Breaking the domestic violence cycle in personal relationships

Domestic violence is arguably the single most damaging issue affecting personal relationships in the UK.  Domestic abuse is by no means unique to the British Isles.  Violence within personal relationships of a physical, emotional, sexual or verbal nature is a serious issue worldwide with legal, social and economic effects for societies which extend well beyond the detrimental psychological impact for the abused individual. Domestic abuse knows no boundaries occurring within personal relationships involving people of all social classes, ethnicities religious backgrounds and sexual preferences.  The perpetrators and victims of domestic violence are both male and female. Sometimes domestic abuse can be mutual in nature and partners may alternate between assuming the role of the perpetrator and victim during the course of the relationship.

As domestic abuse has rightly begun to achieve prominence its complexity is beginning to be understood.  One particular area of complexity is how difficult it often is for people experiencing domestic abuse to break free from these relationships.  If you are suffering domestic abuse you are not alone.  Office of National Statistics data for 2011/2012 found that 7.3% or 1.2 million women and 5% or 800,000 men report experiencing domestic violence.    Domestic abuse is known to have damaging psychological effects for both genders.  If you are or have been involved in a domestically violent relationship you may experience anxiety, depression, guilt, and lack of confidence as a consequence of the abuse.  Men who suffer domestic abuse are more likely than women to misuse alcohol and other substances and to act out aggressively.  Social isolation may make it difficult for you to end an abusive relationship. Abusers often deliberately isolate their partner from family and friends in order to achieve psychological control.  You may find it hard to acknowledge even to yourself that you are being abused.  This can be a particular issue for people subjected to emotional and verbal abuse which leaves psychological rather than physical scars.  I understand that domestic abuse may have left you feeling worthless but I would ask you to remember that all domestic abuse is important and that emotional and/or verbal abuse is likely to occur in your relationship on a several times daily basis having very damaging effects on your emotional well-being while incidents of physical and sexual abuse may occur days or weeks apart.

People experiencing domestic abuse may feel shame about aspects of the domestic violence and/or blame themselves for the abuse.  Male victims often feel particularly ashamed and regard the domestic violence as an attack on their masculinity.  I counsel females who have suffered degrading domestic abuse including being deprived of food, clothing and self-care products.  Some of these women attribute responsibility to themselves for being abused in this way and view themselves as unworthy of being valued within relationships.  Adolescents and young adults have been found in research to be at particularly high risk of suffering partner abuse. In my work counselling young people I have found that it is those adolescents who have experienced domestic violence, parental mental health problems, substance abuse or incest within their own families as children who sadly more often find themselves stuck in domestically violent relationships.

Abusers can be psychologically very alluring and engaging.  Partners sometimes view an abusive partner as the victim who can be ‘cured’ of their abuse if they grew up within a domestically violent family or have a psychological or personality disorder which they believe contributes to the domestic abuse. I work with women who minimise their partner’s behaviour and do not view a partner who repeatedly forces them to have sex against their will as responsible for their abusive behaviour if they behaved in this way under the influence of alcohol and drugs.  Psychologically it can be gratifying to believe that you are the person who can change your partner’s pattern of serial abuse with personal relationships.  Abused partners can also not have insight into the cycle of domestic violence in which initially the tension builds in the abuser and their partner is fearful and hyper vigilant, inevitably at some future point an incident of domestic abuse will occur, the couple reconcile sometimes with the abuser presenting as genuinely sorry for their behaviour or implicitly attributing blame to their partner for their abusive behaviour.  The couple then proceed to a calm honeymoon phase before inevitably a further episode of abuse will occur within the domestic violence cycle.  This abuse cycle relates to the simple partner abuse in which there is a perpetrator and victim.  Mutual abuse and alternating domestic violence has a far more complex domestic violence cycle which is beyond the scope of this article.  For couples to break the domestic violence cycle each needs to acknowledge and accept responsibility for their respective roles within the relationship and to be prepared to understand the pattern of domestic violence as it relates to their personal relationship.  This is essential if couple therapy can help couples address their relationship issues  I assess men and women who sadly engage in domestically violent relationships with multiple partners and that is there particular domestic violence cycle that they are unable/unwilling to break by engaging in long term counselling.  In order to break the domestic violence cycle you must be psychologically open to the idea of change.   You must also feel that you have a reason that makes change worthwhile.  I sometimes work with parents whose children have been placed in foster care because of domestic abuse.  Yes domestic abuse is psychologically harmful to children who have higher rates of behavioural and emotional problems including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like adults!  Sometimes I have the privilege of witnessing these parents turning their lives around by ending an abusive relationship when they risk losing their children permanently and understand the effects of domestic violence on their children.