Intimate partner violence is a devastating and widespread public health issue in the United States. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have been a victim of physical violence, stalking or psychological aggression – and nearly half of women homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by a former or current male partner.
“Intimate partner violence happens in all types of settings and among a variety of socioeconomic, religious, ethnic and cultural groups,” said Cynthia Conner, a licensed clinical social worker with Baylor College of Medicine and Harris Health System. “It impacts the survivor’s self-esteem, to the point where they can internalize and believe the abuser’s view of themselves. They begin questioning whether they deserve the abuse, which makes it difficult for them to leave the relationship.”
Long-term recovery is crucial for individuals who are able to safely leave an abusive situation. Nearly 20% of intimate partner violence survivors experience an onset of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Intimate partner violence often results in a reluctance to trust others. As a social worker, my goal is to help survivors find their voice again, build their self-esteem, and provide supportive resources as they transition out of the relationship.”
Understanding psychological abuse
Physical abuse may immediately come to mind when you think about intimate partner violence. However, the CDC estimates that more than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, which can include emotional and financial abuse.
“Emotional abuse can last for many years. After a survivor leaves the relationship, it is important to focus on changing those negative messages that were repeated to them for so long.”
It can also be difficult to prove or track emotional abuse – especially when a survivor is going through legal proceedings or attempting to obtain assistance.
“Initially, the priority is that the person is in a safe space. We can then focus on being able to obtain resources as they transition out of the relationship.”
While each situation is different, Conner says that a supportive environment helps survivors of intimate partner violence as they work through the recovery process.
“It’s important to have someone to confide in initially – whether it’s a close friend, their doctor or in psychotherapy.”
Intimate partner violence impacts the whole family. Children who have witnessed violence can exhibit changes such as behavioral issues and poor academic performance.
“As a parent, it may be difficult to notice these changes while transitioning out of the relationship. The children are afraid, too. Family support and security are crucial in terms of aiding their recovery process.”
If you know a friend or a loved one who has left an abusive relationship, Conner shares these tips to help advance their recovery:
- Provide non-judgmental support
- Remind the survivor that the abuse was not their fault
- Support their decision
- Avoid using language that blames the survivor, such as: “Why didn’t you leave sooner?”
“Most importantly, the survivor needs to feel they are being listened to and believed. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to leave an abusive relationship and there are resources available for those who need it.”
Conner is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. Learn more about the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic or call (713) 798-4857.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
For Houston residents, see resources at the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Visit the Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse site.
View Baylor’s Title IX site, which features a resource guide for victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking.
-By Nicole Blanton