Family & relationships

September 14 2016

The impact of intimate partner violence

the Psychlopaedia team
By The Australian Psychological Society

Dominance and control through many forms of abuse is an unfortunately common and destructive force in many relationships.

Intimate partner violence comes in many more forms other than the physical act of hitting, punching or shoving a partner.

Also often called domestic or family violence, it can manifest as control and abuse in any area of a person’s life, from their social life through to their finances, religion and sex life. It can also involve hurting someone’s children or their pets.

Counselling psychologist Carmel O’Brien FAPS*, who has worked with women and children victims of domestic violence for more than 20 years, says intimate partner violence comprises a long list of abuse that has one thing in common – it’s about one person trying to dominate or control the other person.

“When I talk to victims and perpetrators, what comes across again and again is that there’s someone in the relationship who thinks that their views are more important, their needs have to come first, and they basically should be making the decisions and the other person should be toeing the line,” she says.

An ABS report found 89 Australian women were killed by their current or former partner between 2008 and 2010, which equates to almost one woman every week.

It also showed one in six women had experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15, while one in four had experienced emotional abuse.

Ms O’Brien says one key determinant of intimate partner violence is whether the victim fears their partner.

“If what you’re doing makes your partner afraid of you, then you’re abusing your partner.”

How abusers gain control

Perpetrators utilise a range of tactics to gain psychological control of their partners.

In many cases it’s a gradual process, where the victim’s confidence, self-esteem, and perceptions of their world are slowly undermined.

Abusers manipulate their victims through humiliation, isolation, domination, threats, denial, blame, fear and intimidation.

“One woman said she knew when she was getting out of line at social events because her husband would ask her if she wanted her cardigan. That was a signal that she would later on need to cover up bruises,” Ms O’Brien says.

Abusers use common tactics such as blatant physical control, abuse or threats, or a cycle of control and abuse, followed by apologies and loving gestures.

“Those victims start looking inside themselves to find reasons for the abuse,” Ms O’Brien says.

“This person can be really nice to them one day, when they do what they’re told, and another time that person can be abusive, nasty, explosive and frightening.

“If you live with that you can question yourself – it must be me, if only I could get the children to behave better, keep the house clean or be a better cook.”

The perpetrator may question the victim’s decisions, choices, opinions and values.

They may shift the responsibility for the abuse to instead blame the victim. Eventually, the victim may accept the blame, either to end an argument or because the perpetrator has reshaped their views.

Abusers may also isolate victims from their family and friends. This tactic acts as a double-edged psychological sword, preventing victims from experiencing a reality check.

“If you are in a relationship where you’re told that you’re useless, ugly and worthless, there’s nobody to say to you – I really like the way you’re managing your kids or that was a lovely casserole,” Ms O’Brien says.

“In the end, the only view you’re getting of yourself is the view of someone who is being abusive.”

The psychological impact

In severe cases, Ms O’Brien says living with abuse is similar to being in a hostage situation.

“Somebody being held hostage is prevented from feeling that they can be themselves and free to move around in their life as they want to.”

The victim’s self-esteem can be eroded to the point where their sense of self has been replaced by their abuser’s view of them.

As a result, victims are often left wondering whether they deserve the abuse or whether they are partly to blame. This makes it more difficult for them to leave or realise that they are being victimised.

Victims may also experience other psychological impacts such as depression, anxiety, hyper vigilance, insomnia, concentration difficulties, an inability to trust others and self-loathing.

Leaving the relationship

For women in a long-term relationship, the final straw is often when an intolerable boundary is crossed.

It may be humiliation, the abuse changing from verbal and emotional abuse to physical abuse, or the abuse affecting children.

Another common catalyst is receiving a reality check, Ms O’Brien says.

“One woman I know was used to her husband treating her badly. When the family had a garage sale, the woman said it was the way that the customers looked at her when he spoke to her that made her realise that it wasn’t right.”

While perpetrators often use fear and intimation effectively to prevent women from leaving an abusive relationship, Ms O’Brien says women can recover from abuse.

How to seek help

It takes an enormous amount of courage for victims to seek.

Ms O’Brien says help is available, regardless of whether the victim has experienced physical, social, sexual, spiritual or financial abuse.

“A lot of people who are living with violence either don’t know what services are out there or they don’t think those services are for them.”

For some women, the first step is to contact the police to ensure their own personal safety.

Another important step is for victims to confide in someone they can trust, whether that’s a friend or family member, a doctor or a counsellor.

A range of services exist that can help victims get back on their feet with housing, legal or financial assistance.

For professional help, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

* Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society