Dr Nicola Davies provides the key psychological steps that can be taken to escape an abusive relationship.

There is a great deal of advice on the practicalities of escaping an abusive relationship. However, as Sacha Griffiths, counselling psychologist, points out, “Financial, emotional and psychological dependence are the major roadblocks to making an escape. Most abusers are adept at instilling guilt and fear into their victims, who become emotionally and psychologically weak as a result of the abuse.” So, what are the key psychological steps to breaking free?

Step 1: Acceptance

In order to escape an abusive relationship, the victim must first realise that they are being abused, which may involve seeking the help of a therapist to aid acceptance of this traumatic reality. This can be difficult as abusers often keep a very tight rein on their victim’s activities, by monitoring movements, phone calls, reducing financial independence and, over time, brainwashing the person into believing they are useless and unable to survive without the abuser.
Natasha, from Sydney, shares an example of this. “My friend took around 20 years of abuse from her husband – both physical and emotional,” she reports. “She was reduced to a twittering wreck and no matter what her confidants advised, she always made excuses for a man who broke her nose, left her with black eyes and beat her with a broomstick. She felt she was the cause of his bad temper. How she believed this I have no idea – she was a faithful, hard-working wife who did her best to bring up her two boys. She eventually left, but had given him the best years of her life.”

Step 2: Change the mindset

Men and women who are abused need to challenge any feelings of being to blame or that the abuser “loves” them. Only once this change of outlook is achieved can steps be taken to escape the pernicious situation victims are placed in. Often, family and friends see the problem and try to intervene, only to be horribly disillusioned when the victim goes straight back to the abuser. Outsiders can’t believe that a person would willingly submit to abuse, but unfortunately, as Griffiths explains, there is a psychological basis: “Often behaviours learned in childhood contribute to this, especially if a person is brought up in an abusive family.”
“In the classic abusive relationship,” explains Griffiths, “there is a phase of building tension where nothing the victim does is right and the abuser becomes angrier – manifesting often in physical violence. Once this explosive behaviour is over, the bruised and scarred victim is treated with tenderness and care and given gifts and the loving attention they so desperately need. Once the honeymoon period is over, however, the cycle starts all over again, with the victim anxiously awaiting the next honeymoon phase.” In this way, just like animals can be taught to accept a mild electric shock in order to get a food treat, with researchers gradually increasing the intensity of the shock, so abused people put up with increasing levels of violence in order to experience a few days of loving kindness.”

Step 3: Reach out

This needs to stop. “Recognising that you need to get help is an important step,” says Griffiths. After that everything else will fall into place. There are centres for abused men and women which can be reached via Facebook, Twitter, call centres, websites and offices. The abused person, once they have accepted they need help, only has to make contact. Assistance can be given in starting a new job and regaining self-esteem and self-worth, while also providing a safe haven. A restraining order against the abuser can be arranged by the courts, if necessary, so that the victim and children will be safer. At domestic violence centres, trained people are able to give advice on escaping. Never be too proud to ask for help. A friend or work colleague can provide basics, like a secure phone or computer to use, as well as psychological support.

Step 4: Prepare

It is advised not to make calls to domestic violence centres or to arrange escape via the home phone or computer, as these will sometimes be monitored and could result in more serious abuse. It may even endanger children whom the abuser could, in extreme cases, kidnap. Griffiths suggests ending the relationship in a public place, where there will be witnesses and help if the abuser should get out of control. Never make the announcement in the home – there have been too many cases of serious assault or murder. A public restraining order may go a long way in keeping distance between the abuser and the family. Also, at the time when the victim makes the escape the children should already have been sent to a safe place, in case the abuser chases a victim’s car and to avoid involving them in confrontations. Where children are concerned, child protection services should be informed, as well as the school, so that children can’t easily be abducted.

Step 5: Address the trauma

After escaping an abusive relationship, life doesn’t automatically assume a rosy glow. There will be post-traumatic stress to deal with, for which Griffiths advises counselling. “After an escape, depression may strike, and this is when support is essential,” she says. “The victim needs to regain confidence in order to get things back on track.” Incoherent and nervous witnesses don’t make a good impression in court, should it come to this, whereas the abuser will usually have all his “facts” manufactured to perfection and make sure that his side of the case is credible. They may even cast doubt on the mental health of the victim. Counselling is also fundamental to ensure the escape is final – and that the victim doesn’t make the same mistake again in choosing another abusive partner.

Help is near
Australian Capital Territory: Domestic Violence Crisis Service 02 6280 0900
New South Wales: Domestic Violence Line 1800 656 463
Northern Territory: Domestic Violence Crisis Line 1800 019 116
Queensland: Domestic Violence Telephone Service 1800 811 811
South Australia: Domestic Violence Helpline 1300 782 200
Tasmania: Family Violence Counselling and Support Service 1800 608 122
Victoria: Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre 1800 015 188
Western Australia: Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline 1800 007 339
Men’s Helpline 1800 000 599