Domestic violence is experienced by 1 in 4 British women in their lifetime, and has profound physical and mental health consequences. Many women who experience abuse in relationships will discuss their situation with adult relatives or friends, and this social support has the potential to buffer against effects on health, and protect against future abuse. There has, however, been a notable lack of consideration given to the consequences for the health and wellbeing of this supportive network – we simply don’t know what the toll on the friends and family members is.
For this reason, a systematic literature review was carried out to capture and synthesise what little research exists on this topic. Since inclusivity was crucial, few restriction criteria were built-in and attempts made to find unpublished material. Following screening and lengthy analysis five key themes emerged.
The majority of impacts mentioned in the articles, perhaps unsurprisingly, were effects on psychological wellbeing that were both acute – where a particular incident had happened and the family member or friend experienced shock, trauma and fear as a result – and chronic – such as longer term feelings of anger, depression, guilt, powerlessness, frustration, worry and loss.
Counter-intuitively, almost half of the articles also described the beneficial impacts on psychological wellbeing of finding oneself in this position, including: increased self-esteem, self-revelation, acknowledgement of inner strength and validation of progress. Looking deeper, many of the situations where constructive effects were mentioned, involved friends or family members who were themselves survivors, who had gone on to provide support, and had experienced being able to offer assistance as an indication of the growth they’d made in their own lives.
Physical health implications for family and friends were rarely mentioned in the research found, except in 3 specific contexts: for family members post-femicide (when the abuse has resulted in the death of the woman) where they subsequently took on childcare roles, for family members or work colleagues who had witnessed abusive episodes, and for members of the support network where exhaustion was tied in with a sense of frustration in the long-term support of a survivor who remained in an abusive relationship.
The idea that perpetration would impact directly on those surrounding the survivor did not come as a surprise, however the extent of the perpetration described in several cases did. The portrayed abuse against friends, family and co-workers not only included physical violence, threats and harassment from the main perpetrator, but also in some cases from the perpetrator’s network.
It is debatable whether the practical implications for friends and family members, such as providing childcare, finance and accommodation, fall under the remit of ‘health and wellbeing’, however information reported by the studies interweaves these disruptions of daily life with the negative health and wellbeing outcomes, and in some cases seems to suggest causal effects.
Clearly there are strong indications that friends, family members and co-workers are impacted both directly and vicariously by domestic violence, and consequently services need to be developed to support these people.
Chaplin R, Flatley J and Smith K. (eds.) Crime in England and Wales 2010/11: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime. Home Office Statistical Bulletin 10/11. London: Home Office; 2011
Parker G, Lee C. Violence and abuse: An assessment of mid-aged Australian women’s experiences. Australian Psychologist 37(2); 2002
Plazaola-Castano J, Ruiz-Perez I, Montero-Pinar MI. The protective role of social support and intimate partner violence. Gaceta Sanitaria 22(6); 2008
Coker AL, Watkins KW, Smith PH, Brandt HM. Social support reduces the impact of partner violence on health: application of structural equation models. Preventative Medicine 37(3); 2003
Coker AL, Smith PH, Thompson MP, McKeown RE, Bethea L, Davis KE. Social support protects against the negative effects of partner violence on mental health. Journal of women’s health and gender-based medicine 11 (5); 2002