Domestic Violence – Mind of the Victim

Repetitive abuse in a relationship can lead the mind down strange paths. The mind adapts and reacts to the abuse. For each person, this journey is different. Not good different or bad different, just different. But a journey that is filled with pain and hurt! Many victims go on to become survivors of domestic violence. As the victim, a helper or a therapist, knowing what happens to the mind of the victim can offer an insight that strengthens our ability to work with it and gives the victims a chance to become survivors.

domestic violence ;-)
Creative Commons License photo credit: colodio

The first thing to understand about Domestic Violence is that it is rampant in every part of society and is not biased towards any gender, sexual orientation, age, color, race, education level, income level or religion. There are different forms of domestic violence too.

To understand the mind in Domestic Violence, let us turn to some simple examples. It is like building a case from analogies so bear with me.


Optical //illusion

Confusing signals

First, the world of optical Illusions! A simple illusion like the one on the left can confuse the mind. You can see the color red written in blue and some part of your brain is saying, “there is something wrong with that”. What about the word green in purple? Do you not find that strange and confusing at some level? Your brain is struggling to cope with a simple illusion that is giving you mixed messages. How do you think it copes with abuse coming from a person you love and trust? Would that not confuse the brain much more than the simple pause you experienced when looking at the image on the left?

Learned behaviour

Next let’s look at the work of V S Ramachandran who has identified a potential revolution in curing the phantom arm syndrome with a $10 mirror. Patients in war who had injured their arms, experienced an immense amount of pain in their arm. The arm had to be amputated as it was badly infected. After the amputation the arm was gone but the pain was still there. This would baffle anyone, particularly a scientist. How could there be pain in an arm that did not exist? VS Ramachandran talks about a cure with a simple mirror. The mirror, placed at a 90 degree angle to the injured shoulder, shows the victim’s brain a reflection of the good arm. The brain is fooled into thinking the missing arm is better again and releases the pain trapped inside the brain of the sufferer. That is it. No medication, no surgery. A simple illusion that tricks the brain into thinking the arm is better again. And it works! The brain had learned the pain and is able to release it based on an illusion.

There is further evidence in the research by Martin Sielgman who has documented an experiment with dogs where a set of dogs were exposed to constant severe pain. Trapped inside a cage, one group could stop the pain with a switch and the other group could do nothing and were subjected to constant pain. When the dogs were released, the group that had been able to stop the pain ran off but the other group that could do nothing to stop their pain, went nowhere. They had learned that effort was futile. This experiment fell into the terminology of “learned helplessness”.

Lets' go back to the victim of Domestic Violence and imagine their learned behaviour. With the consistent abuse and the repeated negative emotion, with the feeling that there is no escape – what is the brain learning? That it is helpless?

Part that memories play

Let us now turn our eye on Psychology and how memories become engrained in our brains. There are three well known ways in which memories go from short term to long term. These are:

  • Repetition. You know repetition from school because you have crammed for exams as a child. Repeating things over and over makes you remember them.
  • Adding emotion. When emotion is added to any situation, it becomes engrained in our memories. Like the first kiss, or fear in a violent attack, or an accident when times slows down for you to recall things by milliseconds
  • Context. Events or people that are somehow related or reminiscent of something else.

What if you combined one or more of these techniques to remember something?

What if you crammed on Guilt?

What if you told yourself over and over again that you were wrong, that it was all your fault?

Visualisation is a powerful tool for positive thinking but is devastating if used with negative energy.

Exploiting the weakness

Just like a burglar looks for a weak point in the security system to commit a crime, an abuser looks for a weak point to inflict abuse. A key feeling of low self-worth and self-esteem in the victim gives the abuser this entry point. We all have this feeling of low self-worth somewhere in the back of our heads. We are not good/beautiful/rich/intelligent/smart/clever/fair/tall enough. Something about ourselves that we think is not good enough. This low self-worth allows the abuser to exploit the emotions of the victim and make them feel worse about themselves. Because the abuser was a trusted friend at some point, the victim may have provided this information and the abusers job has been made easy. Metaphorically speaking, the abuser had the keys to the front door so a break-in was not necessary.

In one of the most horrific cases of domestic violence to be caught on tape, the abuser calls the victim stupid 36 times in the space of 51 minutes.

Imagine now, the mind of someone who has repeated guilt to themselves over and over again. Who has been told again and again that they are stupid and are not good enough! Imagine what they have learnt. Combine it with learned helplessness and what have you got?

Not Afraid
Creative Commons License photo credit: rimedhitaf

How abuse is effected

Abuse is almost always inflicted in the same way. Isolation and intimidation! The details can vary but those are the two basic concepts at the root of abuse.

Isolation is crucial because the abuser has to remove the support structure of the victim. Anything that makes the victim feel better about him or herself has to go. The diaries are burnt, address books torn up, mobiles thrown away. In the less severe cases, the abuser choses a more subtle behaviour like making it difficult for the victim to go out to meet family and friends or creating problems that happen to get in the way. But isolation is key. Observed from the abuser viewpoint, they have to stop friends and family of the victim from filling up a hole that they are digging.

Intimidation is not always physical but often is. The psychological and emotional intimidation carries a far worse toll. There are many reasons why the victim, over a period of time becomes afraid. Some of these reasons are; financial, emotional, children, cultural and social. The chance of physical assault for women goes up by more than 75% when they leave their abusive partner.

Change in normality

With time and consistent abuse, the victim starts to adapt and behave differently. The self-confidence is shaken, the self-belief falters and is replaced with fear, anxiety, nervousness, insecurity, guilt and self-loathing. There is denial because most victims do not want to admit it to themselves, let alone anyone else. Their sense of normality changes! The body and mind adapt to help the victim cope with the threat.

Survival instinct

At its most basic level, a survival instinct can be observed in any adult when they fall – physically fall down like when walking or running. To protect themself from harm, they put their arm out to reduce the impact of the fall. Emotionally, the mind does the same thing. When dealing with issues that endanger the emotional health, the mind goes into a shutdown. It refuses to engage at any level and the symptoms appear as denial and other classic symptoms. Inability to see a way out then paves the way for feelings of helplessness and depression. It is a downward spiral!

In some cases, at the point of extreme physical abuse, the victim’s survival instinct kicks in a different level. A threat to their life, whether real or perceived, triggers the survival instinct. It explodes with violent consequences. In the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia in England, she poured gasoline over her sleeping husband and set him alight. There are many other cases where, faced with a fight or die situation, the victim suddenly turns violent and kills the abuser.

Is there an escape?

The victim has three choices in domestic violence:

  1. To accept the life of abuse. This can lead to an increase in the number of incidents and the violence can get progressively worse.
  2.  To fight back. This can also increase the risk of retaliation and the violence can get worse.
  3. To flee. This is not as easy as it sounds. 75% women stand a higher risk of physical assault.

Bringing Change

Change is neither easy nor quick. But one thing is for sure, that it requires a lot of courage. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book "Flow" writes:

“The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a very rare gift. Those who possess it are called ‘survivors’, and are said to have ‘resilience’, or ‘courage’. Whatever we call them, it is generally understood that they are exceptional people who have who have overcome great hardships, and have surmounted hardships that would daunt most men and women.”

Change is not for the faint-hearted. It is an act of courage.

The scars of Domestic Violence in the victims run deep and long. All that has been learnt has to be un-learnt and eyes set on a new dawn and a new beginning. For the victims, it is like learning to walk again. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other and steady as she goes. Like Bambi.

Brene Brown in her talk at Ted tells us about her research into shame. She speaks of two groups – those who believed they deserved a better day and those who did not harbour such beliefs. I think you can figure out the end to that story. Nothing… but nothing… compensates for what the victim believes in. The only ammunition that the victim needs is a belief in themselves and a desire that they deserve better. That is the foundation for any change.

Ultimately, no change can happen without the co-operation and the participation of the victim.

What you can do

Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Creative Commons License photo credit: heraldpost

As a helper, accepting your limitations is vital to any role you want to play. Giving support whilst being accepting of your limitations is challenging – at best!

In an abandoned and now closed copper mine in England, the soil has turned arsenic and is poisonous to life as we know it. Organic life cannot survive there. Yet, an earthworm has adapted its molecular structure to survive in that soil. What is the sense of normality for this earthworm? Will it die if it is exposed to normal soil?

And just like that example, what will happen to the victim if they are removed from their poisonous environment? What is normal for the victim? Change has to come with the full consent and active participation of the victim. It has to come at a pace that the victim is comfortable with.

But there are things you can do for the person you care for.

  • Be present for them. Let them know that you are there. Make them a cup of coffee, a nice gesture. Something small to let them know you care.
  • Help reinforce their self-belief and self-worth. A thought at a time, an email at a time. Ask them to share with you one positive thought a day.
  • Make a secret record. In the case of Susan, a colleague of hers recorded every incident of abuse and maintained a diary. This diary was instrumental in the ultimate conviction of the perpetrator.
  • PERSEVERE – there is simply no substitute for this. Like in the movie, Shawshank Redemption, you need to stay at it. A step at a time, the gateway to freedom can be built.

At a society level you can also

  • Get counted
  • Join a campaign
  • Say NO to Domestic Violence
  • Influence the thinking around you

 The 2000 election of George Bush vs Al Gore reminds us the need to get counted.

Final thought

There is no effort too small. You may only be a drop in the ocean but if the drop was not there, the ocean would not be there.


This is a small view of a very big picture. It is by no means easy to understand what happens inside the mind of the victim. Each journey is different and each story is unique. This article represents the authors hypothesis and is his own viewpoint. It requires more research before it can become a theory.

Brene Brown
V S Ramachandran
BBC Horizons
Terry Horne and Simon Wootton, Keep your brain sharp.
Clare Mcdonald (For her honesty and influence)
Kerry Vineer (For her support, belief and encouragement)
Ravijyot Saggu (For her inspiring thoughts and ideas)
Jane Ferrier-May (For her openness and her thoughts)


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