The Darkest Times: The Emotional Aftermath of Leaving an Abusive Relationship (2008).
This article draws on doctoral research, using in-depth, qualitative interviews with 6 Irish women, to explore their lived experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of an intimate male partner. Specifically, the article reports on one of the core themes to emerge from the research, focusing on the post-separation period, the aftermath of leaving an abusive relationship, and the process by which women moved on into a life free from abuse.
The most common form of violence against women is domestic violence. The various statistics show that a woman is more likely to be attacked and beaten, even killed, by her partner or former partner than by any other person.
The extent of domestic abuse in Ireland has been highlighted by several studies (Kelleher & O’Connor, 1995; Watson & Parsons, 2005; McGee et al., 2002), confirming that violence against women in the home is extensive, with an alarming 1 in 5 Irish women surveyed, having experienced at least one form of violence at some point in their lives (Kelleher & O’Connor, 1995). Despite some variation in prevalence rates across studies, there can be no doubt that domestic abuse of women by an intimate male partner in Ireland constitutes a significant social problem in need of clinical attention and intervention research (Rhatigan et al, 2006).
While the process of leaving abusive relationships has been the subject of extensive research (Chang et al, 2006; Werner-Wilson et al, 2000; Ulrich, 1991; 1993; Landenburger, 1989); the post-separation period has received comparatively little attention. In their review of studies concerning the process of leaving, Anderson & Saunders (2003) point out that only 7 of the 28 qualitative studies give some consideration to the aftermath of separation (Eldar-Avidan & Haj-Yahia, 2000; Hoff, 1990; Kirkwood, 1993; Molina, 1999; NiCarthy, 1987; Wuest & Merritt-Gray, 1999).
With the exception of the above, in most studies, the process of leaving seems to end with the woman’s physical departure from the relationship; consequently, little is known about the challenges faced by women in the immediate and longer term aftermath of leaving, and their subsequent psychological well-being in the post-separation period.
What is known, however, is that the impact of abuse frequently persists long after the violence itself has ended and safety has been achieved (Campbell, Jones & Dienemann et al., 2002); even in the absence of continued violence or threats of violence, many women report severe, chronic and unremitting symptoms of PTSD and depression (Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Campbell, Sullivan & Davidson, 1995). Similarly, despite some reported improvements in health since leaving their relationship, Tower et al (2006) found women’s emotional health remained fragile. Furthermore, Lerner & Kennedy (2000) found that recency of separation was related to lower levels of psychological well-being among women who had left abusive relationships.
Although relatively neglected, existing research concerning the aftermath of leaving abusive relationships highlights that women who leave face a unique set of circumstances, and multiple stressors, including various financial and emotional losses, in addition to considerable challenges in maintaining a life independent from their abuser.
Besides having to cope with the trauma associated with abuse prior to leaving, many women are subjected to ongoing or escalating violence and abuse after leaving (Kurz, 1996). Indeed, post-separation abuse is arguably a significant stressor that could serve to compromise women’s psychological well-being in the aftermath of leaving an abusive relationship. Mertin & Mohr (2001) found that continued abuse after separation was significantly and positively correlated with anxiety, depression and PTSD. While other studies found that average levels of depression, PTSD, or other trauma symptoms among women who have left abusive relationships can equal (Herbert et al, 1991; Rounsaville, 1978) or exceed (Kemp, Green, Hovanitz & Rawlings, 1995; Lerner & Kennedy, 2000; Walker, 1984) those of women still in the relationship.
In addition to the emotional impact escaping abuse, leaving also has economic costs. Indeed, many women invariably bear significant financial costs as a consequence of leaving an abusive relationship. Escaping abuse is often entails women leaving all that is familiar to them, including their job and hence their main source of income. Consequently, the decision to leave is often accompanied by a ‘drastic reduction’ in women’s financial and social resources, with implications for their health and welfare (Kelly & Regan, 1999).
Wuest & Merritt-Gray (1999) explored the factors that enable women to sustain separation in the process of leaving an abusive relationship. They describe a four-stage, social psychological process for women leaving and not returning to abusive relationships. Counteracting abuse, breaking free, not going back, and moving on are the stages in the process of reclaiming self. While Kirkwood (1993) described a process of survival and personal change the women experience after leaving an abusive relationship.
Despite a growing qualitative literature in other countries, notably, to date there are no published research studies exploring Irish women’s lived experiences of domestic abuse using an exclusively qualitative methodology, from a feminist perspective. The present study seeks to address this apparent deficit by adding the voices of Irish women to our understanding of what it means to live with, leave and ultimately survive domestic abuse from the subjective experiences of the women concerned. It is hoped that filling the present gaps in knowledge and increasing understanding of women’s experiences will lead to women in Ireland, who are living with domestic abuse being offered better support than they have hitherto received.
The main aim of the present study was to explore and elucidate Irish women’s subjective experiences of, living with, leaving and ultimately surviving domestic abuse at the hands of an intimate male partner.
A qualitative approach was used to examine the depth, multifaceted nature and complexity of the phenomena of domestic abuse. Through women’s own accounts, the qualitative method was used to gain insight into their lived experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of an intimate male partner, and specifically, to understand how women dealt with the emotional aftermath of leaving abusive relationships.
Purposive sampling was used to recruit a total of six women aged between 26 and 48 years old (mean 40.3 years; median: 40 years) from a well-established voluntary sector organization, offering refuge and outreach support services to women and children subjected to domestic abuse, in the mid-west of Ireland.
All participants were Irish, Roman Catholic and selected on the basis of them meeting the study’s inclusion criteria, namely that participants were Irish adult females (over the age of 18), who were able to speak English, who had experienced domestic abuse in one or more relationship with an intimate male partner, which they were willing to discuss for the purpose of the research. Finally, the study required that women had been out of the abusive relationship for at least six months prior to the interview
The demographic information is summarised in Table 1.
Table 1: A Table depicting demographic details of the Study Participants
|Name||Age||Ethnicity||Current Marital Status||Children||Level of Education||Duration of Abusive Relationship||Period of time out of abusive relationship|
|Tina||48||Irish||Living with Partner||2||Leaving Cert and Vocational Training||12 years||11 years|
|Jackie||46||Irish||Living with Partner||8||Junior Certificate||20 years||6 years|
|Beth||45||Irish||Separated||4||Leaving Cert and Secretarial College||1st Husband 13 years
9 years 11 months
|Rachel||40||Irish||Separated||2||Junior Certificate||3 years||1 year|
|Alison||37||Irish||In a relationship||4||Leaving Certificate||6 years||1 year & 10 months|
|Sarah||26||Irish||In a relationship||2||Vocational Training||8 years||3 years|
At the time of the research, all of the women were enrolled on a 3-year FAS course (Breaking the Silence Project- BTS), specifically designed to actively support, empower, and meet the diverse needs of women who have experienced domestic abuse. All women had long-term relationships with their abusive partner, ranging from 3 to 20 years duration. The mean number of years married to, or living with, an abusive partner was 10.3 years. The period of time away from the abusive relationship varied from 10 months to 11 years.
Four women had entered new relationships since leaving their abuser, while 2 women were single at time of participation. One woman disclosed experiencing violence in her current relationship but claimed that this was a ‘one-off’ and not characteristic of their relationship in general. Four of the six women interviewed, experienced on-going abuse, post-separation.
Data collection took place in the form of individual, in-depth, semi-structured interviews between the author and each participant that ran for between 1-1 ½ hours duration. Women’s physical safety and comfort was ensured by conducting interviews in a private room at the participating service.
Prior to the interview, each participant completed a demographic information sheet, and verified their willingness to participate by providing verbal and signed consent on the understanding that monetary compensation would not be provided for participation. Each woman then selected a pseudonym by which she would then be identified for the duration of the study.
Each interview was followed up by a telephone call to each participant 1-2 days after the initial interview to promote and safeguard the women’s emotional well-being. A similar procedure was implemented by McGee et al (2002) in their study of sexual abuse and violence in Ireland.
All interviews were recorded with full, informed consent of participants using a Digital Audio Recorder. Audio data files were then transferred to the author’s laptop, and later transcribed verbatim. A complete copy of the transcribed interview was sent to the participant. Included was a cover letter inviting any comments, corrections, deletions or additions she wished to add to the transcribed interview. Having received and reviewed their initial interview transcript three of the women agreed to attend a second interview with the author.
Following data collection, the resulting transcript from each interview was coded into meaningful categories using Grounded Theory techniques (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; & Strauss & Corbin, 1998), involving a process of line by line, focused and axial coding before arriving at emergent themes. The researcher analysed each transcript for prominent themes grounded in the data, before confirming these through discussion with the research supervisor.
The aim of the analysis was to examine how participants constructed their experiences of domestic abuse and the meaning they ascribed to them.
The potential for research on sensitive topics, such as domestic abuse, that requires participants to revisit old memories and past traumas, to cause distress and evoke strong emotional reactions, cannot be overlooked. Consequently, a number of ethical safeguards were developed in accordance with the WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Research on Domestic Violence Against Women (WHO; 2001) and previous research (McGee et al, 2002; p.22) to minimize emotional distress, and to protect, empower, and maximize the dignity, autonomy, comfort and safety of the women throughout the research process. Despite implementation of a range of ethical safeguard it must be conceded that the interviews were still an intrusive measure into the women’s lives.
Women in the present study reported that the most difficult time was just after leaving the relationship, to the extent that some women considered returning to their abuser. For many women, the emotional aftermath of the abusive relationship evoked powerful emotions, including feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, despair, helplessness, depression, regret and self-reproach for not leaving the relationship sooner:
When he left first I was very…I went down hill… I couldn’t see a way around it. I was kind of umm drowning you know, in all sorts of different types of emotions. The doctor gave me tablets for depression because I couldn’t see no way around anything, I didn’t see my life. It was, I had peace in my life, but I couldn’t see, you know I couldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel for me.
Two women spoke of their fear of being alone:
Oh, that fear that I couldn’t bear at times. For a long time…The fear was loneliness, being on my own. On my own now, all of the responsibility on my own…and I hated the house as well because all the ghosts were there, and I know no one was there but all of this on top of my shoulders.
I’m scared of the future though. [scared of] Being on my own. I feel like I’ve failed (becoming tearful).
Beth told how she became depressed and reproached herself for after asking her second husband to leave:
But for about five months I went through a very, very low depressed…Christmas was absolutely dreadful because I was just missing him so much, and beating myself up for leaving him and what was I thinking getting a good man to leave? …I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t able to sleep, with or without medication I was just like a zombie from sadness.
While Rachel recalled the financial strain she endured after leaving the abusive husband:
That part of my life, that wasn’t easy. I had a five-month-old baby and a five-year-old child and that was really, really hard. I had no money. Sometimes didn’t have enough food to put on the table…
Although leaving was difficult, Rachel recognised that remaining living with abuse was also difficult:
…and knowing things were hard and things were difficult but when we were together they were hard and they were difficult, so I was used to hard and difficult times anyway…It was a horrible time. I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t. It was the darkest time in my life. It was just I was out of a dark period that I was thrown back into it again. That’s the only way I can describe it.
Notably, one woman felt exhilarated when she initially left her abuser, it was only upon later reflection that she realised there may be some outstanding issues she needed to deal with:
I was going along thinking the minute I left him, my ex, this is great, you know, it can only get better and even now it feels like I’m buzzing non-stop, you know? But maybe there are issues I do need to deal with, you know?
Loss of a Dream
Despite their abusive nature, many women still loved their abusers. Rachel related how she felt torn between her love for her husband, and knowing that she had to think of herself and put her needs first:
When we were separated it was like; well I love him because a part of me did love him, but if I was to say goodbye to him; the love it felt like I was torn in two. I think it’s, it’s like that when you’re separating from someone and they’re abusive…you love them, and you know they are wrong for you and you’ve failed. Like you are torn until a part of you says no more. No this is…I need, I have to think of me, you know?
Women also clearly experienced the end of the relationships as a significant loss, with all the concomitant feelings of grief, sadness, failure, shame and regret that that loss engenders.
Alison and Rachel spoke about the end of their relationship as the loss of a dream:
But I’m very angry that the fact of my dream, like other women in this situation have a normal family the most natural way and it turned into such a horrible situation. I mean I didn’t want Guards…I know Guards by their first name now, like you know?
This period immediately after leaving an abusive relationship is clearly a very vulnerable time for women, when they are in need of support. Women highlighted their need for permission, time and space to be sad and grieve the loss of the abusive relationship, like any other. However, as the following quote from Rachel outlines, people do not always acknowledge the magnitude of the loss and much-needed support it not always forthcoming:
…Loss of the dream. You’re grieving, you are grieving. I don’t think an awful lot of people recognise or realise that when your marriage or your long-term relationship is over you are grieving. That when someone dies they give you that space, you know, and they give you that time and they give you cuddles; they give you love, they…you know. But when someone who’s been abusive, what are you crying over him for, sure?
Women’s narratives highlighted the complex web of feelings participants experienced after leaving an abusive relationship. Women experienced the apparent lack of understanding, and expectation from others to be happy and get on with life as unhelpful, as it frequently a source of further invalidation.
For many of the women, ending the relationship with their abuser did not necessarily signal the end of the abuse. Threats, intimidation and attempts to control, dominate and assert power over the woman were frequently on-going:
When I left him first like, you know I would bump into him, like and he would try and smack me in town. The verbal abuse, you know? He’d see me maybe in town and he’d be roaring over look at the whore over there….the threats continued,… when I met [new partner] he’d be sending someone to find us and he had a machete and he’s going to kill us. Couldn’t go nowhere really… But it continued, the mental torture continued, you know?
Women’s narratives highlighted two main ways in which their abuser typically attempted to maintain coercive control of them post-separation. Firstly, some abusers used the children as another way to maintain coercive control of the woman. All the women had children from their relationship with their abuser, meaning that they continued to have contact with the abuser, who often used these occasions as an opportunity to perpetrate further abuse:
He done everything to spoil me leaving. He was still pulling the strings. For two years he was still pulling the strings on me, you know? Just saying stuff and seeing him in town and you know he’d intimidate me and there was in incident last year and he was acting the maggot again with the child. She was supposed to be in every weekend and then stopping her.
Secondly, men continued to use money to control the woman even after the relationship was over. Withholding child maintenance, attempting to get the woman in trouble with Social Welfare, and forcing the woman to account for any money she spent were two such techniques men used to maintain power and control over the women:
He is now starting to sound a bit like my first husband because he knows, having seen me go through my divorce how an ex can hurt. Financially is the first… children and financially, that’s the way to do it. That was like a slap on the wrist, like saying don’t go there.
As a consequence of on-going threats and intimidation, many of the women continue to live in fear of their abuser to this day:
Even last week I was going out of here and I was after having a very bad day here and I was sitting in the car and I was quite upset and we were just at the junction here to turn right and he passed me in his truck and he goes (makes slicing motion across her throat) like he was going to cut my throat like, you know stupid things like that. He doesn’t frighten me when I’m in my own car, but if he came outside the house because he’s not allowed inside the gate, but I think face to face I would be terrified, even now.
Although the emotional and practical aftermath of leaving abusive relationships was undeniably difficult, and fraught with numerous challenges; the ultimate benefits of leaving are clear. Despite on-going abuse post-separation, all of the women in the present study were able to successfully negotiate the emotional aftermath of leaving and move on positively with their lives. Women were able to find meaning in their abuse experiences and emerge stronger, with a clearer sense of self-identity.
When asked what advice they would give to other women who may be having similar experiences of abuse, Sarah had the following words of wisdom to impart:
There’s always, there’s always something better; always. There’s a big beautiful World out there if you just stand up and look for it.
An important finding from to emerge from the doctoral research was that many women reported that the most difficult time was just after leaving the relationship. This is seemingly the most vulnerable time for women, when they are subject to multiple stressors, are struggling to cope financially, feel depressed, fearful of being alone, and grieving for the loss of the relationship. This is consistent with previous research findings that the mental health sequelae of domestic abuse, including depression and PTSD frequently persist even when safety has been achieved (Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Campbell, Sullivan & Davidson, 1995).
Women’s narratives highlighted the complex web of feelings participants experienced after leaving an abusive relationship. Women experienced the end of their abusive relationships as a significant loss. Some women reported grieving for the relationship and experienced the ending of the relationship as a loss of a dream and expressed fear of being alone. These findings are consistent with previous research (Landenburger, 1989; Merritt-Gray & Wuest, 1995; Mason, 1992; Moss et al, 1997; Dunn, 1989; Keller, 1996; Turner & Shapiro, 1986; Vavaro, 1991; Campbell, 1989).
It was during this time that some women considered returning to their abuser. Thus, there is a clear need for ongoing support during this time to enable women to sustain separation and not return to their abuser, as underscored by Merrit-Gray & Wuest (1999).
Furthermore, women are also in need of significant emotional and practical support to facilitate their coping with the emotional aftermath of leaving an abusive relationship. However, women’s narratives highlighted that this support is often not forthcoming. In the immediate aftermath of leaving women told how the unhelpful, insensitive responses of others and an expectation to be happy that the relationship was over, exacerbated women’s negative feelings. Women experienced the apparent lack of understanding, and expectation from others to be happy and get on with life as unhelpful, and a source of further invalidation. Merritt-Gray & Wuest (1999) highlight the importance of acknowledging and normalising the emotional process and pain that arises for women during the process of leaving and not returning to abusive relationships.
For many women, the emotional aftermath of the abusive relationship evoked powerful emotions, including feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, despair, helplessness, depression, regret and self-reproach for not leaving the relationship sooner. Fry & Barker (2001) highlight women’s regrets of action and inaction following experiences of violence and abuse; confirming that such regrets around inaction are not uncommon.
These findings underscore the need for researchers and practitioners pay more attention to the plight of women who have left abusive partners. Given that substantial numbers of women who leave their abuser are highly distressed, then more research concerning the relevant risk and protective factors affecting their psychological well-being in the aftermath of separation is needed.
A woman’s need for protection from further abuse, practical assistance and other forms of intervention does not end when she leaves an abusive partner. Rather, such needs are likely to increase. Thus, there is an apparent need to extend the concept of “leaving” as a process to include the aftermath of separation. For women living with domestic abuse, the process of leaving arguably begins at the emotional and cognitive levels long before physical departure occurs and extends well beyond her physical departure to include the post-separation period.
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