This is the debut article of a monthly online column about working with survivors of intimate partner violence written by a counselor who is also a survivor of domestic violence.
In August 2021, I wrote an article for Counseling Today challenging counseling professionals to not ask survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) “Why didn’t you leave?” or to give the perceived notion that leaving would solve the problem. Doing so often causes confusion because most people believe that once someone leaves an abusive relationship, the problem is resolved.
So, let’s go with that for a second. Playing devil’s advocate to my own article, let’s say the protocol for assisting clients who have experienced IPV is to encourage them to leave. If they do leave, then what? What are the next steps? Where do they go from there? Is the problem solved? Will they no longer need the intervention of a professional?
As mental health professionals, we often believe we have all the solutions. We think our degrees, research, theoretical knowledge and certifications give us superpowers to fix people. But we often lack the real-life experience to understand the complicated layers of the situations our clients face.
If a client leaves their abuser, are you prepared to help them along their journey to recovery? Do you understand the journey? Do you understand the new set of problems that will arise after a survivor leaves?
Every counselor should not only be prepared to support their client in deciding how to safely exit an unhealthy situation (if that’s what the client wants to do) but also be adequately equipped to help the survivor prepare for what’s next.
You may be asking, “Well, if someone has removed themselves from an unhealthy environment, shouldn’t that be good enough?” Survivors often receive little to no support once the threat of abuse is gone because so many counseling professionals and organizations believe this very thing. It sounds easy enough: Leave your abuser and get back to living your life. Then all will be well, right? Wrong!
A survivor may experience unexpected issues after they leave their abuser that a clinician can help them to process and understand. As professionals, however, we must understand these issues first.
Each article of my column, “Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective,” will focus on one specific issue survivors may face post-crisis. In this first column, I explore how counselors can help survivors work through their grief and loss.
Experiencing grief and loss
One of the most overlooked side-effects of leaving an abusive relationship is grief. It may be hard to believe, and maybe even hard for some to understand, but there can be a lot of grief associated with ending an abusive relationship. Even if it was unhealthy, it was still a relationship.
Grief happens after people experience loss. A survivor who leaves an abusive situation may grieve:
- Loss of self
- Loss of love
- Loss of the life they expected to have
- Loss of the idea of who they thought their partner was
- Loss of friends and family because of isolation
These are just a few examples of the types of loss survivors may experience. These feelings of loss are further complicated by the fact that survivors of IPV may not think sadness is an appropriate response to leaving a toxic relationship. They may find it hard to understand their feelings of loneliness and sadness when others expect them to feel freedom and happiness.
I still remember the day my abuser was taken away in handcuffs. I had looked forward to that day for months. I knew that he would be sentenced to four years in prison and that I would finally have my life back. The irony of watching him being arrested — not for the crimes he committed against me but for something totally unrelated — left me with a sense of bitterness instead of the peace I craved. After seven long years of being on an emotional rollercoaster, the ride was finally over.
However, when the authorities handed me his valuables, placed the handcuffs on his wrist and escorted him away from the courthouse, tears began to roll down my face. My bitterness was replaced with sadness. My anger was replaced with remorse, and my joy was replaced with the fear of loneliness. I cried the entire drive home.
For months, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the house settling at night caused me to awaken with anxiety. The stairs creaking at 3 a.m. reminded me of the nights when he would come home drunk and take his stress out on me.
I sank into depression, struggling to understand how my mind, heart and body didn’t seem to agree with the verdict. I became angry at myself for missing him, but I also knew I didn’t want him back. This whirlwind of confusing emotions made me feel out of control.
I didn’t understand what was happening then, but now I know this feeling was grief. Grief that I was too embarrassed to explain to anyone else. I was with my abuser for seven years. During that time, we woke up together, went to bed together, ate together, struggled together and celebrated together. It may be hard for some to understand, but I lost my friend. I lost a sense of familiarity. I lost what I thought was love.
Now as an expert in the field, I talk to other survivors every day who have had similar experiences. They are desperately trying to sort through their feelings and understand how they could miss something so toxic. I give my clients space to feel that loss, to grieve it. Similar to those who overcome addiction, survivors of IPV may go through withdrawals or even relapse. For these clients, having a counselor who understands that they are experiencing loss and is invested in helping them explore the journey back to themselves can be life changing.
What counselors must understand
No matter how much abuse was present in the relationship, it was still a relationship. At one point, two individuals loved each other. At one point, the survivor felt safe enough to allow their partner to get close to them to let their guard down. At some point, the survivor let their abuser in — not just into their home but into their heart. Because, let’s be honest, manipulation, gaslighting and the cycle of abuse would not be as effective if the abuser never gained the trust and love of their victim.
Imagine falling in love with someone, feeling a sense of closeness, and then one day waking up next to a stranger, feeling like you don’t know the person you’ve been sleeping with at all. Imagine that the person who once brought you immense joy is also the very person to cause you pain.
If you can’t imagine it, count your blessings to have never experienced something so psychologically damaging. This is indeed a loss. Grief comes in waves, and because the survivor is grieving multiple losses, they may find it hard to communicate or name their feelings.
The client’s mental conflict about ending the abusive relationship can easily be confused (by both the client and the counselor) with missing the abuser when, in reality, it’s often the uncomfortableness of being alone. Counselors can help clients process their feelings and learn to understand the difference between the two. They don’t miss their abuser; they miss themselves — the version of who they were before the abuse happened.
The client may have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to “fix” their partner, and now that they are alone, they may be faced with the idea of “fixing” themselves. Having to examine oneself closely is hard. A good counselor, however, can help clients realize that being in their own company is not necessarily a bad thing.
How to be a supportive ally
You can be a supportive ally by putting a name to what the client is experiencing: disenfranchised grief (i.e., grief that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly supported). And you can remind them that grief is a normal response to any type of loss.
Give the client a sense of normalcy by explaining the cycle of abuse and why they may have these unexpected feelings. Become familiar with the power and control wheel, and help your client to understand it as well. Explain how manipulation and gaslighting play a part in the mixed emotions.
During sessions, you can also talk about various ways the client can rediscover themselves. Help them to sort their feelings and reconnect to the world in this new phase of their lives.
For example, they could join a club, find a new hobby or reconnect with a passion they had put aside because their former partner didn’t like it. As they grieve who they wanted to be, who they once were and the relationships that have been lost, encourage them to enjoy the journey of self-discovery and reconnection. It may be more manageable to help them acknowledge and work through each loss separately.
Now that you have a better understanding of one of the aftereffects survivors may face upon leaving an abusive relationship, you will be better equipped to serve as a professional and an ally.
Leontyne Evans works as the survivor engagement specialist for Survivors Rising, where she helps to empower and uplift survivors by providing education and resources that encourage survivor voice and self-sufficiency. She is a published author of two books, Princeton Pike Road and Relationships, Friendships and Situationships: 90 Days of Inspiration to Keep Your Ships From Sinking, both of which support her mission of ending the cycle of unhealthy relationships. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
Leontyne, thank you for sharing your story. It certainly helps me better understand IPV, and I will leverage your insights as I enter the counselor profession.
Wonderful! Thank you! If one professional does something different, it was all worth it!!
First-year counseling student here… This was very insightful – thank you!
Thank you for your story. I am a counselor today because I am a conqueror of domestic violence. I say conqueror because I did not let all the dynamics of domestic violence conqueror me. I used my hurt and pain through writing and adocacy. As i ministered to others I found healing for myself. Our stories and advocacy provides hope that others can survive and thrive in rebuilding their lives, hopes, and dreams. Our collective voices can be a force to be reckoned with and one day see all forms of abuse and violence from our societies and the world, I counsel victims of crime, predominately women who have been victims of IPV and DV. It is so uplifting and rewarding to see clients heal and take on life again, this time on their own terms. If they are who they are supposed to be, I am who I am supposed to be. Together we are uni!ed in victory. Keep doing what you do. Your labor is not in vain.
WOW!! YES!! I totally agree that this is such a needed area of just listening and walking. I am wanting to work with survivors as well as I am one! I wish I lived in Nebraska!!!
Thank you for sharing this information. I am in my second semester for my master’s program and learning about IPV grief is helpful. This article provides a different perspective.
Thank you Leontyne for making sense of the DV and IPV jigsaw puzzle. You have ‘nailed’ the problem that emergences when a DV client is asked “Why don’t you just leave?’ You also made very clear that theeehart is part of this puzzle, as the person/woman are usually nurturers who are compassionate and giving and trusting, and do this out of concern and love. When it is turned against them, they realise too late, they are enmeshed in a web…The web involves true concern for another, love and also the cycle of abuse. As the situation increases in intensity, many factors are added up (slowly at first, after the realisation that love has just turned to seeming hate by the perpertator who may have been one’s husband or partner. ) The world turns upside down for that person and all the gas lighting, manipulation and the control factors may suddenly become obvious, but before this there seemed to be genuine love and no evil motivation. All the factors for and against are constanted juggled and thought through- a bit like an agitating motion of a machine machine while the reality may be another verbal abuse session or action may occur that same night, and act as a ‘spinner’ for the heart and head, as the person comes to grip with the reality and risk of staying…not knowing how bad it might get, and surviving each crisis but trying t o forgive or to understand…there is no real time for grief and loss in those early stages, as the ‘washing machine cycle’ is on repeat on and off and the spin cycle will come again but its unknown when. During the early phase a counsellor can help a person gently see the cycle of abuse as a framework to compare actions to and allow that reality to be a yardstick in the background. If the woman has many times of reprieve she will find it hard to accept the cycle is just abuse as she may still feel there is love there too and her own heart may be confused why she still feels love (but knows fear has come in too)…In time she will be blamed and controlled and pressured with her time and under surveillance often as part of the next phase . A counsellor can help her think it through and identify what triggers ‘upset’ or seemingly provoke the partner. It may be there is a main trigger such a alcohol is used at night and the women suffers the consequences of that effect. It may be the partner is fighting his own background of being treated roughly by an alcoholic father and is just following the pattern learnt. It may be he is jealous and wants to make sure he has total control, or have poor self esteem so build it up by blaming another. The client will need help to see whether there is any true grounds for guilt – as otherwise she will bear the burden and lie of false guilt, thinking she is to blame. Examining the accusations may help her see more objectively she is just being used as a scapegoat or being controlled or worked so he can gain greater control of her mind and emotions….There are stages of DV that go ‘to ad fro’ and the appeasement stage that Leontyne pointed out confuses the heart…How can a partner be loving one minute and kind and snap within seconds and then become kind and loving again. is he mentally ill? drunk? or emotionally scarred? or has she done something wrong or the children may have (a convenient way to get at her is to use the children)…There is much to unravel in counselling but what I found from personal experience (being a DV survivor myself) an empathetic, compassionate and wise counsellor can lend enormous strength and wisdom while explaining the process or dispelling false guilt, and be an ally to that woman so she does not feel alone or helpless. The counselor can give hope and even if a small ray of hope, someone else is on her side and standing with and for that woman to help empower her thoughts, emotions and spirit. That is the most wonderful gift and also like a cup of water in the desert. (see Leontyne’s flower picture.) Empathy and compassion are given without judgement or suggestion that the woman is to blame for not reading the signs of abuse early enough.
I personally thank God for each counselor I had in time of need which included helping me tread water, weigh up factors, understand the DV abuse cycle, and working out a way to reclaim any boundaries and seek further help legally (after I go away.) I also thank the counsellor who helped me work through the grief and loss afterward, when I felt confused, vulnerable and alone in a new state. I also found work and could start again (no children in the situation). I don’t think I would have got away otherwise but originally I tried time and again to reconcile and ‘give another chance’ to the one I loved. I only left when my own life was on the line and did that in the middle of the night and stayed with a friend for a few hours till I could fly out of the state untraced.
The memories, threats to you and loved ones, the indoctrination sessions, the damage done all need to be dealt with and the fear. I found workshops, a support group and close friends whom I met interstate who travelled the path, a great help but t was the one to one counselling that was foremost which fortified me and gave me hope.
Thankyou Leontyne for all you shared.