Seven percent of women are physically abused and 37% of women are emotionally abused by their partners, according to A Safe Place. Undoubtedly, physical and emotional abuse have a huge impact on a woman’s mental health. However, a new study indicates a woman’s mental health does not necessarily get better right away when she leaves a controlling or abusive relationship.
Kate Adkins, lead author who did this work as a doctoral student at the Ohio State University and Claire Kamp Dush, an assistant professor of family science and human development at the University wanted to determine how a woman’s mental health changed after she left an abusive or controlling relationship. The researchers examined the data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, which is a project of Columbia and Princeton universities. The researchers included about 2,400 mothers in the study who either lived with or were married to their child’s fathers at the end of the first year of the three-year study.
Mothers were split into three groups: those who experienced no abuse by the child’s father, those who were in controlling relationships with the child’s father where the father was controlling of her behavior and extremely critical, and those who experienced physical violence in their relationships. The researchers also considered whether the relationships had ended or continued by the end of the three-year study. During the study, women’s anxiety and depression levels were tested and their amount of social support was assessed as well.
The researchers discovered that anxiety and depression levels were higher for all of the mothers who stayed in their relationships, whether they were abusive or not, by the end of the study. Adkins asserts this finding was most likely due to the nature of the sample studied. The mothers in the sample were mostly low-income, minority, and new mothers. These women were undoubtedly experiencing a lot of stress.
In addition, the researchers discovered that women who left or stayed in controlling or physically violent relationships experienced significantly greater increases in levels of depression and anxiety than women who stayed in or left non-violent relationships. The researchers hypothesized that women who left controlling or physically violent relationships continued to experience a lot of depression and anxiety because they still had to have regular contact with their abusers, the child’s father. More specifically, about one-half of the women who left abusive relationships talked to the child’s father once a week and only approximately 25% of those who left abusive situations talked to the child’s father a few times each year or less often.
Adkins asserts, “They might be going through a divorce, or working out child arrangements. Research shows that more than a third of women continue to experience physical abuse and 95 percent experience emotional abuse following the end of the relationship. All of this adds to the stress and anxiety they already feel.”
The researchers also found that women who had social support from their friends and family and who left abusive relationships did not experience as much depression and anxiety as women who did not have support from family and friends.
The researchers indicate that these results should not dissuade a women from leaving an abusive relationship. Given these results, however, it seems important that women who leave abusive situations should have a social support system of family and/or friends, if possible.
If someone you love is in the process of leaving an abusive relationship, there are several things you can do to support her along the way. For example, you can watch your loved one’s child or children so that she can attend therapy sessions, run errands, or spend some relaxation time by herself. If your loved one must meet with her abusive ex to drop off and pick up her child, you could go with her to ensure that she is safe. Of course, you can offer her your emotional support by letting her know that you are available to listen to her if she wants to talk about what has happened or what is happening in her life.
Though mothers who leave abusive relationships are likely to experience increased levels of anxiety and depression, you can help reduce these feelings by supporting a loved one who has left an abusive situation. If you would like to read more about the research study conducted by Adkins and Kamp Dush, you may check out the journal Social Sciences Research on-line. The results of this study will also be published in a future print edition of this journal as well.
A Safe Place: Statistics of Battered Women:
Psych Central: Abuse Has Prolonged Effects on Mothers: