By: Paulina Flasch, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
In recent years, there’s been an increased focus placed on better understanding intimate partner violence (IPV), prevention efforts, and helping victims leave abusive relationships. We’re starting to understand more about the dynamics of abuse and the effects on child witnesses. Furthermore, we are also starting to come to terms with the long-term effects of IPV. These effects include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), long-term physical health consequences, negative career and educational outcomes, and an increased risk of experiencing additional abusive relationships. However, while we know that after-effects of abuse are considerable, research hasn’t quite kept up with the experiences of survivors as they leave abuse behind and attempt to embark on violence-free lives. In fact, little has been done to understand the overall long-term recovery processes from IPV and the factors that help some survivors “recover” while others do not.
The Present Study
In a recent study I conducted with See the Triumph co-founders Christine Murray and Allison Crowe, we aimed to better understand what factors played a role in the recovery process of IPV. Participants in our study included 123 female and male opposite-sex-attracted and same-sex-attracted survivors of IPV who had been out of abusive relationships for at least two years. We were curious to find out what their journeys and recovery processes had been like. What were some things that had helped them along the way? What were their definitions of recovery, and was “recovery” even possible? Their stories shed light on the complex nature of recovering from the trauma of intimate partner violence.
The results from our study revealed a complex process, as we had foreseen. Previous studies examined the topic in a stage-like manner, showing how survivors progressed through clearly delineated stages over time. Our results, however, pointed to a more circular experience, where survivors cycled through different parts and experiences throughout their journey. Furthermore, we found that the survivors of IPV experienced a combination of intrapersonal and interpersonal factors that were present in their recovery. Outlined below is a description of the experiences involved in post-IPV recovery.
1. Regaining and Recreating One’s Identity
Abusers use power and control to make their partners feel worthless and dependent on them. Individuals in IPV relationships are often stripped of their individuality and broken down to the point where they have little self-esteem, believe they deserve the abuse, and have no one but the abuser to rely on. They often lose their sense of identity. It is important for those leaving an abusive relationship to regain or recreate their own identity, figuring out who they are and what they enjoy in life. One participant in our study said: “I felt like as time went by, I slowly gained pieces of myself back. I slowly started to see myself as attractive again, loved being around myself, and just loving me.”
2. Embracing the freedom and power to direct one’s own life.
Survivors in our study shared that their abusers had taken away their power to make their own choices, and even broken down their self-esteem to the point where many didn’t even know how to make choices anymore. A critical step in the recovery process includes survivors regaining their own power and freedom. These steps may include finding new interests, careers, and even making seemingly small choices, such as how to decorate one’s home or what to have for dinner. One participant in our study explained: “I can spray on some perfume in the morning without thinking ‘Uh oh - I'm not allowed to wear perfume’. His rules don't apply anymore and I don't even think of them.”
3. Healing from the mental and physical health symptoms of the abuse
An important step in the recovery process is healing from psychological and physical symptoms. These include the emotional scars that are left from being stripped of power and control, and being broken down emotionally and oftentimes physically. The healing process is individual for all survivors, but may include hospitalization and medical attention to physical damages, as well as addressing emotional needs through means such as counseling, religion/spirituality, meditation, work, exercise, and other healing activities. One participant noted, “Having someone name that I was a victim of domestic violence started the journey, followed by two years of working with a domestic violence advocate and attending group counseling.”
4. Education and examination of abusive relationships
Many victims and survivors of IPV struggle with admitting abuse or understanding the dynamics that exist within IPV. An essential step in the recovery process is examining the abusive relationship and gaining education on IPV relationships and dynamics. One participant stated, “First I had to recognize it as abuse, which was very difficult for me. From there, it became easier to overcome.”
5. Fostering acceptance and forgiveness with self and abuser
Acceptance and forgiveness was part of many participants’ recovery process, although not everyone’s. Many survivors felt that they needed to accept what had happened and forgive not only their abuser but also themselves. Like one person stated: “I have forgiven my perpetrator and I have forgiven myself for thinking that I could be to blame.”
6. Determining whether and how to enter new intimate relationships
Many survivors battled with whether they should enter new intimate relationships. There was much fear involved, as many participants were worried about ending up in another abusive relationship. Many survivors entered healthy positive relationships, while others dated without becoming seriously involved, and while others still abstained from relationships altogether. There was a hypervigilance present in all survivors related to new relationships. As one participant stated, “My husband had to earn my trust and slowly break down my wall, but he was patient and willing to do it for me…He has promised never to hurt me like that and never has. It took years for me to totally trust him.”
7. Acknowledging the long-term process of overcoming abuse
Across the board, survivors acknowledged that recovery was a long-term process, and that certain things that were seemingly already “dealt with” sometimes crept up again. Survivors saw their process as a journey that would always continue in some way or another. The way that the long-term process was viewed seemed to make a difference for survivors. Most participants acknowledged the long-term process as a life journey, while others saw it as a prison sentence.
8. Building positive social support and relationships (i.e., not in the context of an intimate relationship).
An interpersonal process, social support by family, friends, community, religion/spirituality, and counseling and IPV support was an essential part of the recovery process. Certain parts were often present in survivors’ experiences: (a) regaining trust in others, (b) creating a positive context for parenting, and (c) taking steps to repair, or choose to end, relationships that may have been damaged as a result of their experiences with abuse. Having a strong social support not only helps victims leave abusive relationships, but it also helps them recover from the trauma and build themselves back up. One survivor stated, “The key points for me were the fact that I was able to gain a support system that understood my fear and what I had been through. I was able to join support groups that had other people affected by violence that could understand and we could relate with each other.”
9. Using ones’ experiences with abuse to help others
Another interpersonal process that helped in the recovery process included advocacy work and helping others. Overwhelmingly, survivors who seemed to recover well were involved in helping others in some way. Many individuals went back to school and joined the helping professions, while others volunteered at local domestic violence agencies to help others in their situation. Further still, many survivors felt they needed to help themselves and fully recover before they could help someone else. Overall, there seemed to be healing powers in the act of helping others.
Implications for Research and Practice
Our study shed light on a process that has received very little attention in the literature and in practice. The process of recovery from abuse is different from simply avoiding consequent abusive relationships, and is an important one to understand, since survivors of IPV experience long-term mental-health, interpersonal, career, and physical problems as a result of the abuse. Future studies may want to explore the various factors of IPV in-depth, and may also want to consider using quantitative measures and instrument development.
By better understanding how survivors of IPV recover from past abuse, practitioners can more accurately target intervention strategies and support their clients. A key finding in this present study is the cyclical and highly-personal nature of recovery. Thus, it is important that practitioners value and understand the individual nature that survivors experience as they recover from abuse, as each survivor’s journey is unique and different from another’s. However, the processes involved for survivors of this study may be used as a framework for exploring clients’ stories and making sense of their own individual recovery processes. In fact, sharing the experiences of other survivors with clients at differing stages in the recovery process may help them gain insight and awareness into their own situations and may provide a forum for discussion and empowerment.
Paulina Flasch, M.S., Ed.S., NCC, LPCA, RMHCI is a doctoral student in the Counselor Education program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She has worked with primary and secondary victims and survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in a variety of settings, including residential shelter programs, intensive-in-home settings, and community clinics. Her research interests include IPV, gender and sexuality, Jewish issues in counseling, and altruism. Her dissertation topic is post-IPV recovery.