Survivors of Domestic Abuse in Counselling

A lot of training on domestic abuse focuses on the abuser, but when Christiane Sanderson came to talk to us she focused on the effects on abusive victims coming to therapy, and on a wider definition of domestic abuse beyond the more widely understood physical element.

What is Domestic Abuse?

The Government defines Domestic Abuse as: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour – violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional.” (Home Office, 2015)

When domestic abuse is portrayed in the media the focus tends to lie on physical and sexual violence perhaps because these are the forms of abuse which result in tangible evidence of a crime. However, psychological abuse can be just as or more damaging for the victim, as it can break down the victims sense of self until they come to believe they deserve to be subordinate.

A print ad by Womankind highlighting the prevalence of domestic abuse and violence. Womankind works to end violence against women worldwide.

It’s also interesting to note from this definition that domestic abuse isn’t limited to intimate partners, but to family members as well.

The Nature of Domestic Abuse

Seemingly healthy relationships can become abusive, or abuse can be present from the start and worsen as time passes. Even in instances of seemingly isolated incidents, there can be more going on below the surface both prior to and directly following any assault or incident.

Where we think of an isolated instance of domestic abuse, we often ignore the cycle that surrounds it – that before action is taken, there is the threat of action hanging in the air.

Walker (1979) posited the cycle of abuse, a simplistic take on what goes on behind the scenes in an abusive relationship. The timescale of this cycle can vary in length from hours to years, but unless broken will continue to run beneath the surface of the abusive relationship.

cycle of abuse

The cycle of abuse

  • Tensions Building – This can often be felt by the victim long before it would be noticeable to external observers as in order to protect themselves victims may become acutely aware of their perpetrators changes in mood. This tension phase can be very short lived or drawn out.
  • Incident – Whatever form the incident takes, be it verbal, physical, sexual or emotional in nature, it will not mark the end of the abuse cycle.
  • Reconciliation – This phase appears to put things right – it represents remorse, regret or denial of the incident and a sense of a return to normality. However, with no reflection on the incident nothing is worked through, and thus the cycle continues.
  • Calm – The calm phase allows the incident to be forgotten and for a honeymoon phase to lull those involved into a false sense of security before tension once more begins to mount.

In viewing domestic abuse as a cycle, we can see that for those involved there can appear to be no escape. Victims may even provoke their attackers once they sense the tension re-emerging in order to get the incident over with, and themselves back into the relative safety of the reconciliation or calm phases of the cycle. In this way they may begin to blame themselves for the attack, when all they have done is try to gain a sense of control which otherwise feels lacking.

Perpetrators of domestic abuse

Both men and women can be perpetrators of domestic abuse, although research suggests that different sexes may have a higher prevalence of different types of abuse, with women more often favouring coercive control, and men favouring sexual and physical assaults.

When it comes to categorising perpetrators of domestic abuse, it has been found that abusers can be found amongst all ethnicities, religions, sexes and sexual orientations. However, one thing they do have in common is charm (which is often instrumental in lulling victims into a sense of security before launching their attack).

Character traits of perpetrators

When it comes to who may become a perpetrator however, there are a few factors which might indicate a higher potential…

  • It is common to find that perpetrators have attachment deficits or have experienced early or childhood traumas
  • People with a diagnosis of a personality disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Those people who might use sex to relieve insecurity
  • Those with a high level of paranoid ideation (suspiciousness)
  • Users of high levels of alcohol or drugs
  • Those with a diagnosis of PTSD as a result of experience in combat
  • Anyone who expects their partner to soothe and absorb bad feelings for them

Shame can play a critical role in domestic abuse both for victims (who may feel responsible for their position), and perpetrators (who cannot cope with internal feelings of shame and thus lash out), and this must be carefully examined in any therapeutic work surrounding domestic abuse.

Victims of domestic abuse

Young people are at the highest risk of experiencing domestic violence in their relationships due to a lack of experience. If domestic abuse is experienced within their circle then it can become normalised before they have a chance to form a healthy image of what relationships can be. However, anyone of any age, gender, sexuality or ethnicity can become a victim of domestic abuse, and find themselves feeling trapped and powerless to their perpetrator.

Impact of domestic abuse

Domestic abuse leaves emotional as well as physical scars, and the impact of it is often far-reaching.

  • Behaviour – victims will often withdraw and isolate themselves from their support networks. This may be in an attempt to shield others from what they have experienced, or through shame in believing they are to blame. But in this isolation they can find it very difficult to gauge what a healthy relationship could look like, and to identify their own experiences as unacceptable.
  • Cognitive – repeated dehumanisation by an abuser can lead to a distortion of reality and an inability to process their experiences in the same way that any complex trauma can. As with any complex trauma, this experience can lead to dissociation, disorganisation, engagement of the psycho-biological survival system, or post-traumatic stress symptoms developing.
  • Relational – being in close relationship with an abuser can lead to the formation of an unhealthy trauma bond, Stockholm Syndrome, or a level of identification with the abuser which is unhelpful to the victim once away from the abusive situation. There can also be an intense impact on parenting through intergenerational transmission of abuse.
  • Sexual Violence – beyond the horrific experiences of sexual abuse in the moment, sexual abuse can leave behind greater issues in the form of STIs or pregnancies which may be forced upon the victim without their consent.

It is paramount that any therapist working with a victim of domestic abuse be acutely aware of the possibility of secondary victimisation. Responses of friends, family and even professionals may all be purposefully or inadvertently blaming of the victim, and in therapy this must be closely guarded against.

Understanding survivors of domestic abuse

There are a number of presentations that therapists working with survivors of domestic abuse should be aware might enter the therapeutic space beyond the client wishing to work through their abusive experiences. Here are a few that Christiane felt were most worthy of note:

  • Distortion of reality and confusion
  • Dehumanisation, and they may act robotic or unfeeling as a defence to their experiences
  • Hypo-arousal in the form of chronic anxiety or emotional or aggressive outbursts both in the therapy room and described there
  • Relationships representing sources of terror (possibly including the therapeutic relationship)
  • Fear of connection and chronic defences. This manifests as being extremely sensitive to perceived relationship threats including criticism, rejection, abandonment, control, testing and self destructive behaviours.
  • Avoidance of inner experience such as affects, cognitions, physical sensations, wishes and needs
  • Self-regulation difficulties, and a need for regulation of intense emotions becomes a pre-requisite for therapeutic progress
  • Deformations of personality – following coercive control the client may have lost themselves and have become rather dependent, masochistic or self-defeating

So long as we are aware of the issues which can arise when working with this client group, and are confident we can listen without judgement, the therapeutic relationship (a non-hierarchical and collaborative experience) can help to promote autonomy and flexibility and to help the client rebuild relational worth.

Therapist self care

It can be extremely hard to work with harrowing stories from clients and so therapist self care must be seen as of paramount importance in practitioners working with this client group. Here are a few ways to look after yourself.

  • Work – good supervision, mentoring, peer support and CPD are of paramount importance. As are boundaries, limits and regular breaks to balance this trauma work and not allow ourselves to become engulfed by it.
  • Body – physical health, diet, rest and relaxation are important ways we can take care of ourselves when working with particularly difficult client experiences.
  • Mind – reflection, control and agency.
  • Emotion – respect and nurture yourself, not just your clients. Listen to music, watch films, take care of your needs so as to be replenished to take care of your clients needs effectively.
  • Creativity – allow for inspiration – let you mind guide you as you write, paint, draw, sculpt, create.
  • Spirituality – don’t get so bogged down in work that you forget to see the beauty in the world around you. Allow yourself to feel hope, optimism and tranquillity.
  • Humour and laughter – really can be the best medicine. When working with especially difficult client experiences make sure to balance your life with joy.

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