The conclusions drawn in a paper titled “The mental health of mothers in and after violent and controlling unions,” published in Social Science Research are of the “well, yeah” sort for me. Reviewing longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, the authors conclude that, “Overall, we find that women are still at risk for mental health problems even after leaving IPV [intimate partner violence] unions.“
Among the reasons cited for the continued mental health problems of women leaving abusive relationships are the presence of children, which requires continued interaction with the abusive partner; the stress of being a single parent; and financial hardship. All of which are undoubtedly correct, and certainly this paper importantly highlights the need to provide ongoing mental health services for women who have left abusive relationships. The data used focused on mostly minority low-income women with children, so this information is especially salient in these days of ever-deepening budget cuts to social services.
But, not to trivialize the very serious matters of poverty and partner abuse, I’d like to toss one other interpretation into the mix, one that applies to everyone, not just people in such dire circumstances. It is this: Epiphany is just the beginning of change.
A friend once complained to me that the promise of psychotherapy has not been fulfilled, and he cited the 1980 movie Ordinary People, in which Timothy Hutton has an epiphany about his brother’s death and, seemingly magically, steps from the dark to the light. My friend felt lied to by the psychotherapeutic community because psychotherapy does not seem to work like that.
Indeed. The transforming moment in therapy is a dramatic staple, like the witness breaking down in the stand on Perry Mason. But the process has been formatted to fit your screen.
Epiphany—including that of finally ending a toxic relationship—is the realization that something must change. Epiphany points us in the right direction, gives us focus. But epiphany is just a portal to the real work. If epiphany is to mean anything, it must be followed by change, which isn’t easy. After epiphany we must let go of illusions. Mourn the death of dreams. Understand why we got into a bad situation. Take responsibility for our contributions. Process shame and anger. And reinvent ourselves. None of this is easy, and there’s a lot of sad to traverse before you reach your destination. (See: Joseph Campbell.)
In the case of the research cited above, all this must be done concurrently with supporting and protecting children, and staying safe from further abuse. How could anyone imagine that unhappiness and anxiety would not follow women out of abusive relationships?
But of course, we want to believe. We want to believe that aha! moments change everything. That the absence of pain=the presence of happiness. That a pill can make us slender, a gizmo can make us fit, and an epiphany can change everything.
It can, of course. Eventually. But there’s a lot of work between here and there.