The healing process for domestic violence victims is complex and painful. Like any other process of this nature, it takes time. Many times, that person who comes to my therapy seeking help, does not understand what part of that process consists of deprogramming the conscious and unconscious mind of all the lies that the abuser has sown, and whose fruits keep the patient tied and defenseless. This is not achieved overnight. It takes perseverance and time.
The first thing we do with the victim is to assess the level of security that she/he has. Is the victim or his/her children in danger from the abuser? Is the victim in danger of hurting himself/herself because of the hopelessness he/she experiences in his/her life? Many times, the emotional abuse these victims have experienced is so damaging that they succumb to severe depression. Often, these people do not understand the emotional damage the abuser has caused them in their lives. After this initial evaluation is completed, we begin to walk the victim through the stages of the healing process. In this post I will talk about the 4 stages that Shannon Thomas presents.
This stage’s name describes the experience the person who begins this process lives. The victim is confused and in despair. He/she wonders what he/she has done to deserve to be treated the way he/she has been treated. What do I have to do to make this relationship work? In which way do I have to improve? Why, if I am not such a bad person? Questions that show the doubts the person has about himself/herself. Why is it difficult for these people to understand what the real problem is and therefore they question themselves?
The answer is, because these survivors, who are hating themselves, are so busy wondering why they are failures that they ignore the source of the real problem and how they can get out of it. Those survivors, who continually believe they are the problem, are hurt, broken, do not consider they are enough, they are people who will have a hard time identifying the abuse they receive as the problem in their relationship.
Victims, at this stage, say “I can no longer fight this problem. It is too much for me”. It is an expression of despair. Many times, to get to this point and begin the healing journey, it is necessary to reach the extreme in which we give up and say that we can no longer fight, and that is when we seek external, professional, and spiritual help, which will allow us to get out of our despair. But even though the victim is at this point, he/she is not always ready to leave the toxic relationship in which he/she is. Or, simply, he/she does not believe that he/she is strong enough to make firm decisions. As therapists we tell these patients, this is okay. This is all part of the process. The Despair Stage is not the time to make drastic changes, but it is the time to start taking small baby steps toward that longed-for place, emotional healing.
One of the biggest problems with domestic violence is that psychological abuse is exceptionally insidious, and therefore misunderstood. This is part of one of the tactics abusers often use. They isolate their victims from reality and from those around them as a way of exercising control over them. This is the reason why the Education stage is important in this process. This is because, unless the victims are able to describe what has happened to them, they will not be able to begin the healing process. Victims need to know with certainty when any of these forms of domestic violence occur.
Emotional blackmail is a term popularized by the psychotherapist Susan Forward, which refers to a type of violence that consists of the manipulation a person exercises over the other using fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) as transactional dynamics between the manipulator and the manipulated person.
In the face of the victim’s achievements, whether they are work or professional ones, the abuser will not praise the victim’s qualities, he/she will not praise him/her or recognize what he/she has accomplished. The abuser will not do it abruptly, but in a subtle way, using phrases such as: “That is fine for you”, “You are very lucky, now do not ruin it with nonsense and miss the opportunity”.
It is one of the most detectable alarms within the invisibility of this type of abuse. He/she will try to know all the time where the victim is and who is the person who is with him/her, and what he/she is doing. The abuser will know the victim’s schedule, he/she will appear unexpectedly and more frequently, wherever the victim is in a given moment, in the victim’s spare time or at work, with the excuse of “I wanted to surprise you”.
Gaslighting normally occurs very gradually in a relationship. In fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first. However, over time, these abusive patterns continue, and the victim may feel confused, anxious, isolated, and depressed. Also, he/she may lose all sense of what is really happening. Then, he/she begins to depend on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a situation from which it is very difficult to escape.
After the patient has discovered the entire manipulation system the abuser used to lead him/her to submission and abuse, he/she enters the Awakening stage. In this stage, a new awareness of the reality that has been lived is experienced, but also despair is experienced once more. The reason why they experience a combination of awareness and despair is because they feel empowered by the facts they have discovered in the previous stage, but, on the other hand, they still cry because they miss the abuser. Do not judge them. Only the person who has been through a similar experience understands the damaging effects of psychological abuse. The abuser has been a part of the victim’s life. The bonds that bind them are close and the victim longs to believe the abuser can change. I have seen how many of the victims look for excuses to justify the abuser’s behavior.
They say things like: “he/she was abused when he/she was a child”, “he/she has a personality disorder”, “God has put me in his/her way to help him/her”, “If I leave him/her, who is going to help him/her?”, “I have to let myself be used by God”. Although all of this may sound altruistic, reality describes something completely different. All of this is the product of how difficult it is to confront the truth of what our loved ones are and mean to us.
On the other hand, these victims also feel a certain peace, because, in the second stage, they have understood that they are not crazy as their abusers had told them they were. I have seen these people remain in a deep silence, meditating on the new reality that they are beginning to live and on what it could turn out to be for them tomorrow. At this stage, victims of domestic violence need a lot of emotional support from family members and church members. Churches need to provide that place of safety that these people need, a shelter, a place where they are listened to and accepted unconditionally. It is at this stage where victims of domestic violence begin to dream of the reality in which reaching healing and restoration is possible.
There can be no healing without clear limits. Therefore, the next stage in the healing process is learning to set limits. But how do we set limits for a person of whom we are afraid or who is controlling? It is here, at this stage, where many victims give up and quit dreaming of their liberation. Learning to set limits in any relationship is a challenge, since many times we do not know where to start or how to do it.
There is no map or manual that can guide us in this stage because each case has its own peculiarities. Each victim must study how setting limits would work for him/her. That is why we recommend that, if needed, professional help be sought to navigate this stage.
When it comes to setting limits, we talk about two types of contact, the Detached Contact, and the No contact. The decision regarding the type of limits to be set will be determined by the victim. If life is in danger, if the relationship has reached a level where the person feels that is unbearable and the children are in danger, No Contact is recommended, and seeking help in a Shelter for victims of domestic violence. Or perhaps, seeking help from friends and family. I must say that several studies speak emphatically, indicating that this is the most dangerous time for the victim. It is when the victim decides to leave the toxic relationship when criminal acts have been committed against him/her and the other victims, because the abuser cannot process the fact that the person who has been kept under his/her control is leaving the relationship. This drives the victim to despair.
Detached Contact is mostly determined by the environment in which the victim exists. For a victim who lives with the abuser, it could consist of limiting conversations with that person, saying “NO” more often, threatening to call the police, practicing assertiveness, presenting the truth in a calm way, rejecting the lies that have been received from the abuser throughout their entire life together.
All of this can be accomplished by taking small steps toward healing. The idea is to find ways to keep the abuser away so that he/she does not cross the emotional limits that have caused so much damage and pain in the past. Detached Contact is about remaining emotionally distant in the presence of toxic people. It is not about limiting contact and keep overwhelmingly provoking the abuser all the time.
After the victim has passed the stages of Despair, Education, Awakening and now Limits, he/she is ready for Restoration. You could be asking yourself, restoration of what? Restoration of your material things, life moments, financial stability, physical and mental health, or anything that you have identified you have lost in your past life as a victim of domestic violence.
How does a victim know that he/she has reached this stage? When he/she feels the need to have some hobby in his/her free time, in activity that has nothing to do with the educational process that he/she has been experiencing up to that moment. This is the moment when the victim decides to live again and to bring hope to his/her life at all costs.
This is the final stage; the stage in which the survivor will look back to the previous stages and continue to deepen his/her healing and restoration. In this stage the person also learns to identify healthy relationships and to be away from those people who are toxic in his/her life. Remaining is when a survivor lives his/her recovery life fully, with the confidence and skills to stay safe from future abuse.
A key component in the Remaining stage is to recognize that you are a new person. You have grown, you have changed, and you are an improved version of yourself.
It is important to see yourself in the novelty that is now yours. There are sad consequences if we do not acknowledge that our old “me” has vanished. Uncertainty and the lack of safety will lead us to alienate happy and successful people because we believe we do not deserve their attention. Our internal dialogue and self-esteem will determine the types of people we allow, or reject, in our lives.
Throughout this process, God will be your Shepherd and you will lack nothing. The one who is most interested in your reaching this final stage is God, your Creator. He suffers when He sees you are being abused and not knowing how to defend yourself. He will be by your side as a mighty giant, ready to protect you and give you the freedom you need, if you only dare to begin a new healing process. I am not telling you that it is something easy, but it is something possible. And, if at any time you need a friendly hand to help you or hold you, or maybe you need professional help, you can call me at 407-618-0212 or write to email@example.com