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Trauma responses: Elizabet's story

At Restored, we encourage people to always believe a disclosure of abuse, because the person disclosing has trusted you for a reason. But, it's known throughout the domestic abuse sector that perpetrators of abuse will often attempt to claim they are the one being abused, countering any disclosures made by the victim.

So, who do you believe when you feel like you’re hearing two opposing stories? How do you know if you’re understanding correctly, or if you’re being manipulated by the perpetrator? Is deciding who to believe a conscious choice we make by rational thinking, or is there something else going on?

Let's begin with a story.

Elizabet's Story

Elizabet is a mum of three who moved with her children out of the house she shared with the perpetrator of abuse. Before leaving, Elizabet had told the police about the abuse she'd been subjected to; social care had been informed and so had her children's school. After a lot of safety planning, Elizabet moved with her three children to a new area, feeling safe and free.

The perpetrator responded by making allegations against Elizabet. He told lies to the children’s school so that social care were called again. He refused to give Elizabet any of her belongings, instead disposing of many of her possessions. He threatened that he would get her back and take everything away from her, including the children, and she 'wouldn’t see it coming'. Elizabet was exhausted from all the abuse she'd faced and was now in a place where she felt free, so she didn’t want to fight any of this at the time. Plus, she didn’t have support around her in her new area to help her challenge her ex’s allegations. While the perpetrator lived in a big house by himself, Elizabet and her children had moved to a small house with no garden, but it was just them and they felt safe.

He threatened that he would get her back and take everything away from her, including the children, and she 'wouldn’t see it coming'.

— —

Life settled for a while; Elizabet found a new church and had felt listened to and supported. The children settled into school, and childcare arrangements weren’t too difficult, with her ex seeing the children, at his request, every other weekend. Then, one weekend, the children weren’t brought home from seeing him. Elizabet found out that her ex had been attending an online bible study at her new church for a number of months without her knowledge, and had been planning to move closer to her and the children.

The church stopped calling her to see how she was. Elizabet approached the church leaders and asked why they had allowed her ex to join the bible study. They told her: ‘he has a different story.’

— —

The church stopped calling her to see how she was. Elizabet approached the church leaders and asked why they had allowed her ex to join the bible study, or at the very least why they hadn’t told her, and they responded: ‘all are welcome.’ Elizabet, feeling frustrated, asked again why they would allow this when they knew all that he had done to her. They told her: ‘he has a different story.’ Feeling let down, hurt and scared, knowing that her ex was refusing to let her have the children back and that he’d been speaking with the church leaders, Elizabet began to get cross and asked again how this could have been allowed to happen. The leaders told her to ‘calm down', 'we won’t tolerate this kind of behaviour', 'we won’t speak to you when you’re cross.’

Eventually it feels to Elizabet that everyone is against her, and that no one is believing what she's saying. The more she tries to tell her side of the story and explain what’s going on, the less she is listened to. All she wants is to see her children and keep them safe, but the more she tries to talk to those who should be able to help, the more frustrated she gets and the less able she is to communicate clearly. How had it come to this, after she had initially felt so safe and free in her new home?

This story is made up from lots of stories we’ve heard at Restored, but there are a number of common themes that we'd like to highlight:

  • Perpetrators will always try to find ways of regaining control and taking revenge when their partner has made changes.
  • When someone has experienced trauma, it's easy for us to misjudge or respond inappropriately to them
  • Perpetrators will play the long game, slowly manipulating those around them so that the victim is even more isolated and less likely to be believed.
  • Our own stories and experiences will impact the way we respond to people and the stories they tell us.

How would you respond to Elizabet? Would you do anything differently, compared to the church's response in the story?

The science bit: Pattern matching brains

Our brains are pattern matching organs. It would be impossible and exhausting for us to step back in every situation, think about what is in front of us and decide the best course of action. So our brains have evolved to recognise patterns in the things we encounter, enabling almost instant responses to common situations. Benjamin Libet’s work shows us that decisions are made in the brain up to half a second before we are consciously aware of them. And this is no different with our responses to people.

Griffin, Tyrell and the Human Givens College explain this in the APET ™ model:

A - Activating trigger: an event or environment that starts the difficulty

P - Pattern match: our brains match to a stored pattern

E - Emotions: if the pattern isn’t helpful enough, we experience emotions

T - Thoughts: emotionally charged thoughts are brought to mind.

Continue reading

Over the next couple of blogs, we’re going to explore the responses of the different people in Elizabet’s story. Reflecting on what we know about the brain, and what we know about perpetrator behaviour, we’ll ask questions to help you consider how you might respond if ever faced with a similar situation. You might also want to watch Dinsey's Inside Out!

Read part two

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