Impact On Abused Persons

How the experience of abuse impacts an abused person is very difficult to predict.


It seems self-evident that some abuse is more severe than others — but there is no way to be precise about this and the business of comparing severity of trauma is notoriously risky. For example, it seems self evident that both frequency of abuse and intensity of abuse contribute to the impact:


But there are risks to such generalizations. The impact of a single abusive event which might not seem like ‘high trauma’ to others can be a life-altering event to an abused person. In part this is due to the fact that there are so many other factors involved. These could include:

  • duration (how long did the abusive event last?)
  • extent of ritualization involved
  • social meaning of abuse for the abuser
  • social meaning of the abuse for the abused
  • intentions of the abuser
  • level of support for the abused at the time of the abuse
  • response to disclosure attempts by the abused
  • identity of abuser (stranger, intimate?)
  • multiple simultaneous forms of abuse (sexual abuse + spiritual abuse + emotional abuse)
  • developmental vulnerabilities of the abused
  • response of abused to the abuse (silence or disclosure?)
  • extent of on-going access of abuser to the abused
  • extent of reinforcement of family dysfunction
  • response of abuser to the abuse (repentance or denial?)


The impact of abuse on the abused is also very diverse and difficult to predict. Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery (Rivers Oram Press, 2001) lists six general categories of long term consequences from abuse. These are:

  1. Alterations in affect regulation, including
    • persistent dysphoria
    • chronic suicidal preoccupation
    • self-injury
    • explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate)
    • compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate)
  2. Alterations in consciousness, including
    • amnesia or hypermnesia for traumatic events
    • transient dissociative episodes
    • depersonalization/derealization
    • reliving experiences, either in the form of intrusive post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or in the form of ruminative preoccupation
  3. Alterations in self-perception, including
    • sense of helplessness or paralysis of initiative
    • shame, guilt and self-blame
    • sense of defilement or stigma sense of complete difference from others (may include sense of specialness, utter aloneness, belief no other person can understand, or nonhuman identity)
  4. Alterations in perception of perpetrator, including
    • preoccupation with relationship with perpetrator (includes preoccupation with revenge)
    • unrealistic attribution of total power to perpetrator (caution: victim’s assessment of power realities may be more realistic than clinician’s)
    • idealization or paradoxical gratitude
    • sense of special or supernatural relationship
    • acceptance of belief system or rationalizations of perpetrator
  5. Alterations in relations with others, including
    • isolation and withdrawal
    • disruption in intimate relationships
    • repeated search for rescuer (may alternate with isolation and withdrawal)
    • persistent distrust
    • repeated failures of self-protection
  6. Alterations in systems of meaning
    • loss of sustaining faith
    • sense of hopelessness and despair

It would be a mistake to see even this list as comprehensive. I can think of several other impacts of abuse which don’t fit in any of these categories.

Another very helpful categorization of the long term effects of abuse comes from Patrick Carnes in his book The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships (Health Communications, 1997):

  • Trauma reaction – experiencing current reactions to trauma events in the past.
  • Trauma pleasure – finding pleasure in the presence of extreme danger, violence, risk or shame.
  • Trauma blocking – a pattern exists to numb, block out or overwhelm feelings that stem from trauma
  • Trauma splitting – ignoring traumatic realities by dissociating or splitting off experiences or parts of self
  • Trauma abstinence – depriving self of things you need or deserve because of trauma
  • Trauma shame – feeling unworthy and having self-hate because of trauma experience
  • Trauma repetition – repeating behaviors or situations that parallel early trauma experiences.
  • Trauma bonds – being connected (loyal, helpful, supportive) to people who are dangerous, shaming or exploitive.

There are many other ways to think about the impact of trauma or abuse. It is important to note that effects are not only variable but sometimes contradictory. For example, both sexual promiscuity and sexual anorexia can be symptoms of sexual abuse. Both boundary-less-ness and rigid, inflexible boundaries can be symptoms of physical abuse.

12 Responses to “Impact On Abused Persons”

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  1. Connie says:

    I would say from the top of the page to the bottom that you pretty well covered it.

  2. Alicia says:

    Hm well my dad was abusive physically and verbally. Ive only recently been able to face it and talk about it. I don’t have much of a relationship with him. Physical abuse stopped once I got in my teens and was able to fight back and protect the others. But the verbal abuse continues and the violence continues. I don’t really want him in my life…I feel like that is wrong of me to turn my back but I can’t take anymore. I’m 24 and he still tells you what a piece of crap you are any time something upsets him. I can’t date because I can’t take hearing anymore bad things about myself. I scares me to no end. I feel like everyone around me is going to get tired of me so its hard to have a relationship with anyone. Im good at hiding it however and the people that know me know me as happy…bubbly. At home it’s a different story. I don’t know how to brake out of it.

    • Ellie says:

      Alicia, I feel the exact same way. I am only 16, and when my dad gets angry, he is angry. Only a few times has he actually been physically abusive, but personally I think the verbal abuse is worse. It really gets to me. I am the only one he really gets angry at, and I felt I have done something wrong. I stay at my friends sometimes, but it doesn’t change much, an I would never expect her to understand.
      I don’t know the exact reason why, but I can’t date because every guy will have one characteristic the same as my dad, and I told myself I would never be with anyone like that. When one of my teachers knew a bit of how my dad treated me, she made me go see a councilor and I hated it. It was a guy, and I don’t know, I don’t like speaking to someone like that. But I have come t realization in order to get through this, I need my friends support, and they are my family when I need them.

    • KJ says:


      Greetings. I am a Christian woman. I saw your post and wanted to reply to it.
      I am 42 now. I started healing in my early 20′s from abuse.

      I was about 35 when I went to see my dad to visit. I thought I was being a good daughter and being kind. We had a blow up, and instead of being a little girl, I was a woman now. I told him that. He was weak and small and frail, but he acted like the same old abuser.

      I feel torn, but accept that my father could have done so much to heal as he grew as an adult man. I never thought I would break from my father–ever.
      But, God allowed it and it is actually giving me a break in life to let it all go and focus on the life GOd gave me. THere are other issues, like with my mom, but when I am able to be safe financially I will move on from that relationship, too.

      I am praying for you now, (I don’t know if you are a Christian) Either way I am praying that you know God’s love through His gracious Son and that you find peace and healing to have a beautiful, happy inside your heart life.


  3. Kirsten says:

    Alicia and Ellie,
    I’m sorry to hear about your dad.
    I’m 18, and my family is not affiliated to the pastoral ministry in any way.
    However, I’ve been hurt and betrayed by my pastor.
    Recently I went for counselling and he locked the door and molested me.
    After it happened, he put all the blame upon me and used me as a scapegoat. Made me so confused and guilty that I had to apologize to his wife. He’s left now, unrepentant and continuing to preach in another church.

    How he could continue serving on the pulpit still mystifies me.

    • Ursula says:

      Hi Kirsten,
      I’m really sorry to hear about what your pastor did to you. It is sick and disgusting. Believe me, his day is coming. It is worse that a pastor would take advantage of a vulnerable person. He may be able to pretend to be a man of God and lie to mankind but he CANNOT lie to God. He will receive a greater punishment.
      I hope you have received healing for whatever you went counselling for and also for what that wicked pastor done to you. If not I recommend that you talk to God yourself about your troubles. Jesus Christ is our counsellor and he never betrays. I have done this myself and its amazing how God heals us himself if we would only ask and believe. (I had multiple issues of different kinds).

    • Sarah says:

      I hope you filed a police report. I had a similar situation happen to me — and I am nearly 60! I went to the police and filed a report for several reasons. 1. What he did to me was wrong. 2. If he does it to anyone else and they report it, there will be substantiation. 3. Hopefully any future churches will
      do a background check andnfind the police report.

      Because of my complaint and evidence (I recorded a phone conversation in which he said some very inappoppriate things to me) he has been removed from the ministry of two different churches.

      Please report him to legal authorities.

  4. Lee says:

    About ten years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life I turned to a prayer group for help. While there were beautiful answers to prayer, I also learned there is little accountability for misbehaving clergy within the Christian church.

    The person who ran it had a lot personal problems that affected the way she treats people. When I met her I learned she had worked as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor.

    Though I had never had a substance abuse problem, I trusted her with very personal thoughts and information. Her status as a counselor gave her credibility.

    So I trusted her. But I did not realize until much later that she was not to be trusted. Later I learned she had hated her job. My experiences with her showed her to be unethical, unprofessional and insensitive to the rights of others.

    At first I sort of made friends with her. For a while I had access to the offices of the organization. I even considered joining the prayer teams. But mostly I just wanted prayer. So I prayed with the prayer teams, and all was well until right toward the end. One day she came in during the prayer session. I told the team my prayer request and she rolled her eyes and walked out in disgust. It made no logical sense.

    In the beginning she scheduled informal counseling sessions. Those sessions rarely materialized. And the few that did were very damaging to me. For instance, one time I was in her office and after a few minutes of trying to explain what I wanted help with, she looked at me and said, “You are such a victim!” Then she stood up and threw a tissue into her garbage, saying “You really need to get into alanon!” I just felt despair.

    The insensitivity wasn’t confined to just me. I was in the back area talking to her one day when she asked me to look at a woman in the waiting room. She asked if I sensed anything “evil’ in her. Of course, I told her no! I found that perfectly bizarre. What if I had gotten a job working with that woman? How much would that have affected my impression of her if I had believed she was evil?

    Toward the end she made me wait all day long to go in for prayer while other people only waited a short while.

    I tried to report this and several other points of unkindness to the main headquarters, but of course nobody would acknowledge me. And my reputation also became ruined after she aired her opinions about me to other Christians. Labeling me in various ways.

    Eventually I sought counseling with a very reputable Christian counselor. She had twenty five years experience. One of her specialties is helping people with personality disorders. She told me she did not believe I had a personality disorder, but that I was a reasonable person looking for reasonable answers to difficult questions.

    One thing I learned from this whole mess is that you have to be very, very careful trusting people in a church. There is not a vehicle for legal accountability in the church. And the government is very reluctant to get involved in issues.

    I was told that despite the fact this woman was a registered drug and alcohol counselor, the state could not accept complaints because it happened through a church. I tried calling the headquarters for the prayer groups. I told them what she had done and I got exactly no response.

    I tried talking to the church who gave her space for the prayer teams. They did not respond much. I later found out another woman had problems with this woman and her reputation was also trashed. So badly that she moved to a different city. She also begged me to never tell anyone I had talked to her.

    The abuse from this experience caused me to be a shut in for years. I had encountered hostility from a group of people who believed I was a trouble maker and crazy. I will eventually move away from this town because I need a clean slate.

    Then I will leave the rest of this behind me.

  5. Barbara says:

    Dear Lee, I am so sorry to hear about all that you have suffered from that insensitive and very unprofessional woman. You are right to see and describe her faults. Your judgement is sound. And it seems like you are good at listening to your gut feelings and believing in yourself.

    I hope you manage to find a supportive environment. In the meantime, you might like to join an online forum called Our Place. It is well moderated. I am not a moderator there, but I contribute and comment sometimes to posts. It is primarily for people who have suffered abuse from intimate partners, but it also (inevitably) deals with abuse from religious professionals. There is a section on the forum called Abuse and Religion. You can read what others have written, once you join, but remain invisible to others if you want. Here is the URL:

    AND ALSO TO KIRSTEN: I feel for you very much. I echo the other lady who encouraged you to make a police report.
    If you are scared to do so, you could ring the police anonymously first, don’t give your name or any details about the perpetrator, just ask them hypothetically what would happen, and how they would respond, if you made a report. That way you can test the water, before jumping in.

    AND TO ALICIA AND ELLIE: I found a lot of help by reading Patricia Evan’s book, “The Verbally Abusive Relationship.” I borrowed it from my local library. But you may also be able to borrow it from the Pandora Project, which lends books to survivors of sexual abuse and I think they only ask you to pay postage. I know you may not have suffered sexual abuse “””” only “””” verbal and physical abuse (did you see all those quote marks? – the word ‘only’ is not just books on sexual abuse.
    Here is the URL:

    • Barbara says:

      oops! I meant in the last paragraph to write “the word ‘only’ isn’t meant to diminish the seriousness of it ) and the lending library may lend general books about abuse, not just books on sexual abuse.

      I hit the SEND button too soon!

  6. Shirley says:

    All the abuse I suffered is logged in the back of my head , I can’t seem to deal with with but I know one day I will have to … Am 44 and just can’t expect it still …. May be one day I will talk to some one but just dint trust anyone :(( oh well…. Xx

  7. a victim says:

    i am a victim of abuse.. i was abuse when i was young;about 5 or 6 years old.. although now i am married, sometimes this matter interferes my life… sometimes i couldn’t have the life i always wanted.. my husband who knew this abuse stuff, also repeats in fights.. that makes me feel very low and down like if he married any other woman he would have been happier than right now.. i am confused and clueless.. i could use some help..

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