The dynamics and risk factors for spousal violence are complex. But what are the mental health ramifications? What can we all do to prevent and stop it? Brave souls who have experienced spousal violence are better depicted in a positive light as ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’, which may connote helplessness. They are not helpless, and that realization is by itself, empowering.
Mental health consequences for the survivor
Depression is the commonest emotional consequence, resulting in pervasive feelings of sadness, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, and feeling tired all of the time. It may also be accompanied by loss of appetite, disrupted sleep patterns, weepy episodes and feelings of worthlessness.
In some instances, suicide begins to look like a viable option out of their misery. This emphasizes why we should all stand up to be counted in providing support, and encouragement to help any survivors we know.
Other emotional problems include anxiety and frequent worry. Thus, some of them become quite jumpy and nervous especially in the presence of the abusive spouse. Their self-esteem takes a big hit and they may become very demoralized and consider themselves as failures.
This is often worsened by psychological torture and frequent and often ongoing verbal taunts such as, ‘you can never cope without me’; ‘you know you are not good enough for me’ and so on.
For the survivors who eventually escape such abusive relationships, they are also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that is characterised by nightmares, flashbacks and active avoidance of any recollection/reminders of the terrible experiences they went through. They may also become very sensitive and easily startled by loud noises.
But even more, regrettably, some carry the psychological scars for a very long time and it colours their future perceptions and relationships – especially if they do not receive any professional therapy to help them work through their emotions.
Loneliness, feelings of betrayal, lack of trust in human beings and becoming very harsh, cynical, or socially cold and withdrawn can also ensue. Some women turn to drugs and alcohol to seek solace, but this only compounds the problem.
Anger is common, and can sometimes be directed against self: ‘how could I have been this stupid?’, ‘I should have known better, and seen the handwriting on the wall,’ etc. Sometimes, pent-up anger can result in violence and aggression directed against the abuser – with serious or fatal outcomes in some instances.
Emotional consequences for children in abusive homes
Children from abusive homes may grow up with the wrong perception of what marriage is all about and learn that it is a way of life. Thus, the sons grow up to become perpetrators of IPV while the daughters grow up to accepting it as another way of showing love.
However, some children may also grow up with cultivated hatred against the perpetrator, and become determined never to engage or tolerate such behaviour when they become adults. Unfortunately, the former is more common, resulting in generational perpetration of IPV.
Such children are at risk for stunted development, emotional and behavioural problems – including deviant behaviours, poor academic performance and school achievement, high drop-out rates and being involved in psychoactive substance use.
So, what should we do?
- If you or anyone you know have experienced IPV, seek counselling and therapy from mental health professionals (psychiatrists and clinical psychologists).
- If you are in an abusive relationship, end it today. If mediation is going to work, ensure the abuser goes for therapy and is given a report before you consider going back. The truth is, if it happens once, more often than not, it will become a repetitive habit.
- Train your children properly: Male children should not be exempted from household chores and allowed to play while their sisters are cleaning the house and helping in the kitchen. You are raising entitled future men who will consider women inferior and beneath them, while they expect to reign as lord and master of the home.
- Religious leaders have a role to play, to identify when to recommend patience, and when to draw the line. While not encouraging marriages to break down, if it is clear that one partner is not committed and the life and safety of the other partner is at risk, then please do not hesitate to encourage separation. Otherwise, you may be called to officiate at the funeral.
- Families and the community should stop the shame and stigma attached to being divorced or unmarried. If it is not working and it is threatening your sanity, your health and indeed, your life, then what is the point?
- As friends, neighbours, colleagues, family members, we should all have zero tolerance for anyone in our circle who perpetrates IPV. There is never an acceptable excuse for it.