How Therapy Can Help After Abuse

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free, support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.


Abuse in romantic relationships is more common than one might think – one study indicated that various forms of emotional abuse take place in nearly 80% of intimate relationships, with overt aggressive behavior and subtle coercion as the most frequent forms. 

When someone abuses you, you might feel alone or stuck, and the situation may be worse if you have met an abusive counselor, making it difficult to seek assistance and support. It’s tough to manage your life and your emotions when you’re living with someone who shows such little regard for your mental and physical well-being. 

No matter your age, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, or education level, all people can experience abuse or domestic violence. It may be a relief to find that there is someone available who can help you explore these issues and make decisions that will benefit you now and in the future. Therapy can help people who face many different types of abuse.

Therapy can offer compassion and emotional support

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Recovering from abuse can come with a range of challenges

One of the first things you might notice in therapy is your counselor’s support and compassion. Their emotional support may be something you’ve lacked for a long time. They can listen non-judgmentally while you talk about problems like emotional and physical abuse. As you discuss what’s happening or has happened in your life and how you feel about it, you might feel a sense of relief or hopefulness that you perhaps haven’t felt since the abuse started.

Therapy can teach you about the types of abuse you’re experiencing

Sometimes, it helps to know more about the different types of abuse, why they might happen, and what can occur as a result. Here are several types of abuse your counselor might tell you about:

Emotional abuse – When someone abuses you emotionally, they engage in behaviors that cause you psychological harm. Also called psychological abuse, this type of abuse may include criticizing you, humiliating, threatening, or blaming you for things that are not your fault. Abusers ultimately seek power over you and achieve it through intimidation, fear, and other tactics. Figuring out how to deal with controlling partners of this type is exhausting and can cause mental, emotional, and psychological stress.

Sexual abuse – According to the American Psychological Association, sexual abuse includes any unwanted sexual activity that someone forces on you physically, by threatening you, or by taking advantage of you at a time when you’re unable to give consent. 

Physical abuse – Being abused physically means that an abuser is intentionally hurting you through bodily contact. It may include slapping, punching, kicking, biting, burning, or other forms of painful contact. If you’re experiencing physical abuse, it’s critical to get help right away and remove yourself from danger.

Verbal abuse – Most people have arguments from time to time. In emotionally abusive relationships, arguments can escalate into abusive behavior. When someone is calling you names, verbally attacking you, constantly disregarding your voice, or insisting that their perspective is the only one that matters, they’re verbally abusing you.

Therapy can help you recognize the signs of abuse

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It may feel hard to sort out what is abusive behavior and what is normal behavior. It is normal for, and makes sense that, you would be confused. You may have a deep attachment to the person abusing you, and it can be hard to think that someone you care about might be doing things to hurt or control you. Your therapist can teach you how to recognize a wide range of abuses that might be occurring. For example, you might be able to identify emotional abuse from any of the following categories:

  • Bullying
  • Threatening
  • Name-calling
  • Controlling what you wear or where you go
  • Controlling your money
  • Isolating you from friends and family

Therapy can help you identify and cope with your emotions about the abuse

One thing that is common to many people who experience emotional abuse is that they don’t recognize what happened to them as abuse. Research on the effects of abuse has found there to be a connection between being emotionally abused or neglected and having difficulties identifying and describing emotions.

Even after you learn to recognize the outward signs of abuse, you still might need help identifying the feelings that come up because of the abuse.

Your counselor can help you with this by providing you with a safe environment and encouraging you to think about and express your feelings. They also can help you sort through the facts of your situation in a supportive environment so that you can understand your feelings more effectively.

Therapy can help you build tools to manage emotions and stress

Emotional abuse can leave you feeling many different distressing emotions. Therapists can teach you stress management techniques to use, whether you choose to stay in the relationship or leave it. As you learn to manage your emotions and your stress more effectively, you may become emotionally healthier and less likely to accept the abuse any longer.

Therapy can help you choose helpful thoughts

The problem with emotional abuse is not just what happens to you. It’s also what you think about what happens, about yourself, and about the person who abuses/abused you. Sometimes, negative thought patterns can keep you stuck in a cycle of ongoing emotional abuse. But through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other psychological techniques, your therapist can help you learn how to identify negative thoughts, evaluate them, decide whether it’s time to change them, and, if so, adopt more empowering thoughts.

Therapy can teach you assertiveness

People who abuse others often use emotional abuse to take control of a person. After a while, you might find yourself letting them have their way without questioning it. You might even accept their hurtful words and behaviors, especially if you feel you deserve the abuse in some way or don’t recognize the abuse as such. By learning how to stand up for yourself in an assertive way, you can improve your mental health and be better equipped to make any changes you decide to make.

Therapy can improve your self-esteem

Being subjected to emotional abuse for any length of time can wear down your self-esteem. You could end up blaming yourself for the person’s abusive behaviors and feeling like they wouldn’t hurt you if you didn’t deserve it. You might start thinking that all the criticism and anger they throw at you is justified. Through therapy, though, you can rediscover your strengths and positive attributes. You can begin to see yourself as a worthwhile person again until you realize that you don’t deserve to be treated that way at all.

Therapy can help you overcome past traumas

Sometimes, the abuse you’re trying to overcome happened in the past, maybe even when you were a child. Whether the abuse is still going on or not, past traumas can have a profound negative impact on your life. Your psychologist or counselor can help you uncover old memories, recognize and express your emotions about them, and assist you in the healing process.

Therapy can guide you in creating a safety plan

If you’re experiencing abuse of any kind, it is important to know what to do in case it escalates to an emergency. Your therapist can help you make a safety plan with practical steps to take if you need to leave immediately. They can point you toward community resources for people who are being abused, as well.

Therapy can offer treatment for related mental health issues

Living with emotional abuse can lead to or exacerbate many mental health conditions including anxiety and substance abuse. So, if you’re in therapy for help with an abusive relationship, it might be useful to know that your counselor can also help you with the mental health concerns that might come up. Some of these conditions might include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Insomnia or other sleeping problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use disorders

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Therapy can empower you to make decisions about what to do next

Once you recognize how you’re being abused and the negative impact it’s having on your life, you will probably want to make some changes. If the person abusing you has been trying to control you for some time, it might be hard to decide what to do next. Or, if you’re financially or otherwise dependent on the person perpetrating the abuse, it might be frightening to think of making changes. 

In many cases, the only way to improve your situation may be to do something different, whether that’s leaving the relationship, getting more support, or finding some other type of solution. Your counselor won’t make the decisions for you, but they can help you determine what your options are and weigh each one carefully for yourself. Then, they can encourage you to do what you think is best for you and support you in whatever decisions you make.

Therapy can prepare you for healthier relationships in the future

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Recovering from abuse can come with a range of challenges

After you’ve experienced any kind of abuse, there’s one more thing you might need to address in therapy. You may not know, or you may have forgotten, what a healthy relationship is and looks like. Your therapist can give insight into healthy relationships. They can guide you as you think about what you want in a new relationship. Additionally, they can help you develop a healthier communication style. Then, when you’re ready to move on, you can have the skills to cultivate healthier relationships in the future.

How to start therapy after experiencing abuse

Starting therapy during or after abuse can feel like an overwhelming task. It’s natural to be a little hesitant when your world is in such turmoil. Many people who felt the same way have found therapy to be an important part of transforming their life and their self-worth.

If you’re experiencing physical abuse or worry that your partner might start physically abusing you, it is important not to wait and to get help right away. That might mean seeking help at a domestic violence shelter or talking to a counselor in your community.

If you would like to connect with a therapist online, you can get therapy online at BetterHelp from licensed counselors who are experienced in helping people who have been abused. You can search for a therapist that fits your needs and have therapy from home or wherever you are and at a time that is right for you. Therapy sessions generally last between 45 and 60 minutes depending on the therapist and sessions may be ongoing until you feel like you are ready to move on without therapy.

There is substantial evidence affirming virtual trauma-focused treatments like CBT and other forms of psychotherapy as effective treatment methods for survivors of emotional, sexual, and domestic violence (including children and teenagers). 

Takeaway

If you are experiencing abuse in any form, it is not your fault. You do not have to continue tolerating the pain and sadness that abuse may bring into your life. It can be scary to open up to people you know about an abusive situation, as you may have friends and family with the person abusing you. If you decide it’s time to improve your situation, a counselor may be the ideal person to help you figure out how to go about it. Licensed, compassionate counselors are available at BetterHelp when you are ready.

Find compassionate support after abuse

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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