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Survivors of Intimate Partner Abuse Don’t Have Words

The traumatic impact of intimate partner abuse.

Key points

  • Survivors of intimate partner abuse (IPA) can be overwhelmed emotionally, unable to integrate the experience.
  • IPA survivors often emotionally shut down as a way to cope.
  • Grounding techniques can help IPA survivors recognize their trauma and seek help.
 Anna Tarazevich/Pexels
Source: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

A survivor of intimate partner abuse (IPA) experiences serious confusion on two fronts: inability to know help is needed and inability to identify the right help.

First, coercive tactics of abuse not only cause anxiety and create self-doubt but are hard to identify in the relational interaction. Second, the traumatic impact of IPA is known to cause cognitive confusion further inhibiting the ability to recognize and report their abuse.

For the survivor of IPA to get back to a presence of self and agency, both abuse and its traumatic impact need to be identified and addressed in the healing process.

All Abuse Is Psychological

Intimate partner abuse refers to behavior within a relationship targeted by one to achieve power and control over the other by causing physical, sexual, or psychological harm. Whether it results in physical harm, it is psychological in nature.

Abuse can be verbal and usually will result in emotional harm. Abuse includes tactics such as isolation, gaslighting, degradation, humiliation, and threats. Often these tactics are embedded in a partner’s behavior making them hard to see and, when cycled with positive attentive behaviors, makes the experience all the more confusing.

A 2018 study examining the resilience in women who experience domestic violence–psychological, physical, sexual, and other forms of violence–concluded that all types of abuse or violence are in essence psychological and the consequences of every type are psychological too (Konstantinos, et al).

Traumatic Impact of IPA

Trauma can be defined as a unique individual experience that results from an event, a series of events, or a set of ongoing circumstances experienced as physically or emotionally harmful, or even life-threatening that will have a lasting adverse impact on the individual’s functioning. When one is emotionally overwhelmed by abuse, one is not able to remain present or have a coherent understanding of what is taking place. One may not tolerate the feelings or comprehend the horror (Saakvitne, et al 2000).

The growing field of trauma-informed treatment lends important knowledge and tools to address the neurobiological source of trauma—emotions and somatic (body) experiences—for the survivor. For the most part, the traumatic narrative of abuse is less important to the survivor’s recovery than addressing the neurobiological symptoms in order to heal.

The IPA survivor is unable to integrate the emotional experience of abuse. The survivor feels overwhelmed­­, making recall of the details of the traumatic event not always possible. Instead, the experience of trauma creates implicit memories. Implicit memory is a type of memory that is out of conscious awareness but affects our feelings and behavior. In other words, we remember with feelings and somatic experiences in our body, rather than in words (Fisher, 2021). Thus, implicit memories have a lasting adverse effect on our function in the realm of mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing (Dillon, et al.).

In my work with women with controlling partners over the past 27 years, I have noticed in my recovery groups and individual therapy, a dissociative condition that’s evident in most abused women. When we are in danger, we naturally react with fight, flight, or freeze. It’s the latter that is most prevalent among survivors of IPA.

When they feel entrapped with a partner who degrades, intimidates, and scares them, they are very likely to emotionally shut down. To stand up to the “bully” is not an option, because they have learned such attempts have just brought on more hurtful attacks. The idea of fleeing or getting away mostly doesn’t feel possible in the moment, or even later, because they fear they will land in greater danger. Survivors of IPA often go into freeze—disconnecting, dissociating, shutting down from overwhelming emotions as a way to survive and keep going. Defenses come online that are in the service of not feeling and thereby minimizing the threat. In my experience, this dissociation occurs unbeknownst to the abused person.

The IPA survivor experiences confusion and brain fog. In a state of not thinking clearly, they can’t recognize what is going on, identify what caused it, or what to do about it. It’s not that survivors haven’t tried to improve the relationship, stop the abuse, or placate at times to avoid escalation. The trauma can invoke over time a range of psychological and physical health conditions that contribute to difficulties of staying present, self-aware, managing feelings, thinking clearly, and staying connected to others.

What Is Helpful to the IPA Survivor?

Psycho-education about the survivor’s experience with intimate partner abuse includes helping them to:

  • Recognize their partner’s coercive abuse, and
  • Identify and normalize the traumatic impact, and
  • Engage in trauma-informed treatment for recovery.

While exploring their current relationship, most helpful to the IPA survivor is also recognizing and attending to their dissociation. It’s important to identify what is going on inside. What are you feeling? If the felt sense is “nothing,” or numb, or a detachment from feelings, then you’re likely in the presence of dissociation. In this state, it’s very useful to use grounding techniques to get out of the freeze state—brain fog/confusion—and into a state of self-awareness. Here is one example:

Color Exercise

This particular grounding exercise has proven helpful to many clients. You lead your client through these steps:

  • Start by noticing your feet on the floor and how you feel anchored in the chair.
  • Next, pick a color and go around the room and name the items in that color. For example, say you picked, “green” then you say to yourself, “green book,” “green vase,” etc.
  • Once you’ve done one round, check in with your body to see if you feel more present. If you feel only some improvement, pick another color and do another round.

Note: Search for “grounding techniques” to have many options to choose from.

The survivor paying attention on an ongoing basis to when they dissociate and bring themselves back into the present is important to their ongoing recovery. It will help to maintain self-awareness which lends itself to eventually remaining present with clear thinking. In time, they can come to trust their perception to move out of feeling unsafe and entrapped to deciding what to do going forward.

When a survivor of IPA takes the risk to reach out for help stemming from their felt sense that something is wrong, the onus is on the therapist to be knowledgeable of intimate partner abuse and trauma-informed in their approach to help.



Dillon G, Hussain R, Loxton D, Rahman S. "Mental and physical health and intimate partner violence against women: A review of the literature." International Journal of Family Medicine. 2013(5):1-15.

Fisher, J. 2021. Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists. Eau Claire,WI:PESI Publishing

Konstantinnos, T. & Tuczak, J. 2018. "Resilience in Women who Experience Domestic Violence." Psychiatric Quarterly, volume 89, pages 201–211(2018).

Saakvitne, K. W., Gamble, S., Pearlman, L. A., & Lev, B. T. 2000. Risking connection: A training curriculum for working with survivors of childhood abuse. The Sidran Press.

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