Victims of domestic violence have a lot in common with soldiers in combat. Both have to be constantly vigilant or on their guard against attack. True, soldiers are vigilant because war means instant life or death decisions. However, many who live for years with domestic violence describe it as a slow, torturous murder.
Author Randy Susan Meyers wrote “The Murderer’s Daughters” based on the personal trauma she experienced in her life. Her father abused her mother, and she and her sister experienced this abuse, as most children do. In her fictionalized book, however, she changes the story. The two young girls in the book witness the father actually murdering their mother.
“Living in a violent home is like growing up in a war zone. When a woman is battered, images of their mother being beaten will be imprinted on them forever. Children witnessing abuse are at serious risk for developmental delays, post-traumatic stress disorder, and irreversible psychological damage. It’s likely they’ll also be physically, emotionally, or verbally attacked,” states Meyers, who also works as a domestic-abuse counselor, on her blog.
Unpacking Meyers’ message, psychologists and counselors would say that abuse is synonymous with war for anyone who witnesses or experiences it.
In other words, the psychological ramifications of domestic abuse are pernicious, long lasting, and devastating. It takes victims a lot of counseling and personal growth to recover. In addition, several different types of mental health disorders result from violence, abuse, and battering.
Domestic violence is Defined as:
Domestic violence is a pattern of abuse that involves physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and financial elements where the abuser’s intention is to maintain control over the victim. This includes all behaviors that hurt and injure, as well as those that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate and blame. Not all forms of domestic violence have external signs of abuse. Hurtful words and controlling behaviors sometimes cause more long-term damage than a beating.
Domestic violence includes not only intimate partner relationships of spousal, live-in partners and dating relationships, but also familial, elder and child abuse. Generally, domestic violence escalates over a period of time.
The Cycle of Abuse
Often, domestic violence follows a certain cycle or pattern. In the book “The Battered Woman,” author Lenore Walker outlines an example of a cycle or pattern of abuse. She states that the cycle might happen repeatedly in a relationship, for hours, days, months, and years. And how long the stages last vary dramatically between relationships, and even within the same relationship.
The following exemplifies a cycle as explained by Walker:
Incident or Event
- Physical, sexual, emotional, verbal or economic abuse occurs.
- Abuser shows signs of irritation or building anger
- Abuse starts
- The victim is unable to communicate with the perpetrator
- The victim tries to calm or reason with the abuser
- Tension becomes a part of everyday life
- Victim has to “walk on egg shells” in order not to set off more abuse
- Abuser might make excuses or apologize for abuse
- Abuser might swear or promise that the abuse won’t reoccur
- Abuser might blame the victim for the reasons or situation leading up to the abuse
- Abuser denies that the abuse occurred or it wasn’t as bad as the victim states
- Abuser acts as if abuse never occurred
- The abuser might give the victim gifts and not abuse for awhile
- Victim rationalizes the abuse
- Victim hopes that the abuse is over
Illnesses Caused By Domestic Violence
Psychologists, victim advocates, social workers and physicians – those who work with and treat victims of domestic violence – recognize the occurrence of certain disorders in those experiencing violence and abuse.
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often develops after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, rape, crime, car accident, or war experience. But PTSD also occurs when trauma takes place over a long period of time, such as in domestic violence.
Symptoms of PTSD are:
- Difficulty “letting go” of the event, or reliving it over and over
- Sleep problems of either too much sleep or problems falling and staying asleep
- Feeling emotionally out-of-control, overwhelmed, detached or numb
- Easily frustrated or irritable
- Lack of interest in usual activities or pastimes
- Withdrawing from family, friends, or coworkers
- Lack of interest in sex
- Feeling wired or unable to relax
- Not wanting to be touched
- Frequent crying
- Feeling helpless
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Therapists and counselors use proven, empirically based therapies for treating PTSD resulting from domestic violence. For more information on PTSD and the type of help available for treating it, see What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Domestic violence does not only mean male abuse against women, or even a woman’s abuse against a male. It also is used as a means of control and domination by women over women, and men over men.
Some gay and lesbian couples speak of entering into relationships with a false sense that domestic violence could never happen to them. But experts warn that abuse crosses boundaries of gender and sexual orientation.
Experts fear that same-sex abuse is severely underreported. They attribute this to individuals fearing homophobic law enforcement personnel, judiciary and court personnel, and health care and mental health providers.
Anxiety disorders are very common among victims of domestic violence. In fact, there are six types of anxiety disorder, and PTSD is categorized as one those six. The other five anxiety disorders are: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias.
Victims might develop one or more of these anxiety conditions. However, a large proportion of victims report being constantly and excessively worried, a state most commonly associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Sometimes the worries are specific, such as the return of the perpetrator, but in many cases, those with GAD constantly feel anxious and upset.
Depression is also very common among domestic violence victims. Symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, changes in eating patterns, sleeping patterns, an inability to make decisions or solve problems, and a lack of energy. In addition, depression shares many symptoms with PTSD, and in many cases victims suffer with both disorder. They can also have one or more of the anxiety disorders along with depression.
Substance abuse and addiction often result when victims of abuse have a hard time coping, and because of various genetic and cultural influences, they turn to alcohol or illegal substances. Substance abuse and behavioral disorders are complex, and underlying physical and mental health conditions contribute to their complexity. Victims with these disorders will need specialized mental health services to effectively treat these conditions. For more information, see
What is Substance Abuse? and What is Addiction?
A number of mental health professionals including domestic violence counselors specialize in helping domestic violence victims, and also children who witness the abuse of a parent.
Other sources of help include:
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) offered by some employers
- Mental health or psychiatric services
- Victim assistance centers
- Shelters and safehouses
- Social services
- A support group that addresses traumatic experiences
If you want to work as a domestic violence counselor, or in any of the facilities or for organizations listed above, request information from schools offering degrees in counseling. Nearly all these services and organizations have a need for those with a strong background in counseling, psychology or social work.
Battered women – and sometimes men – are victims of domestic violence. In other words, they are victims of abuse, abuse that includes physical battering, sexual assault, and emotional or psychological abuse. Here are some of the signs of abuse and battering:
- punched walls
- control of finances
- using children to manipulate emotions
- isolation from family and friends
- crying and afraid children
- broken bones
- forced sexual contact
- sexist comments
- jealousy and possessiveness
- loss of self esteem
- slammed doors
- silent treatment
- destruction of personal property
- unwanted touching
- name calling
- sabotaging attendance at job or school
- violence to pets
- withholding economic resources
- public humiliation
- broken promises
- preventing medical and dental care
- forced tickling
- threats to harm family and friends
- threats to take away the children
- threats to harm animals
- threats of being kicked out
- threats of weapons
- threats of being killed
*Cited from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.
Those least likely to report abuse or violence against them are society’s most vulnerable, and that includes those over the age of 60.
The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), estimates that for every one case of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation, reported to authorities, about five more go unreported.
The NCEA attributes this underreporting to a variety of factors. Because there isn’t a comprehensive national data reporting or tracking system, a lot of cases go unreported. Also, states vary in how they report cases of elder abuse, and even in how they define it.
But many who work in the field believe that the main reason for underreporting stems from the fact that the elderly fear reporting abuse. Typically as people grow older, their dependency on others increases. This dependency causes many to rely heavily on their families and caregivers, and they feel that if they report abusers, they won’ t get the help they need.
And while a lot of media coverage draws attention to abuse in nursing homes and other care facilities, it is estimated that most elder abuse occurs in homes by family members or in-home caregivers.
The NCEA defines elder abuse as any intentional or neglectful acts by a caregiver or “trusted” individual that lead to, or may lead to, harm of a vulnerable elder.
It generally refers to the same type of abuse as other forms of domestic violence: physical, emotional, and sexual. However other abusive actions also affect the elderly at a high rate.
Exploitation is prevalent among the elderly population, meaning that others steal and defraud them, or use undue influence to gain control over their finances and real estate. Neglect and abandonment are also issues among the elderly.
For example, a caregiver refusing to meet an individual’s physical or emotional needs, or even safety. Or they completely abandon the person that is in their care.
The NCEA lists the following warning signs for elder abuse:
- Physical Abuse: Watch for pressure marks on individuals’ extremities, slap marks, burns, blisters, and unexplained bruises.
- Neglect: Watch for individuals living in extreme dirt or filth, signs of malnutrition, pressure ulcers, and lack of health care visits.
- Emotional Abuse: Watch for individuals withdrawing from normal daily activities and pastimes, a lack of alertness, or other unexplained behavior changes.
- Sexual Abuse: Watch for bruises on individuals’ breasts or genital areas, and any unexplained sexually transmitted diseases.
- Financial Abuse/Exploitation: Watch for a sudden change in individuals’ finances and banking accounts, altered wills and trusts, and check written as “loans” or “gifts.”
To report suspected elderly abuse, contact your local adult protective services agency. For state reporting numbers, visit the NCEA website at www.ncea.aoa.gov or call the Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116.
Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you are afraid your Internet and/or computer usage might be monitored, please use a safer computer, call your local hotline, and/or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE (7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224