Supporting women after domestic violence
11 April 2007
A new book discusses how women who leave an abusive relationship go through a process of recovery similar to that following bereavement.
On leaving an abusive relationship, women suffer loss on three levels – material, emotional and personal. Material loss is likely to include the loss of a home which they have struggled hard to maintain, a regular income and most of their possessions. On an emotional level, there is the loss of the relationship, where feelings may be confused, ambiguous and painful and ties of love and affection remain. Additionally, there may be the loss of older children, pets, any support network and an environment which is known and understood, however dangerous it may have become. Finally, loss on a personal level stems from the experience of abuse, with constant criticism and humiliation, verbal abuse, isolation, denial of privacy and other controlling strategies resulting in a complete loss of confidence and self-esteem.
The process of recovery from domestic violence was similar to that experienced following the loss caused by bereavement – an initial impact, a period of transition and adjustment, followed by the development of a new life, identified as phases of Reception, Recognition and Reinvestment. For some women, a further dimension in their approach to life and relationships emerged, which has been termed Realignment.
As in bereavement, the pace of movement between these phases varied and the process itself was fluid and dynamic, with women moving forward and back in their progress. Within each of the phases, there were two distinct and separate sources of stress – the demands of the practical activities appropriate to that phase and the emotional consequences both of the abuse and the losses entailed in leaving the relationship, which needed to be recognised and mourned.
The process of recovery from domestic violence was similar to that experienced following the loss caused by bereavement
Specific traumatic features surrounding a death, such as suicide or murder, can make it more difficult for the mourners to move through the phases of recovery. For these women, the additional burden they carried was the effect that domestic violence had had on their emotional health and mental well being. The unpredictability of abuse had removed any sense of physical or mental safety and a framework for their daily lives. They had lost confidence and respect for themselves as people who were worthy to exist, retaining only the basic instinct for self preservation and survival.
This effect can be understood in terms of Maslow’s concept of human needs, which argues that individuals, once survival needs are partly met, will seek safety and freedom from fear, to connect to others, to experience feelings of self-esteem and to develop their own capabilities. Domestic violence, by destroying the assurance of safety, has removed the platform from which these other needs can be reached, making it harder to work through the process of recovery. Using this paradigm offers a non-stigmatising alternative to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Women stressed the importance of emotional as well as practical support in the process of recovery and identified six specific factors which were crucial in helping them to rebuild their confidence and self-esteem and move forward with their lives. Safety was the most important, followed by respect, a non judgemental approach, being believed, time to talk and support from others who had experienced domestic violence.
On arrival at the refuge and for varying periods afterwards, residents described being in a state of shock, with feelings of numbness and unreality. They also felt fear, almost amounting to terror, of being found and apprehension about the future, the other residents, workers and the refuge.
Their prime need was for safety and time to stand still and be ‘held’. At this time they did not want, in general, to discuss their situation in depth, but active listening, empathy, non-judgemental approach and the feeling that they were believed were clearly important. In addition, peer support was invaluable in helping them to realise that they were not ‘abnormal’.
At the same time as the emotional trauma, women also had to deal with the practical issues of settling in, registering with relevant authorities, claiming benefits and so on. Given their lack of confidence and self-esteem and the fact that they might lack required documentation, this could also be stressful, requiring support and sometimes advocacy from workers.
During this period, women were often, understandably, immensely demanding, both physically and emotionally and required a high level of support.
Some women use a refuge simply to gain a breathing space or for other temporary reasons. For other women, there seemed to be a move to the next phase of ‘recognition’ where they moved from feelings of being and having nothing to recognition of what had happened, an acceptance of the need to take responsibility and the confidence to take charge and explore options.
For many women, this evolved into a changed perception of themselves and their role in society – a complete realignment of attitude and a determination to establish themselves as worthy, autonomous individuals.
As in the reception phase, women valued peer support immensely, both receiving it and being able to give it to others. It was still, however, very important to them to be able to access practical and emotional support from workers when they required it.
In moving forward, women had to take on additional longer term practical challenges, arranging schools, new housing and dealing with legal issues. The pressure of this stress and of the ‘emotional baggage’ that they were also trying to handle, caused wide emotional fluctuations and workers need to maintain a delicate balance between encouragement and challenge as appropriate.
Together, these findings offer help to women who experience domestic violence in understanding their situation and a framework for effective service provision
While in the refuge, women have been, to some extent, sheltered and may have made friends. They now have to detach themselves, withdraw their emotional investment in the refuge and rebuild outside. This was a major shock, even when support was available, and women felt that, without wanting in any way to become dependent, they needed practical and emotional support for a considerable period, and a link back to a familiar place, a contact point where they didn’t have to explain themselves and where they felt accepted. They were wary of disclosing their experiences within their new communities, fearing that they would be stigmatised.
This research shows a complex picture of practical and emotional support needs, with a central theme of loss and a recovery pattern similar to that following bereavement. The process was made more difficult by the effects of domestic violence on emotional health and well being, but could be facilitated by specific attitudes and approaches to support. Together, these findings offer help to women who experience domestic violence in understanding their situation and a framework for effective service provision.
This study was made possible through the interest, involvement and support of the residents and former residents, workers, volunteer staff and management of Penzance, Birmingham and York Women’s Aid.
Supporting Women after Domestic Violence: Loss, Trauma and Recovery by Hilary Abrahams is available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.