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 email@example.com.
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.