Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse
Emotional-psychological abuse and effects on women’s self-esteem
We know from the testimonies of women over past decades that, for many, emotional-psychological abuse was often more damaging than physical abuse. Unlike the impacts of physical abuse, the emotional and psychological scars are not immediately visible. Constantly having to deal with the changing demands of an abusive partner wears women down, so that they develop a range of problems such as finding it difficult to sleep and eat and symptoms of anxiety, self-harming and suicide attempts. Research which has followed survivors over time shows how dealing with the emotional impacts of grief, anger, and fear, can be a long term process, as described by Julia and Yasmin. Julia said the abuse had affected both her and her wider family: ‘it’s devastated me, yeah, yeah broken me. I feel broken. I don’t, I’ll never be right again.’ Women described how their partners would stop them from seeing family and friends, constantly criticise their behaviour or appearance and punish them if they failed to meet their demands. By isolating women through emotional and psychological abuse, partners’ control often increased. The impact of emotional-psychological abuse could be profound and long-lasting, as Nessa said:
‘When it came to arguing and his anger, he would lash out at me and, like, marks heal andfade but the emotional is what kind of stays there and gives you insecurities about yourselfand everything really’.
Once they were able to leave the abusive relationship, many women were able to regain their confidence and self-esteem (see ‘Life after violence and abuse – taking back control’).
Feelings of shock and grief after recognising abuse
For some women, when they realised that they had been in an abusive relationship, the emotional and psychological impact was almost like experiencing a bereavement as they came to terms with the loss of the relationship they wanted or thought they had. Ongoing feelings of anger
Alongside feelings of shock and grief, women also experienced anger at their ex-partner, but often the anger was directed towards themselves. Anna described similar feelings:
‘I’m more angry with me than I am with him. … And I hate myself more than I do him, because him I’ve got no emotion …. I don’t hate him, I’m not angry at him, I don’t think anything of him because I cannot be bothered to give him any emotion.’
Loss of trust and long term impacts
Women we spoke to experienced feelings of regret and also a loss of trust in other people. Jane experienced these emotions not only on her own behalf, but also saw similar effects on her children which lasted into adulthood. Other women also acknowledged that the mental damage caused by domestic abuse might take years to heal. Anna explained that:
‘The self-loathing and the self-hate is probably still with me today and I don’t know truly how long the mental side will take to heal. …the bruises and everything else, they heal, they go. The mental side, it’s stopped me going into any other relationship because I can’t. I’ve got a real trust issue so I can’t’. The impact of abuse was long-term for Lindsay as well. She explained that her life had been turned upside down:
‘He just changed my life, just totally changed my life. Don’t really go out anymore, suffer with postnatal depression. I have panic attacks, don’t trust anybody.’
Melanie described feeling helpless to do anything to change the situation she was in. Many also suffered from depression alongside the lack of confidence and as Penny explained, that made it more difficult to leave:
‘I just felt - well my confidence, confidence just went down and down and down and I was so depressed really that I wasn’t in a state to get out of it.’
Abusive partners used humiliation as a way of abusing women, for example by belittling them in the way Lolita described, so that they began to lose confidence in the way they looked. Women often started believing the insults their abusive partners threw at them and blamed themselves for the abuse they are experiencing. This made it hard to leave because women were not sure they can cope on their own (see ‘Coercive Controlling Bahaviour’). Losing a sense of identity
Women used words like feeling ‘only half the woman I was before’, that their ‘light had gone out’. Often they said that, rather than being themselves they tried to become the person their partner wanted them to be. Sara lost pleasure in the things she used to enjoy and said that:
‘I felt completely crushed like I know as a parent your identity does, you know if you like you have to find your identity but when someone ... you feel ... well when you've got someone saying what you can and can't do you can't find that identity. Because I remember him saying, "Why don't you do watercolours, you used to do watercolours?" But I was so tired, do you know what I mean…?’ Occasionally, women were able to hold onto their confidence in some areas of their life. Kate, for example, never lost confidence in her parenting ability.
‘I think,I started to lose all confidence in myself as a person. Funnily enough, I didn’t as a parent. Seeing as he took such a back seat, I mean he’d shout at me that I was doing it all wrong, but I was very aware that I was the one that was doing it so it made it slightly easier to hold my ground.’
Last reviewed February 2020.