Social Isolation

Human contact including love, friendships, intimacy, family and a feeling of belonging are vital human needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of human needs and suggested the need for social contact was so strong it can override the need for safety, as witnessed by children clinging to abusive parents. When the human contact need is not met, people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety and clinical depression.

Survivors of domestic abuse will very often suffer social isolation. It’s well known that perpetrators of abuse commonly isolate their victims from family and friends. What is less well understood is that family and friends will often ‘freeze out’ the survivor. A third dynamic that completes the isolation triangle is that survivors will commonly isolate themselves from social contacts.

When social isolation is so damaging to mental health and emotional wellbeing, it’s no surprise that survivors of abuse suffer so much, and often continue to suffer long after the abusive relationship has ended. When suffering from fragile mental health in the aftermath of an abusive relationship, rebuilding severed social contacts can seem an almost impossible task. But to recover and successfully rehabilitate following abuse, it’s imperative for the survivor to rebuild her social circles and recover broken relationships.

There are various reasons for why perpetrators isolate their victims. Excessive jealousy is a common trait in perpetrators of abuse. It’s linked to their belief that women are their property and need to be sexually controlled as given the opportunity, women will always go off with other men. These men sometimes physically restrict women by locking them in the house, when they’re allowed out they might find their movements are tracked and details of any social contacts made interrogated. It sometimes becomes impossible for women in this situation to continue to work. Another tact used to isolate is to be abusive or sulky and non-welcoming around family and friends so that it becomes much easier not to invite them anymore.

Abusive men also isolate women so that they are more vulnerable and easier to abuse in the absence of social support. Isolated women will lose confidence and self-esteem and therefore become more dependent upon their abuser. Isolated women also lose their sense of normality and are often successfully persuaded that the abuse is their fault, that being beaten up and imprisoned is normal in a relationship. Perpetrators do all they can to weaken women in order to continue their abuse, and social isolation is a very effective way of breaking women down and adding to their vulnerability.

It might seem surprising that survivors are isolated by family and friends, but this too is a common dynamic that adds to the survivor’s distress. There are a multitude of reasons for why family and friends turn their backs. Most commonly it’s because they become frustrated that the survivor is not leaving the relationship despite being told they must. Common phrases trotted out are: “She’s made her bed she can lie in it” or “I’ve told her to leave and she won’t, I’m washing my hands of the problem”, “She keeps going back so in my mind she deserves what she gets”. Sadly, there is a common lack of understanding and a myth that a woman in an abusive relationship has a free choice to leave, if only it were that easy.

When women are abused, they sometimes behave in ways that their friends find difficult, this can lead to others making negative judgments and severing friendships. Survivors will sometimes self-medicate with alcohol and recreational drugs, fail to keep a clean home, lose respect for themselves and their personal hygiene. They’re sometimes not able to provide good childcare and in some situations, particularly when they feel unable to leave the perpetrator, their children are removed from their care. When family and friends don’t understand the dynamics of domestic abuse, they tend to negatively judge and distance themselves from the survivor, justifying their lack of support by blaming her.

Perhaps the most insidious reason for the survivor to be frozen out by her support network is that perpetrators will deliberately manipulate family and friends so that their sympathies lie with him. This situation particularly happens with children. The perpetrator will commonly ‘poison’ the children against their mother by telling them untruths, while overindulging them and setting no boundaries. When she’s lost the support of her children and often adult children too, the rest of her support network often quickly falls away.      

Lastly, survivors themselves will often be instrumental in cutting social ties. Survivors will commonly suffer with depression and low self-esteem. Depression saps energy so that the effort required to maintain friendships can feel impossible. Low self-esteem makes women feel unworthy of keeping their friends. If still living with the abuse, survivors will often keep friends and family away as they’re not comfortable being seen with bruises or having others witnessing the reality of their desperate lives.

Reconnecting with family and friends following an abusive relationship is one of the most important steps towards recovery. It can be a difficult process, especially if these former social contacts hold negative judgments about the survivor’s behaviour. With support, survivors can make progress towards building bridges and reconnecting with their old support networks and making new friends.

At Broxtowe Women’s Project, we understand the issues surrounding the social isolation survivors face. If you are alone, lonely and feel frozen out by people who used to be there for you, we have the expertise to work with you to reconnect with old contacts and form new ones. Don’t feel you need to suffer on your own, together we can make things easier. Give us a call on 01773 719111.