Natalie* is a 28 year old woman currently in a healthy and satisfying relationship of four years. However, she endured a physically and emotionally abusive, on-again, off-again relationship with a former intimate partner throughout her early adulthood, between the ages of 17-21. According to 2011 research on partner abuse, this is not atypical: 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men endure some type of physical violence by an intimate partner, and every minute, nearly 20 people are physically abused by their partners in the United States (Black et al., 2011). Further, according to a 2014 report, women are most likely to be abused by their intimate partners between the ages of 18-24 (Truman & Morgan, 2014).
Unfortunately, the effects of intimate partner violence can be long lasting: In comparison to women who don't experience partner abuse, those who have are significantly more likely to experience depressive symptoms, as well as lower self-esteem and life satisfaction (Carson et al., 2002). While a serious and common occurrence, the research on long term effects is scarce. The following is a conversation I had with Natalie, transcribed and edited for clarity, published here with permission, in attempt to illuminate the potential long term effects of intimate partner abuse:
Natalie: I thought about my abusive ex-boyfriend today and then I cried because, looking back, I thought to myself, "Why did I stay with an abuser?" Then I felt like something was wrong with me because I stayed with him.
MB: Thinking that there is something "wrong" with you for staying is actually very common (Marshall, 1999), but it's a misconception.
Natalie: That's how I feel. He admitted to me how he abused and controlled me, and he said he wanted to make sure no one ever treats me like that again. That was in the ending months of our relationship. But I'm upset because I don't understand why I stayed with him when he told me he'd change but never did. The abuse didn't stop.
MB: Maybe you stayed because you had faith in him. Many people who end up in abusive relationships start off with partners who treat them well in the beginning. Then, usually insidiously, their partner becomes controlling and abusive (Bancroft, 2003). At first their partner might feel guilty and promise they'll change, or they may turn it on you and say "if you didn't do that, I wouldn't have hurt you." If the abuser is a man, it may come either from feeling deep insecurity or from a belief system with a sincere devaluation of women (Bancroft, 2003). In terms of insecurity, however, he may feel that in order to see himself as worthy of being respected, he must tame or punish his partner into behaving a certain way.
Natalie: That's exactly what it was.
MB: Often, because abusers are deeply insecure, they insert control as much as they can within the relationship (Bancroft, 2003). If and when their partner threatens to leave, the abuser may engage in gaslighting, or, in other words, make their partners feel as if they are abnormal, saying, "you are crazy, that never happened" (which their partners then start to believe). They may also attempt to make their partners erode their sense of self worth, saying "no one would ever love you; you are lucky to have me" (Marshall, 1999), or try to coerce them through making them feel guilty, saying "I'll die without you, I need you," or admit his or her faults and promise to change (Bancroft, 2003). But, unless he can address the insecurity or underlying value system that underlies his reasons for abuse and begins therapy, it is unlikely that he will change, because he potentially sees the way he treats you as justified.
Natalie: Yeah, I guess the sad thing is at the end of all of this, he's the one who left me. I didn't even have it in me to leave him, even after all the broken promises.
MB: Abusive relationships can be extremely difficult to leave—partners lose sight of what is normal, and their worth as a human being becomes tethered to their relationship or their partner in some way (Chang et al., 2010). Sometimes partners hold out hope that their abusive partner will be the person they were in the beginning, or they are made to believe the abuse is their fault and are deserving of abusive treatment. When abusers see their behavior as justified, they can project that justification onto their partner by suggesting they had no other way to act because of however the partner acted toward them. So, in the partner's mind, if they had been better in some way, the abuse would stop.
Natalie: I don't think people understand that; that's exactly what it was. I didn't grow up with abuse: My parents have the most loving marriage and they have always been so good to me. So I don't understand why this didn't click in and why I didn't just leave after the first time.
MB: It's not that partners are always attracted to abusers because of their abusive characteristics. That's a common misconception about all cases of abuse. Sometimes, people are attracted to someone who is nice, then slowly things begin changing. As the relationship progresses, sometimes the controlling or abusive partner will make you question who you are, what your love is worth, and you may lose yourself in the process, focused on only being better so the abuse will stop. However, that love will never come because the abusive partner has serious unresolved issues which you will never be able to resolve for him, no matter how perfect you are (Bancroft, 2003).
Natalie: Yes. I was walking on eggshells all the time; I would've done anything for him, for him to accept me and love me.
MB: Sure; you had faith in the person you'd grown to love, and so you stayed, hoping for change in his behavior, and wanting to believe in his promises.
Natalie: Yes. I never knew what the "right move" was around him; I didn't know what to say when he was upset or what to say when he ignored me. I just became very, very silent. But eventually he admitted to what he did and apologized when we got into a fight and broke up again. And then we got back together because I thought since he admitted what he did, he'd never do it again. I still don't understand: How did I take him back after he told me he recognized how terribly he treated me?
MB: Maybe the person who took him back is not the "you" you are today. It's the "you" under extreme physical and emotional stress, neglect, and feelings of self worth that were eroded. He made you believe he was the only person capable of seeing the good in you, thus giving you worth, and made you think the dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship you had was the only thing that mattered and the only love you would ever receive.
Natalie: Thank you. I really needed to hear that.
MB: Looking back on the past, people tend to use the perspective lens they have now, the goggles they wear today. But have compassion for your younger self. You put your love and trust in someone who became the center of your world. Only, he was incapable of treating it as the privilege it is, with care, kindness, love and respect.
If you have experienced intimate partner abuse, speaking to a professional can help. Research has shown that writing about the traumatic events you have experienced over four sessions can help reduce depression in depressed women with a history of intimate partner violence (Koopman, 2005).
* Name changed for anonymity.
Bancroft, L. (2003). Why does he do that?: Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. Penguin.
Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S. G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., ... & Stevens, M. R. (2011). The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey (NISVS): 2010 summary report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25.
Carlson, B. E., McNutt, L. A., Choi, D. Y., & Rose, I. M. (2002). Intimate partner abuse and mental health: The role of social support and other protective factors. Violence against women, 8(6), 720-745.
Chang, J. C., Dado, D., Hawker, L., Cluss, P. A., Buranosky, R., Slagel, L., ... & Scholle, S. H. (2010). Understanding turning points in intimate partner violence: factors and circumstances leading women victims toward change. Journal of women's health, 19(2), 251-259.
Koopman, C., Ismailji, T., Holmes, D., Classen, C. C., Palesh, O., & Wales, T. (2005). The effects of expressive writing on pain, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in survivors of intimate partner violence. Journal of Health psychology, 10(2), 211-221.
Marshall, L. L. (1999). Effects of men's subtle and overt psychological abuse on low-income women. Violence and Victims, 14(1), 69.
Truman, J. L., & Morgan, R. E. (2015). NONFATAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, 2003-2012. Journal of Current Issues in Crime, Law & Law Enforcement, 8(4).