapy. It’s often helpful for people with specific diagnoses, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (c-PTSD). It can also treat more general symptoms of trauma, as well as addiction and other mental health issues.
In this approach, providers use certain tactics to make recovery accessible. For example, if you get triggered during a therapy session, they’ll know how to respond. Trauma-informed care honors you as the authority on your own experience.
According to experts in domestic violence, a trauma-informed therapist “views individuals as survivors10 rather than victims, and recognizes symptoms as adaptive responses.” In other words, the symptoms of trauma serve a purpose. Or, they did while you were in a dangerous situation. Once you get to a safe place, those same behaviors might get in the way of your mental health. Treatment empowers you to recognize when those responses are and aren’t helpful. You’ll also learn more sustainable coping strategies.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) takes a practical approach to recovery. As a behavioral treatment, it puts you in the driver’s seat. Instead of focusing on how you feel, it teaches you new ways to respond to your feelings. And changing the way you act can improve your life and relationships. In time, you’ll feel better because of your ongoing behavior. CBT is a popular treatment for survivors of partner violence.11
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses physical stimuli to help you work through traumatic memories. Usually, patients describe those memories in detail during a therapy session. By performing certain eye movements, they become desensitized to triggers. But EMDR for domestic violence survivors can look a little different.12 You won’t always recount past memories during a therapy session. Instead, you might focus on mindfulness techniques and free association.
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) was first developed to treat survivors of sexual assault.13 It can also help you heal from other types of intimate violence, like verbal and physical attacks. Unlike CBT, this approach delves into your deepest thoughts and feelings about your trauma.
After intimate violence, many survivors have a sense of cognitive dissonance. For instance, you might blame yourself for someone else’s actions. But at the same time, you may feel like you had no power in the situation. It’s often hard to reconcile your sense of self with the reality of abuse. CPT helps patients make peace with that paradox.
Trauma changes you. Maybe you lost a period of time, or a relationship you cared about. It can even seem like you lost yourself. And the process of recovery can feel a lot like grief.
There’s no simple solution here. But with the right support, there is a way forward. Over time, you can get to know yourself again, and build the beautiful life you deserve.
Connect with a rehab with domestic violence services to learn about their housing options, pricing, and treatments.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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