What ‘Counts’ as Abuse – Psychological Domestic Violence Decoded


Mira Vanjari is the Director of Programs at the Center for Hope and Safety, a shelter for domestic violence victims in northern New Jersey. Mira is a licensed mental health counselor in New York and New Jersey and has been working with teens and their families since 2010. Mira focuses on reinforcing familial relationships by equipping parents with the tools needed for their teens to successfully transition home from treatment. At the Center for Hope and Safety, Mira works to coordinate programs that help foster a sense of community for victims of domestic abuse. With her background in mental health counseling, Mira approaches each program at the shelter from a holistic perspective that aims to provide sustainable support. 

Read on to learn the psychological aspects of domestic violence and how Mira and her team at the Center for Hope and Safety combat them.

Psychological abuse doesn’t leave visible bruises, but it is a prevalent form of domestic violence.

One of the things people overlook is psychological mistreatment. This includes, but is not limited to, manipulation, gaslighting, social isolation, and harassment. Psychological abuse begins subtly and then intensifies as the abuser gains more power and control. It’s difficult for the victim to realize because the cues are subtle. It’s even more difficult for the victim’s friends and family to notice because the psychological scars are invisible. Often, victims remain silent and suffer alone. However, there are behaviors you can look out for that signify something is wrong. 

Mira says that psychological abuse is difficult to notice, but there are apparent behaviors. The number one sign is “gaslighting.” This means your partner starts to discount, invalidate, or simply deny your thoughts and your feelings. Gaslighting is a buzzword that has been thrown around a lot these days. Still, it is pervasive, and it creeps in very slowly within domestic violence situations. Suppose you begin to question your perception and reality of an experience. In that case, that is a symptom of gaslighting and psychological manipulation. 

Abuse leaves a pattern. It’s not just one time here and there.

Mira calls this the paradox of psychological abuse. When it’s one time here and there, you’re more likely to brush it off as your partner had a bad day. Everyone gets heated and lashes out at times, but it’s not okay if you’re afraid and questioning your own experience. Then this behavior becomes a pattern, cycling between gaslighting and empty apologies. Your partner will abuse your trust in them and use it against you. It forms a tiring cycle. Mira says there is no distinct sign, but what survivors share with her is that there’s a pivotal but small moment where they know something is true and their partner denies it. 

Check in with your gut. Listen to your intuition. If you feel something is wrong, it most likely is.

Every relationship is different, but if you feel a pervasive feeling that doesn’t sit right, take that as a sign. 

Help is a phone call away. You’re not alone.

It is undoubtedly a difficult step to pick up the phone and call for help. But that first step in the direction of change is always the most difficult because you’re acknowledging something is wrong. Mira points out that calling a domestic violence organization doesn’t mean you leave the relationship that day or the next day. It’s a process, and the organizations like the Center for Hope and Safety work with victims to make it as safe as possible. Mira says this is the beauty of the process because you can get help that does not overwhelm you. Sometimes all you need is validation for what you’re going through. The Center for Hope and Safety has had survivors working with them that took weeks, months, and even years to exit the relationship. Mira wants people to know that support doesn’t mean leaving immediately, as long as someone is not in immediate physical danger. Support is continuous, and it caters to the individual’s particular needs.  

Once you decide to flee, if you have nowhere to go, the shelter is there for you. After you establish physical safety, the Center for Hope and Safety offers a legal and economic program. At the end of the day, it’s about fostering community, and the community includes the legal system protecting the most vulnerable. The legal program provides advocacy and representation needed to get protection for the victim and their children. Many survivors don’t have money because their abuser deprived them of that autonomy, so the Economic Empowerment Team works with them to rebuild and attain sustainable financial independence.  

In cases of domestic violence, there is a sense of isolation. It’s essential to have a community or someone to go to.

The pandemic has aggravated the feeling of isolation and minimized community exposure. That natural opportunity to find an outlet you trust outside of your home has been taken away. Coworkers and friends are more distant. So now, it’s very deliberate when you reach out to somebody. Mira notes that people remain silent because it’s painful to have to talk about their experiences. 

One reassuring fact is that the hotline is always anonymous. 

You can still get the support and resources. The upside of COVID is you can have sessions with case managers on the phone. The most important thing is just to ask for the help you need.

The national hotline for domestic abuse is 1-800-799-7233.

For more information, visit the Center for Hope and Safety’s website: www.hopeandsafetynj.org. If you’re interested in helping out, email info@hopeandsafetynf.org.

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