By Shelley Flannery
When healthy relationships end, there may be sadness, anger, guilt or regret, but eventually, both parties move on. After all, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds.
But that’s not the case for all survivors of domestic abuse.
After enduring abuse at the hands of a supposed loved one, moving on can be especially difficult. Fear and stress are natural consequences of abuse, and these stressors can increase one’s risks for health problems while exacerbating existing health issues. In fact, medical research estimates as much as 90 percent of disease and illness to be stress-related.
As a result, survivors need more than time to help heal their wounds, no matter what type of abuse someone inflicts. The consequences on a survivor’s physical and mental health can show up long after the abuse has ended. These impacts can be reduced by finding support from an experienced, trauma-informed advocate or therapist.
With help from Maria E. Garay-Serratos, MSW, PhD, an expert on domestic violence traumatic brain injury, we explored the lasting effects of abuse some survivors may experience.
Long-Term Physical Effects
Physical abuse includes hitting, punching, kicking, shoving into a hard surface, strangling, restraining, hair-pulling and more, and it can range in severity from mild to severe, disfiguring to fatal.
About 75 percent of female domestic violence survivors and 48 percent of male survivors have been injured due to physical violence by an intimate partner. But while most injuries heal outwardly, they sometimes have lasting effects internally.
Acute injuries can manifest into chronic conditions, such as arthritis following trauma to joints, neurological deficiencies due to strangulation and traumatic brain injuries from a blow to the head, among others.
“Many of the women we see have experienced trauma to the head, [having been] shoved against the wall or had objects thrown at them. We know that just one of these episodes can cause damage, and this is repeated,” Garay says.
She also notes that violence can have negative effects on pregnancy, namely the risk of preterm labor, miscarriage and low birth weight, which can lead to ongoing physical and mental health problems for the child later on.
Long-Term Psychological Effects
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That saying may have worked in childhood, but it’s a far cry from reality in the world of domestic violence—60 percent of survivors report symptoms of depression. In the throes of abuse, a survivor usually experiences overwhelming feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which have a profound effect on their emotional well-being.
It’s no wonder that abuse survivors experience mental health disorders at a rate higher than the average population. After all, emotional and psychological abuse are incredibly pervasive; 95 percent of people who contacted the National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2020 stated they were experiencing emotional abuse.
Psychological abuse isn’t as easy to identify as physical abuse. It can involve the following tactics:
- A pattern of lying
- Coercive control
- Threats of physical abuse
Take this 5-question quiz to find out if you can recognize emotional abuse.
Psychological abuse can take as much of a toll on one’s health as physical abuse, especially if it goes untreated. And that’s all too common for survivors of domestic violence who can’t access treatment during the relationship or decide not to open up about their experience because of guilt, shame or some other reason.
Psychological abuse can result in:
- Feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem
- Inability to trust
- Digestion issues
- Chronic headaches
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Damage to a survivor’s psyche doesn’t heal like a broken bone. Mental health disorders take time to treat, and that’s only if you have access to ongoing mental health care.
Domestic violence survivors are at increased risk for mental health disorders even after they escape abuse. Several studies have confirmed a positive relationship between domestic violence and depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. In fact, up to 84% of female domestic violence survivors experience PTSD and as many as three-quarters have depression, according to Southern Illinois University research. And the longer you experience abuse, the higher your chances are of experiencing depression.
There is also a high correlation between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and domestic violence. Garay says nearly all of the survivors she has worked with display some symptoms of PTSD, which is characterized by flashbacks, intrusive imagery, nightmares, anxiety, emotional numbing, insomnia, hyper-vigilance and avoidance of traumatic triggers.
Long-Term Social Effects
Another tactic abusers commonly use is isolation, or slowly building a wall between their partner and their partner’s support system. Many limit who their partner sees, using coercive tactics and jealousy as justification.
This can lead to a permanent rift between the survivor and his or her friends and family, and it can be difficult to build a new support system when trust is a problem, which is the case for many survivors. Even religious communities may alienate survivors by advising them to stay with an abuser due to the belief that separation or divorce is wrong—no matter the circumstance.
Long-Term Effects on Children
It’s not only the survivor who suffers. Children who live in homes where abuse occurs are likely to contend with plenty of social difficulties, too. They’re 50 percent more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol later in life and 74 percent more likely to commit a violent crime. They also face cognitive, learning and developmental challenges at the same rate as children who are abused themselves.
Garay explains, “Younger children have less defense mechanisms and just want the violence to stop, whereas school-age children understand the dynamics and can become withdrawn, have trouble concentrating, difficulty with peer relationships and experience conflict at school. And adolescents sometimes end up running away.”
Boys who witness abuse are 10 times more likely to become abusive adults and girls are more likely to experience domestic abuse later in life. However, witnessing domestic violence as a child does not guarantee a life of violence. Intervention is a key factor in preventing the effects. Learn more here.
If you need help, reach out to a domestic violence advocate near you through our Get Help page. Advocates can not only help you better understand the abuse you’ve endured but also walk you through safety planning, legal options and talk emergency shelter if needed.