How I Help People Start Healing From Domestic Abuse

Written by Adele Theron

I have been a divorce and trauma therapist for five years and more than 750 people have completed my divorce healing program. Around 15% of those people have come out of violent relationships or experienced physical or emotional abuse in their relationships.

Time and time again, I see these individuals continue to beat themselves up about what has happened to them. Mostly these reactions stem from some form of guilt and shame. Guilt that they stayed with someone who hurt them. Guilt that they hurt other people by staying. Guilt that they hurt other people by leaving. Guilt for going back. Guilt for not going back. Guilt for standing their ground. Guilt for being gullible and weak. They not only feel the pain of trauma itself, but they have absolutely no compassion for themselves.

The thing that makes treating domestic abuse so complicated is that there are so many layers to the pain. Being victimized by a loved one is not the same thing as being attacked by a stranger on the street. It is a kind of violation and betrayal that often leads to being terrified of love in general, as if love necessarily leads to pain and abuse.

To cope in a domestic abuse situation, people often construct a dream world of what their relationship is like in order to escape the reality of the abuse. In this way, the process of healing is further complicated, as it in piercing through an immense amount of idealism and nostalgia.

Helping my clients confront the reality of their situation without caving in on themselves due to a lack of self-compassion is a difficult process. For most victims of domestic abuse, it’s only natural to try and rationalize their pain. There must have been a reason, you tell yourself. I must have done something wrong.

A large reason for this is because abusive partners are masters of mind games. They are great at making their victims feel like they're going crazy, being melodramatic, or that the situation is all in their head. My client Mandy, for instance, repeatedly told herself that she probably deserved her partner’s abuse — likely for not keeping the kitchen immaculate or her baby quiet. She felt that her natural, human imperfections antagonized him.

Then there was Sophie, who would get so bombarded with her husband’s demands that she would freeze in fear. This, in turn, would make him crazy because she couldn’t respond. Or take Edward, who thought that when his wife hit him, he had to take it or she might hit the children in the same way. So he kept telling himself, "Better me than them, better me than them."

Walking away is the first step, but the confusion and nagging sense of self-doubt often remain. And thanks to a phenomenon called "hindsight bias," this problem often get worse. Hindsight bias (also known as the “knew it all along” effect) is an unhelpful habit that humans have of looking back over things that have happened and deciding that we should have seen it coming — even when there’s no reason to think we could.

Hindsight bias is the reason we review events in our minds over and over again, berating ourselves for acting in particular ways OR not acting in ways that could have prevented a disaster. Maybe we make big decisions in an emotional state and later regret them. In Sophie's case, she felt]\ that her lack of decisive action brought on her husband’s violent side. Whenever we live in our minds and are not present, we struggle to act in the most rational way and berate ourselves unnecessarily with statement like “You should have been stronger/smarter/better! We scream at ourselves, How could you let this happen?

Do these accusations help? Of course not.

In fact, sometimes they exacerbate our pain to the point that we seek out new drama just to distract ourselves from the trauma and the guilt. So if you’re struggling with the question of how to leave an abusive relationship, to move on and to heal, the foundational starting place is recognizing that you need to be gentle with yourself.

To heal, one must relearn how to give and receive care, starting by treating themselves with the compassion they so desperately need. Here are 5 tips to put into practice:

1. Remember that you don’t have a time machine.

You cannot go back to the situation where you made the poor decision or took an action you regret. You did the best you could with the information and resources you had at the time period.

2. Understand that berating yourself and being down on yourself is taking you backward in your healing.

For every foot forwards, when you put yourself down, you go back 10 steps. Always try to be aware of any hindsight biases in the way

3. It’s important to write the whole story of your relationship out from beginning to end.

You kept going back to your partner who hurt you because there was a side of you that believed the love story and hoped the love story had a happy ending versus being willing to see the reality for what it was. The part of you that thinks there is hope needs to wake up and realize the nightmare.

While it’s important to stare these facts in the face, it's essential to do so with self-compassion. In the past, maybe you confronted reality with eyes of blame and self-hatred. Maybe you found you couldn't live with those feelings, so you had to hide away in emotional avoidance tactics (hours on Facebook, TV, wine, shopping). But to stop the cycle of abuse, you need to invite the reality in with clarity and a gentleness of heart.

4. Learn how to self soothe.

As a child, maybe your parents didn't leave you the time and space that you needed to teach yourself how to self soothe. That is NOT your fault.

But it's something to note. When not taught to self soothe we can only soothe through something external. Perhaps food, sex, alcohol, or the feeling of someone needing you is what soothes you. As a result, when we don’t get this external soothing, we may feel like addicts, pining for our fix.

This sense of codependency with external validation or comfort is a byproduct of not knowing how to tolerate feeling lonely, abandoned or rejected. Yet ironically, the only way through those feelings is to feel those feelings fully. Self-soothing is about being with the chaos and staying centered in the middle.

5. Recognize that setting boundaries with your violent partner is not necessarily a good tactic.

Rather, leaving is the best way. Then, once you have left, it’s important to learn to set powerful boundaries in your life with people around you to restore your sense of self. Self-love and self-care are a function of the boundaries we have in place in our lives and tolerating other people’s emotional outbursts is not healthy for us.

Finally, to conclude, here are five steps to find personal power in the face of your partner's emotional outburst:

STEP 1: Understand that the angry or emotional outburst is not personal to you.

It’s about the wounded little boy or wounded little girl inside the person who is shouting or screaming. If seated, stand up and stand tall with your shoulders back and hands at your sides. As the person is saying whatever they are saying, tell yourself that whatever they are saying is about them feeling hurt and wanting to hurt someone else. It has nothing to do with you.

STEP 2: Look intently at the person, to assure them that you are listening.

Stop doing what you are doing. Do not fidget and switch off the television. Often what riles people the most is the feeling that they are not being listened to. Eliminate this possibility by giving them the assurance that you are listening to them.

STEP 3: Do not react.

Allow whatever they are saying to wash over you. When they are done ranting or having their say, simply do the following: Take a deep breath and say, “I understand that you are feeling angry (or upset, or disappointed, etcetera). I understand that because of this situation, you feel this emotion very strongly.” Do not respond to the specific points of what they said. Simply say that you are “willing to talk when things are calmer.”

STEP 4: Simply walk out of the room and leave.

Have a cup of tea and be still. Try not to raise your voice to match them, just refuse to play the game.

STEP 5: If you feel that discussions are impossible, write a letter adopting a very factual matter-of-fact tone. Once talking can commence, try this technique:

  • Begin with "When you do X ..." to describe their exact behavior in detail so that it’s not subject to personal interpretation or assumptions.
  • Then say, " ... I feel" to express your emotions. For example, "When you raise your voice, I feel scared and intimidated."
  • Finally, express, an "I want" statement to provide a clear answer as to what you're looking for, and be specific. For example, "I want you to tell me directly what you are angry about."

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