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Family, Friends and Partners Trauma

Dealing with the Trauma of Domestic Violence

The impact of domestic and family violence

Those of us who have experienced domestic violence know the life-changing impacts it can have on us and our families. These impacts can extend to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stresssubstance abuse and addiction. We may spend significant amounts of time in denial, or engaging in self blame, so it’s important to remind ourselves: Everyone has the right to live in a safe environment without fear.

Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence is a form of complex trauma and can trigger a range of emotional and psychological responses in us. If we’re constantly feeling unsafe in our own home or around the people who are supposed to love and care for us, it can lead to many challenging and distressing thoughts and feelings.

We may feel upset, scared, angry, ashamed, anxious or powerless, or we might feel like we’re in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. We can find ourselves unsure of reality and with twisted perceptions of ourselves. These are all very common responses.

“We often see patients who have had a personal experience of trauma or witnessed domestic violence as a child between their parental figures,” explains Alyssa Lalor, Program Director of South Pacific Private.“Children exposed to violence in the home are especially vulnerable and can experience profound impacts on their physical, psychological and emotional health and wellbeing. Research suggests that the younger the child, the more harmful the traumatic experiences can be in terms of brain development.” 

When we’re in the thick of a domestic violence relationship, it can be difficult to make good judgments and see the reality of the situation clearly, Lalor says. We may be in denial, or we may blame ourselves. “Victims of domestic violence have been systematically programmed to believe that they cannot and will not survive without the abuser,” says Lalor.

Logistical and practical challenges can also present an issue. “They may have no means to support themselves or their children, no safe place to go or be in fear of retribution by the abuser so they are literally stuck,” she says.

Long after the family violence has occurred or after the abusive relationship has ended, we may continue to encounter triggers which leave us reliving experiences and re-experiencing our trauma responses and coping mechanisms. This has the ability to affect other relationships and lead to long-term psychological difficulties. According to Lalor, this is one of the many reasons why it’s important for survivors of domestic violence to seek support to unpack these experiences with a trained clinician.

Survivors of domestic violence may struggle to regulate strong surges of emotions such as fear or shame, here at South Pacific Private we aim to help them learn how to deal with these in a healthy and affirming manner through interpersonal work in our group therapy programs, as well as within our broader therapeutic community,” Lalor says. “Our aim is to help build a victim's sense of self and personal agency and safety by harnessing and growing the belief that they are 'good enough' and worthy of love – and do not deserve to be abused and hurt.”

The signs of coercive control and domestic violence

Domestic violence occurs predominantly between intimate partners, and is often gendered, committed primarily by men against women, but also in same-sex relationships, against children, and against other vulnerable individuals. It is a repeated pattern of behaviour that may include physical acts of violence, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse in intimate or family relationships. It can happen to anyone and be inflicted by anyone, regardless of their religion, culture, sexuality, gender, age or socio-economic status. 

Domestic violence is often also closely tied to a dynamic of coercive control, which refers to a pattern of controlling behaviours that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. “These behaviours give the perpetrator power over their partner, making it difficult for them to leave,” says Lalor.

Whether domestic violence is present or not, indicators of coercive control should be bright red warning signs in any relationship. They include:

  • Isolating you from your support system 
  • Monitoring your activity throughout the day 
  • Denying you freedom and autonomy 
  • Gaslighting 
  • Name-calling and putting you down 
  • Limiting access to money 
  • Reinforcing traditional gender roles 
  • Turning your kids against you 
  • Controlling aspects of your health and body 
  • Making jealous accusations 
  • Regulating your sexual relationship 
  • Threatening children or pets 

Getting out of a Domestic violence relationship

Unfortunately, many people feel trapped in their situation, facing both logistical and emotional hurdles. We may fear for our safety, the safety of others or may genuinely feel as if there's no way to address the issue within the relationship, or live without our abuser outside of the relationship. 

In all cases, it’s important for victims to seek support from someone trustworthy, to build outside connections and to start taking steps toward freedom and autonomy, even if they may be small or modest at first. “Sometimes it can feel like a game of chess," Lalor says, "as they start to move pieces of their lives around without being detected to lay the groundwork for more autonomy -- the last thing we want is to set off the abuser."

For more advice, and to reach out for help in ending a domestic violence situation or to seek support for yourself or others in dealing with the trauma:

If you or anyone you know needs help:

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