Hayley’s story – Recovery from domestic abuse.
*Clients’ names have been changed to protect their confidentiality
Hayley* first came to therapy in an extremely anxious state. She works full time in education and has been in recovery from a long-term abusive relationship with the father of her daughter and desperately wanted things to be better for herself and her daughter.
Hayley described her ex-partner as “psychotic”, “scary”, “horrible at times”. The unreasonable behaviour manifested in different ways. A heavy drinker, seemingly unaware of what is happening, become furious, resentful and enraged. These are only a few of the symptoms that he may have a problem with drinking. Usually, he would throw things around in an angry fit. She experienced threats of suicide and sometimes he would disappear for days. At other times he would bang on walls, damage the car and he has been rude to family and friends including his daughter, several times.
“I always knew he was crazy”, she admits on our first meeting.
She has cut off all communication with her ex (e.g. she’s blocked his number so he can’t call or text her). In addition, she has reported him to the police a number of times.
Impact of Domestic Abuse
She struggled to be assertive, “It doesn’t feel like me to be laying down the rules!”, “It’s not my place to say!” “People see me as easy going.”
Psychological and Emotional Abuse
- Verbal abuse: “He’s called me horrendous things, like “retard”, and “sick.”,.
- Systematic emotional manipulation with regular threats that triggered fear, obligation and guilt.
- Shout angrily including abusive insults at her: “Don’t you care? How can you say this after 12 years?”
- Undermining her confidence in work: “You’re shit at your job!” was a constant put down.
- Blaming her; for instance, when things don’t go his way.
- Saying things to make her feel guilty and responsible for him if she didn’t sleep with him.
- Speaking to her about sex as if it were a marital duty.
Hayley recounted her mother as angry, anxious, extremely controlling and sharply critical. Her father was a softer, kinder personality. He was good with people in a people-pleasing way.
In her youth, she found it hard to tell her parents her troubles and mostly felt that they were unapproachable.
“I didn’t have a voice!”
As a child, left to deal with her problems on her own she learned to mistrust herself. Growing up left her feeling inadequate, like ‘the bad one’. She often felt awkward and uncomfortable about calling people out on their bad behaviour. Her seemingly compliant, “lesser spirited” sister was always praised for being right. She never argued or gave anyone any trouble.
“I was the one to get into trouble. I was always wrong!”.
At school she spoke in terms of her love-hate relationship with teachers believing that she gave them ‘a hard time’. She sees herself as gullible, easily led astray, bullied at high school and a constant feeling of ‘not fitting in’. Her peers laughed and picked on her at school. This battered her self-esteem. She talked about her embarrassment at the time others prompted her to kiss the boys.
“I am a sucker, even now. I always try to keep people happy!”
She never felt supported at home or at school. She grew up believing that she didn’t deserve anything good,
“I needed to be independent and capable. There must be people who are more in need of this therapy.”
How Therapy has helped her
“ I can manage the situation more assertively,” she says confidently.
Therapy has helped dramatically to improve Hayley’s life after leaving an abusive relationship. We worked through her people pleasing outlook and she became aware of some unhelpful stories that she had conjured around her beliefs.
Hayley found a safe space where she could express her need for validation. In counselling, we explored unhelpful beliefs and behaviours. She began to understand her part in the dysfunction and unhealthy dynamic that existed in her relationship with her ex-partner.
She realised how she had
- Assumed responsibility for her ex-partner.
- Stepped into a supportive and protective role, as a parent would.
- Played an active part through her behaviour which resulted in adverse consequences.
- Allowed herself to be manipulated.
Feeling the benefit of therapy
She learned that he had begun to expect this support from her. He passed abusive remarks if she didn’t meet his unreasonable demands.
- Addressed some of her challenges in her thinking which originated in her family’s beliefs and attitudes.
- Discussed emotional safety and strategies for establishing new boundaries.
- Worked through her feelings of guilt.
- Appropriate ways to respond to his manipulative behaviour.
- Realising that, it is more appropriate to feel anger.
- Reframing unhealthy beliefs, above all, he was entitled to her support. This way of thinking kept her stuck in a perpetual cycle of giving him the benefit of the doubt. She learned that it’s okay to ignore him. She didn’t need to pander to his whims. Abusive messages can be blocked as a way to set a boundary.
- Talked through her fear of what other people think about her.
- We talked about feelings and emotions, the role of anger and how to use anger positively for setting boundaries.
Challenge existing beliefs
“What’s the biggest risk of setting boundaries?” She replied, “I’m worried about the angry pushback, what people will think about me. I always try to be amicable. It’s stressful, I fear abandonment and rejection.”
After several weeks in therapy, Hayley felt safer, more in control, confident about setting boundaries and began being stricter with herself about checking messages from her abusive ex-partner.
Address Unhealthy Boundaries
She always paid for everything. The relationship had ended, yet she felt responsible for storing his belongings in her loft. She considered paying for storage thinking that it would make it easier for him. She was giving him financial assistance by helping him to pay off a student loan. Her family had already paid out for her ex-partner’s rent for 6 months. He was abusive when this rental period started running out.
She says, “It didn’t feel right to simply chuck him out.”
She felt the occasional guilt pang, sad that she was ‘the bad person at the door’. For instance, when it came to controlling the quality of contact with her daughter’s dad.
Therapy has helped her with parenting.
- Single parenting has been challenging.
- She feels overwhelmed with responsibility at times.
- Her guilt manifested as fear of being judged by others as a ‘bad parent’
- This sentiment felt strong to her “I’m not good enough.”
- She could be more assertive with parenting and a more effective role model for her daughter.
- Setting new and healthier boundaries.
Confidence in work
- She said it felt uncomfortable and arrogant to consider herself. “I don’t like to blow my own trumpet.”
- She enjoys the benefits of owning her power
- She can now hold her own and is able to stand up for herself.
- Having therapy has increased her confidence in a new job.