Victims of Abusive Relationships
Much of my work is invested in helping people, who are, or have been, victims of abusive relationships. They are, or have been, victims of emotional, physical and/or sexual mistreatment. People who suffered mistreatment of some form as a child usually find that it still affects their emotional lives and relationships as an adult. For them, going to a foreign country is no escape from the past which follows them. Even in their new home they may find themselves involved yet again in another abusive relationship and the situation may be worsened by social isolation in a foreign culture.
Abuse takes many forms. It may be experienced during childhood, effecting the individual’s personal development at an early age, or during adulthood, weakening defences, causing feelings of insecurity and anxiety. It may occur among children within the family, in the school or in other environments; it may occur among adults in the work-place, in couples, or in other relationships. It can be a one-time event, happening suddenly and unexpectedly; it can be a recurrent event, happening over many years. Abuse is often easy to recognize, as in the case of physical mistreatment, but it is often difficult to see, as in the case of psychological mistreatment (insults and humiliation of all kinds) or as in the case of emotional neglect (not only of children). These latter “invisible” abuses can be very destructive. The pain caused by them can be even worse for the victim than that caused by physical injury. Sufferers often report that it feels “as if or even worse than if” they had been hit or beaten. Sexual mistreatment, on the other hand, is discounted or hidden by the abuser and the victim is mostly ashamed or afraid and says nothing. It is often over-looked, because it may look harmless from the outside, as, for example, when the privacy of a child is not respected or when a parent behaves in a seductive way towards his or her child. But there’s one thing that every kind of abuse has in common at any age: It disrespects of the needs of its victim.
The marks left by these experiences can take the form of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Typical symptoms of this disturbance are flash-backs, repeated nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, depression or emotional instability (outbursts of anger), self-doubt and confusion. The victim often feels emotionally deadened, detached or listless and has a sense of unreality. (These latter, very uncomfortable symptoms, describe a state termed “dissociation”.) Situations, behaviours and even words, which are associated with the original trauma, are mostly avoided. Thoughts of suicide are not unusual. Particularly people who have been abused as children tend to suppress their feelings of vulnerability and pain, which may cause them to appear cold, tough and aggressive to others. Excessive drinking or drug intake can develop later as complications.
In adults, the psychological effects of abuse make it hard to escape, because it weakens the victim psychologically and, even when ended, its lingering effects may continue to perpetuate the pain and trauma far beyond the original experience. Abuse affects self-image, the view of the world and of other people, making the development of healthy relationships often difficult. Victims may feel scarred and pessimistic about their own abilities to live a normal, happy life. If they do find themselves in another abusive relationship, they may feel insecure about ending it. They may not be able to trust their own judgement.
As hard as it may be for a victim of an abusive relationship to find assurance and trust again, therapists can help them work through painful memories, and point out new paths to rebuild their lives. Therapy can give the victim a depth of insight into himself and others, so that a sense of dignity in the face of terrible pain and disappointment can be found, overcoming anger, resentment, shame or even a sense of guilt, which can bind the natural ability to love and trust.