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Treating the Emotional Wounds of Abuse

A Kaiser Permanente psychologist defines emotional abuse, shares how patients are being helped, and points out how public dialogue is making a positive difference.

Kaiser Permanente is a national sponsor of NO MORE Week of Action, March 6 – 12, in which grassroots events will focus public attention on domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and prevention all year-round. Priya Batra, PsyD, shares what she has learned from treating members suffering from abuse. In 2001, Sacramento-based Dr. Batra was the first behavioral health specialist hired by Kaiser Permanente to provide care within Women’s Health.

How is an unhealthy emotional relationship defined?

At its root, it is an imbalance of power in which the abuser wants to maintain that control while the recipient doesn’t have an equitable amount of that power. It’s when someone’s role and identity is devalued; fear, worry, and discomfort live within a relationship; and threats, coercion, and lack of respect exist. Another gauge is when the partner’s negative reaction or potential reaction is always at the forefront for the victim.

Is abuse on the rise?

I don’t believe so. It is a long-standing problem that has spanned history, countries, cultures, religions, and every socioeconomic group.

What is different is the way that we are devoting research and resources as well as talking about it. One example was the Academy Awards appearance by Vice President Joseph Biden, author of the Violence Against Women Act in the early 1990s. When he urged the audience and viewers to take the “It’s On Us” pledge to speak up against abuse, 36.6 million viewers got that message. Talking about abuse on an international platform will help reduce shame and stigma for the victims and survivors. That is exactly what we need to change the conversation and prevalence rates.

How do you help patients in abusive relationships?

The first thing is to help the person name it. Often people in abusive relationships are buying a partner’s story that they are somehow deserving of the ill treatment. When patients name it, they come to know that they are abuse victims. Second, they need to buy into the concept of what is — and is not — within their scope to change. Often they don’t ask how they can get help, but instead ask how they can help their abuser. That needs to be redirected. They can’t stop that behavior; only the person perpetrating it can.

What is the emotional toll of abuse?

There are scars we don’t see, but they are there — depression, anxiety, self-destructive or suicidal behaviors. And there is pain others might not even think of, such as the permanent privacy and trust issues sportscaster Erin Andrews has recounted since being videotaped nude in her hotel room. We know that abuse victims develop a host of physical maladies. As clinicians, it’s our job to not chase the symptoms but instead deal first with the grief and emotional wounds caused by the abuse.

Can the damage be undone?

Change can be slow and tedious. It can be life-changing when a patient works to develop resilience and is helped to change the narrative around what happened. I have seen patients learn and understand that they were not at fault, and then come to recognize the red flags of unhealthy relationships, which can then help them move forward in healthier ways. Survivors not only help themselves in the healing process, but they can help their children and sometimes other abuse survivors. Back to the Oscars: When we see someone as strong and successful as Lady Gaga not only overcome abuse but even communicate that so movingly through her music — that is exciting. The paradigm shift is that there can be love, health, and power after abuse.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente and its role in NO MORE Week of Action.

To get help for yourself or someone you know, talk to your doctor or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (available 24/7).


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This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Priya: great work; we as an organization and our members are very fortunate to have you.
    Wishing the best for your continued excellence in serving the needs of our vulnerable members!

  2. Thank you for the article.

    As a Kaiser Permanente employee and DV survivor of 16 years, it is always refreshing to see open discussions on this topic. Talking about the emotional scars of DV is so very important because many people do not realize the severe life-changing impact the trauma of family violence can take on a person’s psyche up to and including PTSD.

    Working through these emotional “triggers” is a lot of work for the patient, can take years, and is honestly disabling in some cases. It is not fun to have the “stigma” that goes along with this. Being hurt in an abusive relationship is hard enough, but to come out of it looking for support and friendship only to receive sneers, whispers, and negative comments is not what one needs during recovery. The more openly we talk about this subject, the less taboo it will become, and the faster those who need help will receive the understanding and empathy they truly need.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Yes, very much needed article, and yes, it is a reality that many folks are not even aware of even within themselves. I really appreciated all what you had to say and can relate to it a great deal.
    Thank you.

  4. Thanks for this article.
    I will share it with my group.
    I’m a leader at “Celebrate Recovery” and this information is spot on for recovery from any hurt, hangup or habit.
    This group is worldwide and free to anyone who needs help.

  5. I am married to someone who was verbally and emotionally abused for 31 years before she finally left. To this day, if he calls her and gets abusive in his tone and words, my wife reacts to me as if she was reacting to him. She is trying very hard to stop that but since I fully understand where it is coming from, and most times I can tell her what I think is causing it, we are doing fine. And the fact that she can tell her son and daughter that I am the reason she is doing so well now makes me feel really good.

    1. Jeff – I am so glad that your wife has a compassionate and supportive partner in you. Many men are often frustrated when they feel that they are “paying the price” for an ex. Your understanding will continue to contribute towards her health and well-being!

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