The effects of the ‘toxic trio’ on domestic abuse victims and their children

Bal Kaur Howard explores the links between domestic abuse, mental health, and substance abuse and the impact on victims and their children.

What happens when you lose your mobile phone? Have you ever misplaced your keys? What happens to you in that moment? Do you feel a sudden rush of panic, fear, or anxiety? Now imagine that feeling stretched out to every minute of every day, with seemingly no possibility of relief. This is what it can feel like for a victim of domestic abuse on a daily basis. Extend these feelings out over a longer period of time and there is the potential for severe effects on an individual’s mental health. With mental health issues, in turn, linked to substance abuse, there is the potential for these situations to quickly spiral out of control.

The signs of domestic abuse can appear in a number of different forms. There is often a misconception that domestic abuse is solely, or predominately, the result of physical violence. However, domestic abuse also extends into how a partner may try to control the victim using other, less obvious techniques.

Emotional and psychological abuse
We now have a better understanding of the effects that things like name calling, public humiliation, and constant berating and belittling can have on a victim of domestic abuse. These forms of emotional and psychological control extend into a subtle and manipulative regulation of a victim’s whereabouts, actions, and social groups. Abusers play mind games with their victims, often using terms such as “If you loved me, you wouldn’t want to go out with your friends”, “your friends/family are the problem in our relationship” and lead to “if you go out with your friends this relationship is over”.

Moving or hiding keys is a surprisingly common way for abusers to sow seeds of dependence in the minds of their victims. Abusers have, alongside the rise of smartphones and wearable technology, also utilised GPS equipment to track the location of their victims. These techniques are often used in tandem with each other to manipulate the psychological state of the victim, in a process known as ‘gaslighting’. This sees the victim begin to doubt their own sanity and, in turn, allow themselves to be controlled by the abuser, as they feel that they cannot function without their constant help and guidance.

Financial abuse
Another overlooked method of domestic abuse is control or manipulation of an individual’s finances. Abusers often confiscate money from the victim, dictate a certain allowance, or even refuse to allow them to work at all. Additionally, the abuser can monitor fuel usage to control the victim’s whereabouts or take out loans in their name. Often a partner will use phrase such as “you’ve always wanted to be a stay-at-home mum, I can make that happen”, or “you’re no good with money, I will look after the finances” to convince the victim that this is a good idea. The goal is to exploit someone for their money, but also create a sense of dependence and ultimately isolate the victim from the outer world.

A relationship is a “partnership” in which both people are meant to be happy and compromise. If one person is in charge of setting rules the other is expected to follow without discussion, the rule-setter is trying to control the partner. This just doesn’t happen overnight. If someone behaved this way on the first few dates, we wouldn’t be going on the next few. Yet, this form of behaviour is all too common across the UK and often goes unnoticed.

Physical abuse
Physical abuse remains the most widely understood form of domestic abuse, mainly because its effects can be seen. Cuts, bruises, burns, fractures, and signs of attempted strangulation are all hallmarks of a physically abusive relationship. Additionally, damage to the victim’s property is a form of domestic abuse that often goes unreported because the abuser has not been violent to the victim directly. The mental abuse that comes alongside the violence often attempts to place the victim at the height of the blame, with suggestions such as “look what you made me do” and “this is your fault” as the victim begins to rationalise the abuser’s behaviour by blaming themselves.

Sexual abuse
Domestic abuse seeks to attack the mental health of the victim when they are most vulnerable, such as during sex. Often the abuser will use sex to control or manipulate the victim. They can force the victim to wear clothing or engage in activities that they find uncomfortable or overwhelming. They can also make the victim feel embarrassed about their body. Victims are also sometimes told that they are not good enough in bed and that the abuser is the only one who will accept them.

The effects on children
Within all of these forms of abuse, the victim’s mental health can deteriorate rapidly. But the effects on any children within a domestic abuse setting are sometimes forgotten. It is heart-breaking that children are unwittingly caught up in the effects of domestic abuse and will often be used as pawns to keep the victim in the relationship – one victim stated that her partner would only allow her to take one child with her when she went out and had to leave the other one at home. Children that grow-up within domestic abuse settings often suffer from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) -- traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and behaviour. ACEs include being physically, emotionally or sexually abused as a child, or growing up in a house with domestic abuse, mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse or criminal problems.

One abuse to another
A recent study by the University of Birmingham confirms that women who are experiencing domestic abuse are nearly three times more likely to struggle with their mental health. Victims often suffer from depression, self-harm, paranoia, eating disorders, personality disorders, disturbed sleep, and suicidal thoughts. For many, these feelings see them turn alcohol, strong prescription pills, or other drugs or substance in order to help them cope with situation that they find themselves in. This level of substance misuse then becomes a dependency, which can then often exacerbate the domestic abuse problem. What needs to be tackled first in order to help people in these forms of situations? Is it the domestic abuse, the resultant mental health issues, or the substance abuse that many sadly fall into?

Lost to the system
Unfortunately, mental health assessments cannot be undertaken while the victim is under the influence substances or intoxicated. Victims that turn to drugs or dependence on other substances often do so because they cannot cope with their emotions. They often feel they need the substances to deal with their daily life and therefore cannot make clear decisions about the abusive relationship, or the children that have been caught up within it, forming a vicious circle. Choice is lost in substance misuse or addiction, making this the first issue that needs to be resolved. Then, the domestic abuse and mental health issues can be addressed. Let’s not forget that two women a week are killed by a partner or former partner, ten women a week kill themselves, and nearly two million individuals suffered from domestic abuse last year. People need to get the right help to find their voice and stand up in the face of those that seek to abuse them.

Bal Kaur Howard is a survivor of domestic abuse and in recovery from addiction. She since worked for the police and now runs BKH Training. Find out more at http://www.bkhtraining.co.uk

There are a number of organisations that offer support and advice for those suffering from domestic abuse:

National Women’s Aid can be found at www.womensaid.org.uk

The ManKind Initiative offers advice and support to men in domestic abuse situations. Help can be found at www.mankind.org.uk

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