Something is Wrong
Many of us are familiar with the feeling that something is simply ‘not right’ in our relationship. The constant fighting; the demeaning comments about your appearance; the sense of relief you feel when your partner is out of the house for a few hours. Intuitively you know that something is amiss, but you cannot clearly articulate what is wrong. Worse yet, it may not be a small rough patch that needs to be smoothed over. Rather, you may be realizing that your relationship has never truly been a fairy tale romance or even remotely loving, giving, or joyous. While romance, lust, and a sense of ease may wax and wane through different seasons of life, most healthy and sustainable relationships start and maintain some level of ease and gentleness.
As you reflect upon this ideal of ease and joy, you may become aware that your relationship is showing signs of abusiveness, toxicity, or narcissism. These signs can be both overt and covert. Your partner may go to great lengths to make you feel crazy for questioning this realization. This, of course, is a red flag but there is more on gaslighting to come. Suffice to say, if your partner regularly humiliates you, intimidates you, restricts your access to friends, family, or money, or, of course, hits, punches, kicks, or sexually assaults you, then you are in an abusive relationship. One punch, one rape, one forced captivity is too much.
You Are Not Alone
Since 1981, October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month. What started out as the National Day of Unity has morphed into bringing a public, month-long, awareness to domestic violence and intimate partner violence. As social mores and cultural norms have progressed over the past 40 years, research institutes like the CDC and NIHI now interchange the terms intimate partner violence and domestic violence. This is because we know that many people do not marry nor live with their romantic or intimate partners. Yet, the violence persists.
The statistics on Domestic Violence in the USA are staggering and, it is important to note that most cases of domestic violence are not reported. Just to clarify what I mean by staggering consider a few of these facts:
- 1,500 deaths occur in the United States each year because of domestic violence
- Of those who have died at the hands of their spouse or partner, the vast majority were treated in an emergency room within the 2 years prior to their death
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes
- 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime
- 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 6 men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime
- 20,000 calls per year are made to domestic violence hotlines
- 1 in 6 women are stalked in their lifetime and the majority are stalked by someone they know (and usually it is an intimate partner)
What is Domestic Violence?
You may be wondering what exactly constitutes an act of violence within a relationship. That is a reasonable question at this point. The CDC defines domestic violence as “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression (including coercive acts) by a current or former intimate partner.” I would expand upon this definition by adding that psychological or emotional abuse comes in many forms. It can be hard to decipher and it can often by denied by a partner to the point of manipulation via gaslighting.
Gaslighting is essentially the most powerful and effective way that abusers manipulate and control their partners. In essence, the abuser denies your reality so convincingly that you begin to question your own thoughts, memories, perception, and intuition. You no longer feel confident in your knowledge about what is right and healthy in a relationship. If the aggression escalates to this point, the abuser has a dangerous amount of power and control.
Common gaslighting phrases your partner may use are, “It didn’t happen like that… your memory is terrible” or “You must be crazy, I barely touched you..”, “I would never take money from your wallet, you must have lost it because you are so forgetful…”, or “That text message was for a friend, he lost his phone… no, I am not cheating on you, like I said, that message wasn’t for me…”. You get the idea. If your partner lies often enough and distorts your sense of reality with enough vigor, you will succumb to emotional fatigue and you will begin to question your perception of reality. That is a dangerous place to be.
If you ever talk to people who have been involved in toxic, narcissistic, or violent relationships, they will often tell you that the psychological damage leaves deeper wounds than the physical violence. While the scars of physical abuse will heal, in most cases, the psychological scars can last a lifetime. These scars show up as nightmares, flashbacks, negative self-talk, self-criticism, headaches, extra body fat or unexplained chronic pain. This means that long after the abuser is gone, the effects linger. There is no rest from your own unrelenting mind, not even in sleep.
By no means am I saying the physical assaults and sexual traumas are not damaging, but many victims are quick to dismiss the emotional toll of living with an abuser when they are still actively involved in the relationship so it is important to emphasize that emotional abuse is still abuse.
Is Fighting Normal in a
Intimate partner violence is not simply having a fight over who is doing the dishes or whether or not you will spend your bonus on a lavish vacation or put it away for retirement. Fighting, disagreements, bad moods, and miscommunication are all part of normal, healthy, interpersonal relationships. It is fair to say that the longer you are married or partnered together, the more experiences with miscommunication you may have. No doubt, the current health pandemic has brought a new level of stress and physical closeness to many healthy relationships. And the effects of the pandemic on already strained relationships is, of course, much more damaging.
Remember that being married or committed to someone does not mean that you think the same thoughts or hold the exact same perspective or beliefs as your partner. It simply means that you can hold a conversation with differing views and still love and respect each other in the process. And, if things cannot be resolved amicably, most marriages and partnerships come to a natural end without violence. In other words, most people have learned to employ healthy ways to end unhealthy relationships without resorting to violence.
Toxic, narcissistic and violent relationships are different. Intimate partner violence leaves physical, sexual, and/ or emotional scars that severely and negatively impact your sense of self-esteem, self-efficacy and agency. In the worst-case scenarios, this form of emotional and physical abuse can cost you your life. As we already learned, more than 1,500 people die each year from domestic abuse. Leading up to this most final act of unspeakable violence, most often, there will be years’ worth of lesser abuses – black eyes, broken bones, threats of violence, rape, stalking, restrictions, and emotional intimidation. Your abuser will also have knocked your self-esteem so low that you may believe that this is what you deserve or that he or she is the only one willing to love someone was worthless as you.
Let me make this clear: these are lies told by your abuser to keep you stuck, hopeless and fearful. None of what they say is true. Every human is worthy of a joyous, abundant, peaceful life. You did nothing to deserve the situation that you find yourself in; you are a victim of abuse. Victims are never to blame. Abusers are to blame. Read that again if you need to.
LGBTQIA+ Intimate Partner Violence
I want to address those of you involved in non-traditional relationships. Whether you are a cis-gendered gay male, pansexual female, or polyamorous, you too can (and do) experience intimate partner violence. Your experience with domestic violence is somewhat different, however. A multitude of research indicates that same-sex and bisexual couples experience intimate partner violence at the same or higher rate of heterosexual, cis-gendered, couples.
While the research is scant on transgendered victims of intimate partner violence, what we do know is that you are the least likely group to report such offenses because of the additional fears of threats, intimidation, harassment, and violence that are inherent in disclosing a non-traditional gender identify and lifestyle.
We also recognize that for these marginalized groups, the fear of persecution or non-acceptance (at a minimum) by health care professionals, law enforcement officers, peers, and family is real and is often the main reason why they resist seeking help or leaving an abusive relationship. Furthermore, these marginalized populations fear being “outed” by their partner as a retaliation or being subjected to further abuse such as being called “it” or other offensive and derogatory terms aimed to undermining confidence and self-agency in the wake of a break-up.
While one study suggested that up to 45% of those who identify as LGBTQIA+ will not make a police report because they believe making it “will not be helpful”, a number of other studies indicate that counseling or psychotherapy are particularly helpful in healing from abuse and violence.
Healing After Trauma.
Trauma can cause complex and lasting changes to how you live your life. It will most likely impact how you view the world and how you relate to other people. It will rob you of your sense of internal and external safety. It can also make you feel as though you are stuck in a sea of hopelessness and helplessness.
Furthermore, trauma changes the way your brain functions. Your limbic system – the system that is designed to alert you to danger and then return to homeostasis- is left running on full speed with no intention of resetting to normal state of rest. This means that your body will be inundated with stress hormones and you will be left in a constant state of arousal and fear.
The good news is that you can heal from the abuse and trauma. Just as your brain and body respond to the trauma with hypervigilance, they too can be reprogramed or rewired in a positive way, thanks to neuroplasticity.
Starting your healing journey can be difficult. To begin with, you might not know who to trust or how to express your story. When you live through incredible trauma or abuse, there are often no words or language that encompasses your pain or story. You may also find yourself with limited resources. It’s understandable that if you had to flee in the night from your abusive spouse, you may be without the financial resources to get help from doctors and counselors. However, there are many free resources such as RAINN, The National Domestic Violence Hotline & Suicide Prevention Lifeline that are ready to take your call 24 hours a day. Additionally, most cities and states have local Family and Children Centers that can provide you with local resources for legal aid, shelter, group therapy and state-assisted health care.
Silence is Violence
If you’ve made it this far, I want to ensure you that seeking help from friends, family, peer support groups, local shelters, domestic violence organizations, medical doctors and licensed therapists and social workers will provide you with a starting point for healing. The journey may be long and arduous, but it will be worth it. By sharing your story and growing stronger you have the potential to empower others to do the same. It is my hope that this topic continues to be given space in our lives through social media, news articles, and general conversation amongst neighbors and colleagues so that any shame is lifted and awareness and healing can prevail.
If something here resonated, please reach out to a licensed professional in your area. Directories such as Psychology Today can help you find a licensed therapist in your zip code and emergency rooms and women’s shelters (in particular) are prepared and ready to help you. Healing is possible but first you must get to safety. The most basic human need is safety so please seek safety above all else. You deserve it, and if there are children living with you, they deserve safety too. Although, things may feel overwhelming and hopeless now, they will not feel like this forever.
RAINN (Anti-sexual violence organization): 1.800.656.4673 (HOPE)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255 (TALK)
National Domestic Violence Life-life: 1.800.799.7233 (SAFE)
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: https://ncadv.org/resources
About the Author
Carrie Mead, MS, LCPC is a professional counselor licensed in the state of Maryland, Reiki practitioner and Certified Seasons of Change Life Coach. Carrie utilizes a center-person holistic approach to healing and she honors the client as the expert of their own lives. Carrie earned her Master’s Degree in Counselor Education from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD where she resides with her family. Carrie studied life coaching at the Institute for Life Coach Training. When not working, Carrie can be found in her garden where she grows vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers or you can find her in a sunny and quiet corner of her home with a cup of coffee and a good book. For more information, visit www.curiositylifecoaching or www.marylandtherapycarrie.com