Speaking as a survivor of domestic violence, I have found that society is not often kind or understanding about matters related to this particular form of abuse. Frequently, society seems to perceive it as something someone has chosen for their life instead of something someone was forced into. Grace and empathy are generally given when we talk about other forms of abuse, but mention domestic violence, and that same grace isn’t always extended.
For years I wondered why — why is one type of abuse viewed differently in comparison with another? Just like any other victim, I never planned to be a victim, so why was I looked at differently? Why is it that victims of domestic violence have their pain invalidated by questions such as “Why didn’t you just leave?”
That question alone — Why didn’t I just leave? — is what led me to the counseling profession. Given that I was a strong, independent woman who came from a good family, it was a question that plagued me. To transition from victim to survivor, I needed answers — answers that I just didn’t have.
No easy answers
When I was an uneducated victim of domestic violence, the question of why didn’t I just leave felt complex. But after majoring in behavioral science/psychology and completing specialized courses in domestic violence intervention, trauma-informed care and, eventually, clinical counseling, I found that answering the question still wasn’t simple. In fact, as an educated grad student removed from her past situation, it became inherently clear to me that no amount of education would provide a clear-cut answer.
I was in my last semester of graduate school and preparing to enter into the practicum portion of the degree when I enrolled in a class on family violence. Each week, we would watch videos and discuss our views and how we would help the client. In week four of the class,
that difficult question came up again. I was reading through the discussion post when I saw it: “Why don’t people just leave? If you want it to end, just leave.”
Being this far into my degree program, I was surprised to see other soon-to-be counselors asking this question and making that comment. I assumed other professionals had taken classes outside of this one to better understand a problem so prevalent in our society. If that wasn’t the case, were counselors really prepared to serve this population?
In my own experience seeking counseling, I was asked, “Why do you think you chose not to leave?” I immediately felt like the counselor didn’t understand my position, and I decided to never see her again. I was hurt and angry, but I realized I still needed help. Luckily, I found another counselor and continued to educate myself on the cycle of abuse.
Unfortunately, that is not the story for the majority of survivors with whom I have worked. If they feel misunderstood or invalidated, they don’t go back to counseling. In other words, asking the wrong question as counselors doesn’t just keep us from building a trusting relationship with these clients; it may actually deter them from ever seeking help again.
It’s not that asking “Why do you think you chose not to leave?” is a horrible question. In relationships that do not involve abuse, it’s a perfectly acceptable question. When domestic violence is present, however, it crosses the line into victim blaming. Society constantly asks those who were victimized why they stayed instead of asking those who perpetrated abuse why they abused or why they created environments where leaving was not an option. According to Cynthia Hill, director of the 2014 documentary Private Violence (in an interview published in The Guardian), between 50% and 75% of homicides related to domestic violence happen at the point of separation or after the victim has left their abuser. We must be sensitive to the real danger involved in trying to escape intimate partner violence.
Tips for building relationships with survivors
I understand that as counseling professionals, we can ask questions only of the individual we are working with, and we always want to make sure the client is focusing on their behavior and not that of a partner or anyone else. Accountability is important and key in the healing process. However, it is not the best idea for this to be the primary focus when working with this specific population.
When working with individuals who are currently experiencing intimate partner violence or have recently left an emotionally, mentally or physically abusive situation, counselors can use the following six tips to build relationships with these clients.
1) Start by understanding that if leaving were an option, domestic violence would not be a thing. Remember, up to 75% of deaths related to domestic violence occur while the victim is attempting to leave or afterward. Because domestic violence is rooted in power and control, perpetrators of abuse often lash out at the idea of losing the person they feel they control.
In the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It, based on the life of singer Tina Turner, her husband, Ike, says at one point, “Tina, if you die on me, I swear I’ll kill you.” To most people, that sounds crazy, but in Ike’s mind, he wanted to maintain control over Tina, even in her death. For those who are not movie people, the Duluth model of domestic violence intervention also explains this concept. Leaving is dangerous and maybe even impossible for most victims. So, stop asking clients why they didn’t or don’t leave. If they could, they would.
2) Always be on time and end on time. This might seem trivial to most, but if you are working with clients you suspect are actively experiencing intimate partner violence, being on time and ending on time is a must. You never know what the client had to tell their abuser so that they could meet with you. You don’t know if this is the time when the abuser is out of the house and the only time the client can meet. If the counselor is late, the session still needs to end on time. The client should always know they will be home when they are supposed to be home. Messing with the schedule could potentially mess with someone’s life.
3) Talk about every other relationship rather than focusing on the abuse. Individuals involved in intimate partner violence are fully aware of the nature of their relationship. Trust me, they do not need a reminder of how dangerous or unhealthy the relationship is, even if they are not ready to leave. The cycle of grooming, gaslighting and manipulation can lead to victims feeling that they have to prove everyone wrong and show the world that their partner can still be the person they fell in love with. Most of the time, victims truly believe if they work very hard to adjust their behavior, their partner will treat them like they used to before the abuse started. Speaking directly about this relationship can cause the client to become defensive. It hurts the chances of building a trusting client-counselor relationship.
I have found that discussing other relationships in the client’s life can be helpful in shining a light on the behaviors of their current partner without making the client feel judged or attacked. You might say something along the lines of: “Oh, it sounds like you didn’t like your father when he drank because he became violent. How do you feel about XYZ’s behavior when they drink?” This allows the client to make the comparison on their own.
4) Realize that “Christ” and “counselor” are two different titles. Counselors are not saviors, nor should we try to be. In all situations and with all clients, the objective should be to meet them where they are. As with addiction, a client experiencing intimate partner violence may not understand the severity of the problem and may not want to leave. Perhaps instead of leaving the relationship, the client wants to learn to cope with certain behaviors. If that is what the client wants, it is also what the counselor should want.
Go home resting in the fact that you are doing your job. Even though the client may be in an unhealthy situation, they are working with you, trusting you and listening to you. They hear you. When the time is right, they will make the best decision for their life. Your job is not to save anyone; it is to give clients the tools to save themselves.
5) Accept that you are not the expert. Counselors work hard to become licensed professionals. That hard work is so appreciated. However, we are not the experts in this situation. No matter how many studies we have read, statistics we have memorized or theories we can apply, survivors are the experts when it comes to their experiences and their stories.
Every survivor’s journey is different. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to counseling survivors of intimate partner violence. Even if you’ve seen 10 clients in one day and they all have experienced intimate partner violence, ask questions of the next client rather than assuming that you know how the story will end. Because I promise you that you don’t.
6) Check your biases. We all have biases, but not everyone is aware of what theirs are and how they affect the lives of the individuals they work with. If you have certain views about intimate partner violence, if you believe it is a “choice” to stay, if you believe someone is able to “just leave,” please stay away from this population. It takes a lot for survivors to ask for help and to expose themselves enough to discuss the abuse. If this situation is handled incorrectly, they may never seek help again. Let’s be a part of the solution as professional counselors, not the reason that a survivor returns to the problem.
As a survivor myself, these tips helped me build a long-lasting relationship with my counselor. Now, as I sit on the other side of the table, these tips have worked for me in counseling and coaching individuals who have experienced intimate partner violence. I hope you find these tips useful and join me on a journey to end the cycle of unhealthy relationships.
A Survivor’s story
During an internship, I worked with a young woman who had experienced physical abuse throughout her entire life. Every man from her father to the father of her children had abused her. At this point in her life, abuse was the expectation. The interesting part is that she wasn’t seeking help because of the abuse; she wanted help learning how to be better for her future husband. What I heard was: “What can I do to be who he wants me to be so he doesn’t hurt me?” I couldn’t immediately confirm my suspicions, so I continued to listen, ask questions and build trust.
In about our fifth session, she opened up and revealed that she had been in the hospital the night before, put there at the hands of her fiancé. After I asked if she was OK and in the mental space to continue the session, she said, “This is probably the safest place for me to be today.”
As we continued talking, I asked if she still felt like marrying this man was the best option. To my surprise, she said, “Yes, he isn’t nearly as bad as what I’ve dealt with before, and I knew better. I shouldn’t have made him that upset.” I could continue with the story, but just this portion of it serves to paint a vivid picture of the mind of someone who is a victim of intimate partner violence.
This is an extreme example of a person who had a long history of being abused, but many victims find themselves in the same predicament — asking themselves how they can change to “be better,” what they can do to be abused less, instead of asking what the abuser needs to change to stop abusing. Because survivors blame themselves enough, they do not need anyone else to do it for them. They don’t need someone to reinforce what they already believe. Imagine if I would have asked this client, “Why don’t you leave?” In that moment, I would have become the problem instead of the solution. She didn’t want to leave; she didn’t feel as if she needed to.
My internship ended shortly after this session. I offered for this client to continue having sessions with the therapist on staff, but she was not interested. She never went back. I later found out that she did in fact get married to her abuser, and they lived happily ever after — until he killed her a little over a year later.
This story sticks with me because it reminds me to be intentional about my time with clients and how I end things. It’s so much more than ending an agreement with a client; it’s the end of a relationship. I wish I had known then what I know now. I would have been more intentional about including a long-term therapist in our sessions. I wouldn’t have ended things the way I did. My only hope is that someone else can learn from me and we can all be better when it comes to dealing with clients who have been or are currently experiencing intimate partner violence.
Leontyne Evans works as the survivor engagement specialist for Survivors Rising, where she helps to empower and uplift survivors by providing education and resources that encourage survivor voice and self-sufficiency. She is a published author of two books, Princeton Pike Road and Relationships, Friendships and Situationships: 90 Days of Inspiration to Keep Your Ships From Sinking, both of which support her mission of ending the cycle of unhealthy relationships. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
Thank you, Leontyne, for your article. I look forward to reading your books. This article is helpful as I am about to enter into Practicum/Internship.
Thank you for this wonderful and helpful article. This article should be required reading for all counselors! As a survivor of IPV who is also entering the counseling profession, I think all counselors must have at least a basic level of training about IPV so therapy sessions don’t turn into blame sessions, potentially cutting victims off from therapeutic assistance forever. Also, specifically as a male survivor of IPV, I’ve found first-hand that counselors also need to learn to check their own expectations and biases about men and masculinity at the door when working with this population. Unfortunately my experiences have proved that counselors can be all too human in their biases.
Great perspective. As a survivor, I agree that asking that question is so dangerous. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having rapport with these clients and how quickly that can be compromised. I have also heard concerning perspectives from fellow counselors in the field and am working to change this.
Thank you for this beautiful spot on article that I wish everyone on earth would read. I’m not a professional, but am the client of a therapist who was gentle enough (and intuitive enough) not to ask me this question when I sought her out for counseling during my abuse.
Like your client who lost her life to this, I thought counseling might help me ” be better” in the hopes that my betterment would stop the abuse. Of course it didn’t, and the more I aimed to please him the more my role was cemented as a catch all for his anger.
But she never discouraged me or told me what to do. Instead she posed questions about what I wanted and how I felt and really listened to who I was as a person.
Most importantly though, and central to the recovery of my self esteem, was her patience. And her willingness to let me arrive at these life changing conclusions on my own.
Society tends to regard physical safety as the key component in helping survivors escape abuse. But having been there myself I can say wholeheartedly that beneath the tangible aspects of abuse lies a very real and very deep need to be understood that’s underpins (and either fuels or stalls out) the entire mission of a survivor setting out to reclaim her life.