Domestic abuse is an extraordinarily traumatic experience, and one that’s unfortunately very common: it’s been referred to as a national epidemic, ruining lives and all-too-often ending them: one woman is killed each week by a current or former partner.
An estimated 1 in 4 women has experienced physical violence at the hands of a current or former partner, and many more experience psychological abuse. Domestic abuse is a crime of coercive control, and physical violence is one of many possible symptoms: you don’t have to be hit to be hurt, and many victims don’t realise that until they’re finally free.
If you’ve escaped from your abuser, recovery may seem like a long road: nothing stings like knowing that you loved and cherished a person who callously hurt and betrayed you in so many ways. If you have kids together, it may feel like he’s never going to really be out of your life, and nothing will ever be normal again. But it will: recovery will come, and one day this will look like a particularly painful bump in the road of what will hopefully be a long and happy life.
Here’s some psychology-backed tips for getting over your pain, and becoming the person you have always deserved to be. Your future belongs to you!
7 steps on the road to recovery after domestic abuse
Step 1: Love yourself.
Your self-esteem probably feels like it’s been through a cheese-grater. Many intelligent, capable, talented women have been brainwashed by abusers into thinking that they’re inferior, worthless and stupid; after leaving, these women often go on to lead incredibly successful lives, and to help others who have been in their place. Talking to other people who’ve gone on to survive and thrive can inspire you to lead a happy life too. Meet them in person, or read stories of people who have recovered.
Most importantly, surround yourself with people who love and respect you, ignore the nagging self-limiting thoughts that he’s placed in your head, and believe in yourself. Push the boundaries of what you believe you can do, and give yourself credit for the great things you’re doing already, like raising your children with love in a place that’s safe and free.
Step 2: Live for today
You may have heard the terms “rumination”, or “intrusive thoughts”: basically, compulsively thinking about your ex and your experience of abuse. A certain amount of mental processing is healthy for recovery, but it can easily spin out of control. Even though you’re free now, you may still feel trapped by your trauma: abuse often changes your neurobiology, and a happy, fulfilling life might feel like a far-away, unattainable goal, or something that happens to other people. But your ex has taken up far too much of your time already, and they don’t deserve another minute of it. The world is an exciting place: to get a bit cheesy, the wildflowers still bloom in Spring, the sun still rises, most people are genuinely nice, your kids are still adorable and chocolate is still, well, chocolate!
(Also, your ex wants you to be unhappy, so be so busy having an awesome life that you don’t even care that your success and happiness would make him miserable. Bonus!)
Unfortunately, not thinking about something is easier said than done: due to something called ironic process theory, you end up thinking about it more. (This is also called the white problem. Try not thinking about a white bear, right now… You thought about the bear, right?) A solution to this is to give your brain other things to think about: you could take up a new hobby, do an online course, try your hand at some creative writing, take art classes, or do crafting with the kids. Distract yourself!
Step 3: Take back your power
If you’ve got children with your ex – and since you’re on Bub Hub reading this, you probably do – there’s a good chance that he will use them as tools to hurt you. If he was the one who handled your finances, he’s almost certain to have subjected you to financial abuse (98% of abusers do this!); now that you’ve left, money and the kids are the only ways that he can try to pull your chain. Don’t take the bait or it could make you look bad in court, which is the last thing you want.
If you’ve ever seen the 80s classic movie Labyrinth, do you remember how Sarah confronts the Goblin King with the line “you have no power over me!” and he turns into a wee wispy owl and flies away? Be like Sarah. Take back your power. You were brave enough to escape from hell: be like a phoenix rising from the ashes. You’re a mother, a good person, and you deserve to be loved and respected. Who cares what a nasty person thinks or does? Not you. The opinions of an abuser really don’t matter.
Hopefully you can avoid contact with him entirely – you don’t need toxic people in your life – but if you can’t, then don’t let him get to you. You’ve got a choice: you can spend until your youngest child turns 18 being trolled by a mean person with nothing better to do with his life, or you can shine like a diamond (and don’t forget, they’re formed under pressure too!)
Step 4: Get support
Some victims find that talking about what happened helps them to process it and recover; some find that it’s triggering, and that it’s easier to try to forget it and move on. Do what works for you. There’s plenty of domestic violence support services, and so many people that will want to help you. Please don’t think that you can’t access them if the abuse wasn’t physical: abuse is abuse, and psychological abuse is just as traumatic.
If you’re having legal troubles with your ex, it’s worth contacting a domestic violence advocate: they can help you present your case in court, and they have the knowledge and experience to be able to identify abusive behaviours and point them out to the court.
You may also be experiencing ongoing psychological symptoms such as PTSD, anxiety, depression or insomnia. Don’t be embarrassed to see a psychologist! Despite the unfair social stigma and the “stiff upper lip” that some people associate with mental health treatment, it actually makes a world of difference. You’re allowed to feel hurt and sad, and that doesn’t make you weak at all. In fact, by working towards a happier you, you’re being strong: what your kids need the most is a happy mummy.
You may think that talking to your friends is the same as talking to a psychologist, but it isn’t: psychological treatment isn’t just about talking therapy. They’re trained in the inner workings of the brain, and they can give you plenty of tips on how to relax, to prevent intrusive thoughts, etc. If you’re having trouble coping, give it a shot.
Step 5: Choose happiness.
The fact is, sometimes life just sucks and awful things happen. The famed Austrian-Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl noticed while he was interned in Auschwitz that the people who felt that they had nothing left to live for died quicker than those who retained hope and the will to live.
You’ve experienced life in an emotional war zone; you were in captivity, and now you are free. Even if your ex is still trying to find ways to hurt you, you can make the conscious decision to be happy. As Frankl said:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Happiness is a choice, and by choosing to be happy regardless of what life throws your way, you are being incredibly strong and brave. It’s hard sometimes, but you can do it!
Step 6: Consider forgiveness
We tend to think of forgiveness as something that depends on the other person: in other words, why forgive someone who isn’t sorry? But you’re not forgiving for them, you’re forgiving for you. It’s your decision whether or not to forgive, and you don’t have to, but it could be good for your mental health when you’re ready.
Forgiveness means deciding that the emotional toil of pain and trauma isn’t something that you want to bear any longer. It’s about your internal mindset, and it’s making the conscious decision not to hate someone even if they probably do deserve to be hated. You’re forgiving for your own peace of mind, not for them. What they did to you isn’t OK, but by letting go of the past, you’re giving yourself the chance to heal and move on.
Step 7: Do not be silent about what happened, but don’t let it define you
Domestic abuse is not the end of your story, and you’re many other things besides a domestic abuse survivor. You may have been so thoroughly abused, and for so long, that you’ve forgotten who you are: go and find that person, and be kind to them.
Many women find that they want to do something to make things better for other victims or potential victims. You’ve inadvertently become an expert in something: domestic abuse. You have a lot that you could potentially contribute to a terrible problem which is only just starting to be addressed, and there’s a long way to go in order to achieve the goal of ending domestic violence even here in Australia, let alone worldwide.
But before you jump into advocacy work, you need to devote some time to your recovery, or you risk re-traumatizing yourself before you’re ready. Rediscover yourself first, and don’t let the past into your future too early. The domestic violence problem will, unfortunately, still be around when you are.
Violence thrives in silence, so if it isn’t too painful for you, then do talk about what happened. You have nothing to be ashamed about: the fault lies squarely with your abuser, not yours. Some people might look at you awkwardly, but many more will be grateful for your bravery in sharing your story. And since so many people are experiencing abuse at any time or know someone who is, you could potentially save a life.
If you’re currently experiencing abuse (or think you might be), or if you know someone who is being abused, or if you have left an abuser, please contact 1800 Respect (Australia’s national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service) for expert advice. Nobody deserves to live a life of abuse, and you and your kids deserve safety, happiness and a chance to thrive.