Note: If you are the victim of domestic abuse or suspect a loved one is being abused, please seek help from a professional or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
With the recent murder of Gabby Petito, many issues related to domestic violence are once again in the media. While there are articles on the tell-tale signs to look for in a potentially abusive partner, there’s not enough emphasis on how it actually feels to be in the relationship itself. And these feelings often lead the victim to stay longer than they should, sometimes with devastating consequences.
It’s important to note that while in some cases therapy can help the abuser, and subsequently the couple, in many cases of domestic violence the only way to ensure the safety of the victim is to leave the relationship with as much support as possible.
To help shed light on life in an abusive relationship, we’ve spoken to those who’ve had personal experience of abuse. Here’s what they tell us about what it’s like, and how loved ones can offer help and support.
1They’ve normalized abusive behavior
While constantly walking on eggshells becomes the norm, so too is being on the end of a stream of verbal or physical abuse. Behavior that might shock others often becomes a way of life. Those on the receiving end know that it’s not right but they feel the need to it, often for the sake of their children or for their own safety. In fact, where children are concerned, the abused parent can often feel like a fireman, constantly putting out the “fires” their abusive partner starts to keep the home as calm as possible.
How you can help: Gently remind the person being abused that they should not have to live with abuse in their lives. And emphasize that with the support of loved ones they can find a way to live a life of peace. You need to reassure the victim that a life without an abusive partner is possible and they will not be alone if they take the frightening step of leaving the relationship.
One of the worst things about domestic violence is that the victim is humiliated — not just by their partner, but by the situation itself. They look around at other couples and think of the family life they dreamed of having. And while they try to save face and pretend everything is okay, inside they feel like a failure. They endlessly question their role in the relationship … What they’re doing wrong, how they could improve things. Can they help that person see the light? The responsibility lies so heavily on their shoulders it can be soul crushing as well as physically exhausting.
How you can help: Tell the victim that you are amazed by their strength and resilience. Reassure them that the problem is the abuser. A person should never live in fear of the person they live with. If they can gain confidence in their strengths, it will go a long way in helping them change their situation.
One of the hardest things about being in an abusive relationship is that the abused partner knows that those closest to them are aware that things aren’t right — especially if their violent partner can’t maintain control in front of others.
Worse still, the victim may have been pressured to cut off relationships with friends and loved ones. Or, maybe they know the people they do meet up with can see behind the strained smiles, and are left feeling worried or anxious about them. This is particularly hard to bear knowing that older family members, who are full of experience and can see what’s going on, will feel unable to act.
In the end the abused partner often prefers to keep their distance from loved ones to save them the concern. However, they then feel more isolated, more scared, sorry for causing stress, as well as for not being actively involved in extended family life.
How you can help: The easiest way to help your loved one is to simply say that you love them. Reassure them that they don’t need to shoulder all the responsibility for the effects of their relationship on the family as a whole. The beautiful thing about family is that they are there for each other, no matter what.
Every time the key goes in the door, an abused partner’s stomach will lurch. They wait to see what mood their partner is in: the mood that will determine any violent behavior as well as the ambiance in the house for that day. There’s a constant thread of fear sewn into family life that is difficult to unstitch, even if the abusive partner leaves the family home.
They’re also scared for their future, and that of their kids. They don’t now what will happen if one day their partner goes too far. They don’t know if they’ll be able to leave their partner and seek refuge and safety, and even if they do, perhaps their partner will find them. They don’t know if they will have the economic means to move forward — a daunting prospect especially for those with children and no steady career.
They’re petrified of what might happen to their children if they manage to leave their abusive partner. Maybe the kids will be on the receiving end of the other parent’s abusive behavior if they’re alone with them. The victim may be scared to involve the police or child services as who knows what that will lead to. It’s daunting to manage everything on the homes front and content with the prospect of what may lie ahead in court.
A victim may also be scared that they’ll never be able to have a healthy relationship. Not just because they’ve experienced a traumatic one, but they don’t have the confidence that they’ll be able to discern a good partner from a bad one.
How you can help: You can offer to help find the appropriate people and services to help the victim. You can accompany them on any visits so they have built-in support. There are practical ways you can help, too, but it’s best to get advice from professionals for specific situations.
5They feel guilty
There are a myriad of reasons as to why an abused partner feels guilty: First, they feel guilty for making their children live through this trauma. They feel guilty that their kids’ social activities are affected by the concern of how an abusive parent may behave.
They can feel guilty that they didn’t do enough to prevent the abuse. Of course, the only person to blame is the abuser, but the victim may feel guilty if they said or did the “wrong” thing.
One of the hardest things, especially for those whose faith plays a big role in their lives, is how the victim feels towards the abuser. While they know they are called to forgive their abuser, it can be an impossible task, especially when the abuse is ongoing or if it is directed at children.
There’s even more guilt if the victim separates from their abuser. Christians are taught that marriage is a sacred and beautiful bond so even if separation is the only safe way forward, the victim often feels they’ve let God down.
How you can help: The best thing here is to reassure the victim that they have done the best they could in extraordinary circumstances. Their safety and their kids’ safety is paramount. You can also reassure them that it can take a whole lifetime to forgive, and it’s not meant to be an easy process, especially if people are still dealing with the abuse. Time in this case can be a great healer.
6They don’t want to be seen as a victim
Many people dislike a label, especially one that makes them feel weak. Their partner has already done a good job of taking away their strength and confidence so adding the label of “victim” can feel like the ultimate humiliation.
How you can help: While an abused partner is no doubt a victim, perhaps it’s best to avoid referring to them as one. You can discuss this openly with them and reassure them that you don’t consider them to be weak, or stupid. Kind, capable, loving people may find themselves in abusive relationships.
While there is no easy solution for coping with an abusive relationship, support makes all the difference. Parish priests can be instrumental in offering guidance and prayer at a terribly stressful time. And support and prayers from those closest to the victim can be very impactful and rewarding.