Domestic Violence Counselling: Working with Victims and Perpetrators

Relationships are a steadfast part of what it is to be human, and yet also one of the most complex. Consigning oneself to another person brings with it a multitude of experiences and emotions which encompass far more than just love. Understanding this core part of the human experience is vital for counsellors and therapists, and not least the darker side of violence and abuse within a relationship.

We worked with Anna Motz to explore the dynamics of violent and abusive relationships. Anna is a leading Clinical and Forensic psychologist and psychotherapist working within the NHS. She has extensive experience of treating couples and individuals who experience longstanding difficulties with violence against themselves and others. She is the author of Toxic Couples: The Psychology of Domestic Violence (Routledge, 2014).

The critical issue of domestic violence

Seven people die each month in the UK from domestic violence. In her workshop, Anna helped give an insight into domestic violence dynamics. She helped us to understand the forces of attraction that bind people together, the attachment patterns that are integral to violent relationships, and how we might assess and treat these clients.

Seven people in the UK die from domestic violence every month, with 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence at some point in their lives. This is a far-reaching problem, and counselling provides us the tools to dismantle it and support victims and perpetrators.

Here, we have summarised 5 key takeaway points from Anna’s talk, as well as given a overview of how to assess risk as some treatment aims.

Domestic violence starts with attachment styles

The significance of our attachment styles is undeniable; it is key to understanding our later adult relationships and parenting styles. The way we love and hate is defined by our attachment systems, and separation and reunion in adult life are triggers that activate our attachment systems. This means that an understanding of attachment theory is vital when looking at the dynamics of violence within couples.

An insecure attachment system can form when a child has not had his or her needs met for various reasons. Anna Motz suggested that the origin of violence in adult relationships can be in some of these insecure attachment systems.

Transmission of disturbance: a cycle of abuse in relationships

If a child has experienced early disturbances, this increases the risk that this disturbance will be repeated in the child’s adult relationships–particularly in intimate couple relationships.

If a child has watched their mother be abused, this provides a model to the child and demonstrates that this is how relationships work. This makes it more likely that domestic violence will be repeated. The person may unconsciously identify with the abuser, or may feel that they repeat the pattern of abuse as a way of having some power over the abuse they received as a child.

If a child is abused or neglected, this is likely to be repeated in some way in future intimate relationships.

Violence as perversion

An insecure attachment pattern can turn into a perversion when:

  • There is a severe difficulty in relation to adult intimacy.
  • There is an identification with child dependency and vulnerability.
  • There is a desperate wish to control the object and prevent abandonment.

In intimate couple relationships, violence can create a sense of comfort and control, and can be used by the perpetrator as a way of regulating unbearable emotions. There is often objectification of the victim and secrecy around the relationship.

Often there will be ritualised behaviours around the violence, which act as a form of terrorising the victim to increase control.

For the perpetrator, acts of violence can cause a temporary alleviation of unbearable state of mind and a short lived feeling of euphoria.

Is domestic violence gendered?

Studies suggest that both women and men commit situational acts of violence, such as a partner lashing out violently in a spur of the moment attack. However, studies show that coercive controlling domestic violence (intimate partner terrorism) is perpetrated almost entirely by men.

The extent of domestic violence

1 in 4 women in the UK will experience violence from a partner in their lifetime. It is women and girls who are most at risk from partner violence. Women who are victims of domestic violence are more likely to experience psychological, physical and emotional ill health.

It is also important to consider the dynamic of re-victimisation which can leave women feeling disempowered by their relationship dynamics and getting stuck in a cycle of not leaving. The children of domestic abusive relationships are at the highest risk of poor outcomes. They have an increased likelihood to experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as a risk of becoming victims of abuse themselves.

The complexity of issues surrounding domestic violence can be difficult to work through and understand. No one is immune, however, as cases such as the high-profile incidents between megastars Rihanna and Chris Brown showed. In press interviews, she highlighted her own struggles with leaving her abusive partner and ending the relationship.

How to assess risk in a relationship

There are a number of indicative factors when it comes to assessing the level of domestic violence, abuse, and subsequent risk in a relationship. Some issues to look at include…

  • Consider what type of violence is taking place: is it controlling coercive violence (which is the most serious form of domestic violence)? This may include total domination, threats to kill or threats of suicide.
  • Are household pets being harmed? The smashing of intimate objects is like a rehearsal for violence.
  • Did the violence begin in pregnancy
  • Does the victim believe they will be killed?
  • Is the victim isolated?
  • Are the children displaying symptoms of disturbance?

If any of these criteria is met, this is cause for concern of extreme domestic violence.

Treating perpetrators and victims

When working with clients who are part of a violent relationship, Anna highlighted several important issues that the therapist must keep to mind:

  1. Do not forget how important the therapeutic relationship is. Enable your client to move from impulsive action to thoughts and reflections by considering the transference and counter-transference processes within in the therapeutic relationship itself.
  2. When exploring your client’s situation, do not take him or her to a place they cannot tolerate. Try to imagine and be curious about what is going on for this client. Resist interpreting in the moment where possible.
  3. If there is evidence that the violence has become a perversion, attend to the anxiety against which the perversion is a defence. After all, the violence is built on defences against the terrors of intimacy.
  4. When ‘perversion’ recedes, depression may surface. Previously, the perversion afforded the perpetrator a sense of power and control.
  5. It is important as therapist to maintain one’s own integrity and boundaries.

Would you like to learn about working with emotional neglect in therapy? Join our one-day online workshop on April 22nd 2023. Sign up here.


Latest Courses

Working with Complexity in Grief

Fri October 18th from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Friday 18th October 2024. ONLINE via Zoom and CATCH-UP for 28 days. Event Times: 10.00am – 4.00pm GMT (London)/ 11.00am – 5.00pm CET (Paris)/ 5.00am – 11.00am EST (New York).…

Internal Family Systems: An Introduction

Fri November 8th from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Friday 8th November 2024. ONLINE via Zoom and CATCH-UP for 28 days. Event Times: 10.00am – 4.00pm GMT (London)/ 11.00am – 5.00pm CET (Paris)/ 5.00am – 11.00am EST (New York).…

Siblings: same parents, different experience?

Fri November 22nd from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Friday 22nd November 2024. ONLINE via Zoom and CATCH-UP for 28 days. Event Times: 10.00am – 4.00pm GMT (London)/ 11.00am – 5.00pm CET (Paris)/ 5.00am – 11.00am EST (New York).…

Get 20% off your first training course

Receive free training updates, special offers, and expert articles straight to your inbox! You'll also get a 20% discount off a full price ticket for your first online event.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

Get 25% off your first training course

Receive free training updates, special offers, and expert articles straight to your inbox! You'll also get a 25% discount off a full price ticket for your first online event.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.


  1. Greg Taylor on 2017-05-07 at 3:45 AM

    Ah going for the tired old rhetoric that women are the primary victims. I’d very much like to see these “studies” you refer to and more importantly I’d like to which Ines you neglected to consider.

    I question your honesty given the findings by Whitaker et al (2007) In 70% of the non-reciprocally violent relationships women were the perpetrators of violence.

    In a meta-analytic review Archer J (2000) Found that women were slightly more likely than men to use one or more act of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently. Younger aged couples showed more female-perpetrated aggression.

    These figures are provided on the Towayl College of Psychiatrists website. So I’m surprised you didn’t go there first.

  2. Brighton Therapy Partnership on 2017-06-02 at 11:16 AM

    Dear Greg

    Thanks for your post! The article is based on a training day provided in the UK by Anna Motz, who is author of “Toxic Couples: The Psychology of Domestic Violence”(Routledge, 2014), on which the workshop was based.

    Studies in different countries may show different findings.

    The Towayl College of Psychiatrists does not show up on Google. What country is this please? Do you have a link?

    Best wishes

    • P Pearman on 2021-01-30 at 7:11 PM

      Hi there
      Is there any evidence that personal therapy for perpetrators with a therapist who is not trained in DV actually makes the perpetrator’s behaviour worse?
      For example, a perpetrator seeks personal therapy (but does not disclose their abusive behaviour to the therapist) to feed their own narcissism, to allow themself to manipulate their therapist and learn the psychological tools to abuse their partner further?
      Many thanks

      • Shelley Holland on 2021-02-01 at 10:03 AM

        Therapists can only work with what is presented to them. Any client may choose to not disclose experiences and behaviours to their therapist, for a whole variety of reasons.

Leave a Comment

Before submitting, please take note of our community guidelines.