Intimate partner violence always leaves a mark, even if others can't see it. Survivors may manage to leave an abusive relationship, but the emotional damage can linger long after it's over. In interviews with nine people who have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV), University at Buffalo School of Social Work assistant professor Noelle St. Vil found that survivors tend to carry their trauma with them as they confront new relationships. That conclusion may not surprise anyone, but what should concern everyone is St. Vil's conclusion that survivors too often lack the resources to process past experiences.
"Once a victim leaves an abusive relationship we have to begin addressing the issues that stem from having been in that relationship," St. Vil said of her research in a press release. "You can carry the scars from IPV for a long time and those scars can create barriers to forming new relationships."
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that, in the United States, almost 20 people per minute are physically abused by their partners. People who identify as women are the more likely victims of IPV, with one in three women eventually experiencing some form of physical violence at the hands of a partner. Roughly one third of people whose partners hurt them will seek treatment, but regardless of whether or not it leaves a physical mark, being brutalized at home puts people at a higher risk for depression and even suicide.
A subset of domestic violence — which can occur between any two people who cohabitate — IPV occurs exclusively within the context of an intimate relationship, and can include physical, verbal, or emotional abuse. It can also include financial abuse, whereby one person effectively holds resources hostage so that the other person can't leave. Indeed, the most dangerous (even deadly) moment for a victim of domestic violence is often the moment they try to get out.
IPV is an exercise in control and manipulation, and many of the wounds it leaves behind will not be visible. They may, however, stand in the way of starting new relationships. Asking her subjects how they "move forward" after they exit an abusive relationship, St. Vil identified four barriers: Fear of repeating the past caused survivors to build emotional walls; those who did open themselves emotionally anticipated new relationships would go the direction of previous abusive relationships; low self-esteem and shame cast doubt on self-worth; and difficulty disclosing their history to new partners prevented survivors from feeling fully present in their relationships.
Therapist Melanie Shapiro, a licensed independent clinical social worker with the Washington, D.C.-based practice, the Viva Center, confirms that these are indeed common reactions in survivors of IPV. Some people, she tells Bustle, will be "really fearful and almost overly sensitive to any potential future intimate involvement," avoiding any sign of romantic interest. Others, she adds, might actively seek out new relationships as a means of resolving unresolved trauma. If they haven't processed the abuse, however, that path can lead to problems in its own right.
"The people who end up getting into a new relationship are often hyper-aroused, so they’re constantly looking for signs" of history repeating itself, Shapiro says. "The [survivor's] body is super anxious, they really get depressed easily, they might have anger or aggression, they might be numb to feeling." And indeed, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) commonly results from sexual abuse, but as St. Vil's research suggests, betrayal also plays a role in anxiety surrounding new relationships: When someone gains and deliberately violates your trust, it can seed anxiety in future partnerships. People fear the same pattern will unfold all over again.
"The body stores trauma," Shapiro says. "Sometimes, our brain and our body holds onto old ideas, like ‘I’m not worthy,’ or 'I am bad,' or 'I am not safe.' And it’s really hard to get out of that cognitive looping." She likes body-based intervention methods — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR), in which a clinician helps patients revisit and reframe traumatic events, and neurofeedback treatment that reinforces positive feelings and patterns in the brain — to reroute some of those pathways, along with role playing to help survivors model conversations for which they may not have a vocabulary. (This would seem particularly useful for a survivor having a hard time figuring out how to tell a new partner about past abuse.)
While therapy is inarguably useful in the wake of sexual violence, it can also be costly — especially for people who lack insurance. Rape crisis centers offer counseling (see RAINN's list of state-level resources), but accessibility remains an issue for some people living in remote or rural areas. For survivors who cannot or are not ready to seek therapy, Shapiro still recommends an activity that helps reinforce a sense of bodily autonomy and alleviate feelings of danger: Running, yoga, crossfit, and even massage can help you feel safer and stronger in your own skin, Shapiro explains.
She also recommends making lists: "Writing down facts about the present and holding onto [them]," she says. Bullet point items that remind you of your security in the moment: "I have my own apartment. I have my best friend who I can call when I get nervous," Shapiro offers as examples. "It’s almost like a safety plan that they can write down for themselves." In a situation that feels "crisis-oriented," she says, having that list serves as a physical reminder that their situation is not the same as it used to be.
When we're talking about helping survivors to a place where they can genuinely move forward, Dr. Patti Feuereisen, a Brooklyn-based psychologist, founder of Girlthrive — a scholarship foundation for incest survivors — and author of Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse, tells Bustle "finding something you’re passionate about, be it ceramics, drawing, singing, writing, journaling, dancing, running, drumming" is key. She urges survivors to seek out people who build them up: supportive relationships not only offer an opportunity to start rebuilding trust in others, they can also provide a lifeline where abuse occurs, or where triggers arise. Above all, Feuereisen emphasizes, remember that "you can absolutely break [the cycle]."
"You can absolutely have successful wonderful loving relationships," she says. "You do not have to carry [abuse] around with you for the rest of your life."
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.