Tag Archives: domestic violence

Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective: Understanding the cycle of abuse

By Leontyne Evans March 18, 2022

Recently, I was facilitating a conversation around supporting survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in the workplace, and a clinician approached me afterward and said, “Hey, this was a great presentation. I now know how to better support survivors in the workplace and signs to pay attention to, but I’m not sure I understand intimate partner violence as a whole.” This was an eye-opening moment for me. I consistently go out and speak on this topic, but I never start at the beginning.

We first have to understand the cycle of abuse, a concept that originated with psychologist Lenore Walker in the 1970s, to better support survivors of IPV. It’s not enough to be aware of the cycle or have a diagram printed out; there has to be an understanding of what it is and how someone may find themselves in the cycle. When we seek to understand, it creates an opportunity for empathy to grow and biases to shrink. So, let’s break this down so we can be more impactful when serving survivors.

The cycle of abuse, also known as the cycle of violence, refers to common patterns of abusive behaviors, which are often associated with high emotions and periods of reckoning or revenge. The pattern, or cycle, repeats itself and can occur multiple times during a relationship.

This cycle is broken up into different stages (discussed more in the next section). But these stages don’t all happen at once, and the cycle will look different for every person. In some instances, the complete cycle can happen within a couple of hours, while other times, it may take up to a year to complete.

In short, the cycle of abuse is unpredictable and follows no rules.

The best way to conceptualize it is to think about the first time you went on a roller coaster ride: You feel the rush of excitement while waiting in line, but, as you get closer, a little anxiety creeps in. Then suddenly, it’s your turn! Your excitement, anxiety and fear all come together creating a beautiful storm of emotions.

The person operating the ride locks the safety bar in place, signaling your last chance to change your mind. You could back out now, but you’ve been waiting for this moment for so long you have to see it through. As the ride starts, your anxiety lessens. Everything feels good as the roller coaster ascends to the peak position. Even though you’re nervous, it still feels safe.

Then, all of a sudden, it drops! It all happens so fast. The ride descends rapidly, along with your stomach. Your heart rate speeds up as you are jerked side to side and up and down, and no matter how scared you are, you can’t get off. You’re stuck. No one can see you crying; no matter how loud you scream, there isn’t anything you can do except wait until it’s over.

The next thing you know, you’re on the straightaway: The ride slows down and you think you’ve survived the worst part. You start to feel safe; you can breathe again. But as soon as you take a breath and get comfortable, the ride takes another dive and the cycle starts all over again.

Survivors of intimate partner violence also experience periods of happiness, thrill and excitement in their relationships, so it’s not as easy as one may think to “get off the ride.”

The five stages

In an abusive relationship, the abuse starts way before it ever becomes physical. It is well-known that the cycle of abuse includes four stages (tension, incident, reconciliation and calm), but from my experience, I argue there are actually five stages:

1) Trust building. This stage, similar to any other relationship, is where someone establishes an emotional connection, and may even fall in love. In unhealthy relationships, this typically happens extremely fast. Two people meet, create a trauma bond and become the center of one another’s lives within days or weeks. Like the first time someone rides a roller coaster, it’s new and exciting. Even though they may be nervous, the anticipation of seeing where things will go outweighs the concern. (The initial excitement of the ride.)

2) Tension building. This is when the impending victim begins to notice a change in their partner. Some abusers may become clingier, whereas others may be more distant. They may become angered or irritated with small things that typically wouldn’t upset them. This change isn’t connected to any particular life event. This is what causes the victim to feel confused. One minute things are going so well, causing the victim to wonder what they could have done to cause someone to go from being the nicest/sweetest person to being mean, cold or dismissive. (The ride ascends as tension builds.)

3) Incident of abuse. The abuser releases the tension and engages in abusive behaviors. These behaviors may not be physical; they can be emotional, mental, financial or even spiritual. This may show up as insults or irresponsible behaviors such as spending money that was designated for the household bills. Maybe the abuser stays out all night or hides the car keys. The victim may believe they are responsible for the abuser’s actions and that this abusive behavior stems from something they did to cause the tension or change. (The ride descends rapidly.)

4) Reconciliation. During this stage, the abuser expresses remorse and what appears to be genuine regret for their behavior. They may even make the victim feel guilty for “causing the behavior.” The victim, who is still questioning their emotions and processing what happened, may feel a sense of relief that things are going back to “normal.” (The straightaway.)

5) Calm. After reconciliation, there is usually a sense of calm after the storm. This period of time could last for several weeks or months, depending on the abuser. The extra love and kindness from the abusive partner trigger a reaction in the victim’s brain that releases feel-good and love hormones known as dopamine and oxytocin. This release of hormones makes them feel closer to their partner and as if things are back to normal. (The ride slows down.)

However, right when the victim starts to heal and believes it won’t happen again, the ride starts to ascend, tension begins to build, and the cycle starts again.

What counselors must understand

When I host workshops on IPV, I often say, “Put yourself in their shoes; meet the survivor where they are.” And without fail, there is always a professional in the room who responds, “I couldn’t even imagine.” But the truth is we have all been abused and misused by individuals to some degree — maybe not to the same extent as IPV — but the emotional dilemma that weighs on you is similar. We’ve all been on our own emotional roller coaster.

Maybe you had a friend whose behavior made you question whether you were really friends. Some days they were really nice, but other days they made you wonder if they liked you at all. Maybe there was a family member that you just wanted to feel loved by, but no matter how hard you tried, you never got the love you desired. What about that person you wanted to make proud, but they always made you feel like your efforts weren’t good enough?  Maybe you have experienced the heartbreak of having a family member or friend only want you around when it benefited them.

When I tell people this, they say, “But I wasn’t in an intimate relationship with the person who mistreated me.” I would like to challenge that as well. Intimacy is defined as a feeling of closeness. Because intimacy is involved in all relationships (even work relationships), we have all had an experience of being mistreated — to some degree — by someone we have been intimate with or felt close to. When working with survivors, remember what it felt like for you to have this experience with someone you loved.

I am sure you are wondering, “As professionals working with this population, how do we help clients get off this roller coaster ride?” I am so glad you asked! As mentioned earlier in this article, the first step is understanding the cycle. If someone is on this roller coaster ride, they can’t just get off. It’s too dangerous.

But we can help them prepare for the ride until they are ready to get off. Safety planning is essential. We can help the client to identify signs of each phase and ways they can remain as safe as possible. Introducing the client to the cycle, helping them understand the current stage they are in and identifying strategies to stay safe during every phase lessens the shock and helps the client feel more prepared. Similar to how counselor help clients manage their anxiety triggers, we can help the client prepare for what’s coming, so it doesn’t pose as much of a threat. The more they know, the more prepared they will be to exit the cycle when it is safe for them to do so. 

How to be a supportive ally

Become knowledgeable about the cycle of abuse so you can identify which stage the client is in. Then you are in a better position to help them to become more aware of this cycle so they can learn to identify the stages on their own.

And continue to educate yourself. Remember the more you seek to understand, the more helpful you can be.

Stephen Hateley/Unsplash.com

****

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. Her monthly Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective column for CT Online aims to help clinicians better understand and serve people who have experienced interpersonal violence. She is also 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 leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.

 

****

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.

Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective: The unrecognized grief of IPV survivors

By Leontyne Evans February 3, 2022

*****

This is the debut article of a monthly online column about working with survivors of intimate partner violence written by a counselor who is also a survivor of domestic violence.

*****

In August 2021, I wrote an article for Counseling Today challenging counseling professionals to not ask survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) “Why didn’t you leave?” or to give the perceived notion that leaving would solve the problem. Doing so often causes confusion because most people believe that once someone leaves an abusive relationship, the problem is resolved.

So, let’s go with that for a second. Playing devil’s advocate to my own article, let’s say the protocol for assisting clients who have experienced IPV is to encourage them to leave. If they do leave, then what? What are the next steps? Where do they go from there? Is the problem solved? Will they no longer need the intervention of a professional?

As mental health professionals, we often believe we have all the solutions. We think our degrees, research, theoretical knowledge and certifications give us superpowers to fix people. But we often lack the real-life experience to understand the complicated layers of the situations our clients face.

If a client leaves their abuser, are you prepared to help them along their journey to recovery? Do you understand the journey? Do you understand the new set of problems that will arise after a survivor leaves?

Every counselor should not only be prepared to support their client in deciding how to safely exit an unhealthy situation (if that’s what the client wants to do) but also be adequately equipped to help the survivor prepare for what’s next.

You may be asking, “Well, if someone has removed themselves from an unhealthy environment, shouldn’t that be good enough?” Survivors often receive little to no support once the threat of abuse is gone because so many counseling professionals and organizations believe this very thing. It sounds easy enough: Leave your abuser and get back to living your life. Then all will be well, right? Wrong!

A survivor may experience unexpected issues after they leave their abuser that a clinician can help them to process and understand. As professionals, however, we must understand these issues first.

Each article of my column, “Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective,” will focus on one specific issue survivors may face post-crisis. In this first column, I explore how counselors can help survivors work through their grief and loss.

Experiencing grief and loss

One of the most overlooked side-effects of leaving an abusive relationship is grief. It may be hard to believe, and maybe even hard for some to understand, but there can be a lot of grief associated with ending an abusive relationship. Even if it was unhealthy, it was still a relationship.

Grief happens after people experience loss. A survivor who leaves an abusive situation may grieve:

  • Loss of self
  • Loss of love
  • Loss of the life they expected to have
  • Loss of the idea of who they thought their partner was
  • Loss of friends and family because of isolation

These are just a few examples of the types of loss survivors may experience. These feelings of loss are further complicated by the fact that survivors of IPV may not think sadness is an appropriate response to leaving a toxic relationship. They may find it hard to understand their feelings of loneliness and sadness when others expect them to feel freedom and happiness.

I still remember the day my abuser was taken away in handcuffs. I had looked forward to that day for months. I knew that he would be sentenced to four years in prison and that I would finally have my life back. The irony of watching him being arrested — not for the crimes he committed against me but for something totally unrelated — left me with a sense of bitterness instead of the peace I craved. After seven long years of being on an emotional rollercoaster, the ride was finally over.

However, when the authorities handed me his valuables, placed the handcuffs on his wrist and escorted him away from the courthouse, tears began to roll down my face. My bitterness was replaced with sadness. My anger was replaced with remorse, and my joy was replaced with the fear of loneliness. I cried the entire drive home.

For months, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the house settling at night caused me to awaken with anxiety. The stairs creaking at 3 a.m. reminded me of the nights when he would come home drunk and take his stress out on me.

I sank into depression, struggling to understand how my mind, heart and body didn’t seem to agree with the verdict. I became angry at myself for missing him, but I also knew I didn’t want him back. This whirlwind of confusing emotions made me feel out of control.

I didn’t understand what was happening then, but now I know this feeling was grief. Grief that I was too embarrassed to explain to anyone else. I was with my abuser for seven years. During that time, we woke up together, went to bed together, ate together, struggled together and celebrated together. It may be hard for some to understand, but I lost my friend. I lost a sense of familiarity. I lost what I thought was love.

Now as an expert in the field, I talk to other survivors every day who have had similar experiences. They are desperately trying to sort through their feelings and understand how they could miss something so toxic. I give my clients space to feel that loss, to grieve it. Similar to those who overcome addiction, survivors of IPV may go through withdrawals or even relapse. For these clients, having a counselor who understands that they are experiencing loss and is invested in helping them explore the journey back to themselves can be life changing.

What counselors must understand

No matter how much abuse was present in the relationship, it was still a relationship. At one point, two individuals loved each other. At one point, the survivor felt safe enough to allow their partner to get close to them to let their guard down. At some point, the survivor let their abuser in — not just into their home but into their heart. Because, let’s be honest, manipulation, gaslighting and the cycle of abuse would not be as effective if the abuser never gained the trust and love of their victim.

Imagine falling in love with someone, feeling a sense of closeness, and then one day waking up next to a stranger, feeling like you don’t know the person you’ve been sleeping with at all. Imagine that the person who once brought you immense joy is also the very person to cause you pain.

If you can’t imagine it, count your blessings to have never experienced something so psychologically damaging. This is indeed a loss. Grief comes in waves, and because the survivor is grieving multiple losses, they may find it hard to communicate or name their feelings.

The client’s mental conflict about ending the abusive relationship can easily be confused (by both the client and the counselor) with missing the abuser when, in reality, it’s often the uncomfortableness of being alone. Counselors can help clients process their feelings and learn to understand the difference between the two. They don’t miss their abuser; they miss themselves — the version of who they were before the abuse happened.

The client may have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to “fix” their partner, and now that they are alone, they may be faced with the idea of “fixing” themselves. Having to examine oneself closely is hard. A good counselor, however, can help clients realize that being in their own company is not necessarily a bad thing. 

How to be a supportive ally

You can be a supportive ally by putting a name to what the client is experiencing: disenfranchised grief (i.e., grief that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly supported). And you can remind them that grief is a normal response to any type of loss.

Give the client a sense of normalcy by explaining the cycle of abuse and why they may have these unexpected feelings. Become familiar with the power and control wheel, and help your client to understand it as well. Explain how manipulation and gaslighting play a part in the mixed emotions.

During sessions, you can also talk about various ways the client can rediscover themselves. Help them to sort their feelings and reconnect to the world in this new phase of their lives.

For example, they could join a club, find a new hobby or reconnect with a passion they had put aside because their former partner didn’t like it. As they grieve who they wanted to be, who they once were and the relationships that have been lost, encourage them to enjoy the journey of self-discovery and reconnection. It may be more manageable to help them acknowledge and work through each loss separately.

Now that you have a better understanding of one of the aftereffects survivors may face upon leaving an abusive relationship, you will be better equipped to serve as a professional and an ally.

PopTika/Shutterstock.com

****

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 leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.

 

****

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.

Addressing sexual violence among teens

By Leontyne Evans October 13, 2021

Intimate partner violence is increasing at an overwhelming rate among teens and young adults. Because of this, sexual violence is also increasing. Due to the lack of education and awareness in this area, it often goes unreported to authorities.

To better understand the topic, we first have to define it. Sexual violence involves forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act or sexual touching when the partner does not or cannot consent. It also includes nonphysical sexual behaviors such as posting or sharing sexual pictures of a partner without their consent or sexting someone without their consent.

While facilitating groups and programs with young people in Omaha, Nebraska, I found that 3 of 10 participants were victims of sexual assault by a partner and didn’t know it. They were unaware that the actions of their partner were classified as abuse.

This has been consistent with all groups, classes and programs that I have facilitated. It is important to bring awareness to how under-reported this issue is among youth. In many cases, it’s not only those who have been victimized who are unaware they have experienced sexual violence. Believe it or not, the perpetrators of such abuse can lack awareness that they are using abusive tactics such as manipulation and coercion.

The need to talk about sex

A lack of education in this area exists in part because it is typically seen as taboo to talk about sex and consent with youth. Among those who are victims of sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, 26% of women and 15% of men report that the abuse or other forms of violence took place before age 18.

Many parents think that talking about sex will encourage their children to engage in sexual activity before they are ready, despite there being no solid research to support this belief. So, because parents aren’t teaching it at home and because the sex education being taught in schools is pretty much limited to “have sex and you’ll get pregnant or catch a sexually transmitted infection,” many youth don’t have a proper understanding of what consent actually is.

Some victims believe they have to have sex with someone because it’s their “job” as a partner. The urban proverb of “what you won’t do, someone else will” reigns in the heads of our youth, making them believe they must have sex to keep a person’s interest. There are also young people who have not been taught to accept the word “no,” so when their partner says it, they don’t believe it or accept it. They either continue to try until their partner gives in or they become aggressive because they feel “disrespected.” This is the behavior we must bring attention to as counseling professionals. But to do that, we must figure out where it starts, how it starts and why.

Overall, youth who offend are more likely than youth who do not offend to have backgrounds involving fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, substance abuse, childhood victimization, academic difficulties or instability in the living environment. Studies performed on youth offenders show that youth who have been faced with adversity are at a higher risk to offend. These studies seem to be suggesting that these problems are rooted in familial dysfunction.

The message of entitlement

My work with youth has exposed several issues with parenting when it comes to young people understanding and accepting the word “no.” Many parent do not seem to grasp that every decision they make will have an impact on their children one way or another. Raising entitled children may not seem like such a big deal when they are younger, but those small, cute children have to grow up someday.

Not telling a child “no” to avoid hurting their feelings or hearing them cry is common. We want to protect our children from the harsh realities of the world and try to soften the blow by giving them the things that make them happy. But what happens when that child turns into a teenager and can’t accept the concept of “no” because they literally don’t know how. What happens when that sweet baby grows up learning that “no” doesn’t really mean no? That if they keep asking, become aggressive, act intimidating or annoy someone enough, that “no” can turn into a “yes”?

Kids who can’t accept no for an answer or perceive rejection as a form of disrespect take these behaviors into adulthood and are more likely to abuse. Once again, it may not be intentional. They may not even see themselves as abusers. This has simply become their norm, a learned behavior that has been accepted rather than corrected, leading them to believe that the person saying no is the one with the problem — not them.

Working together

In the counseling profession, we not only have the ability to work with youth victims and perpetrators; we can also offer support to the adults in their lives. We can speak to the importance of supporting the development of healthy, respectful and nonviolent relationships. It is critical that we take advantage of our access and give parents tips on how to navigate through these tough situations.

During the preteen and teen years, it is critical for youth to begin learning the skills needed to create and maintain healthy relationships. These skills include knowing how to manage feelings and how to communicate in a healthy way.

We can all work together to end the cycle of teen dating violence and teen sexual violence by encouraging adults to create safe and brave spaces for our youth. This involves creating spaces at home and school where youth feel safe to come to an adult to have open and honest conversations. It should be a place of trust and support, not judgment and anger.

Youth also need examples of healthy relationships. If children have been subjected to unhealthy relationships, parents should consider seeking professional help for their children to process their feelings toward what they have witnessed.

We often focus on making sure that adults involved in domestic violence situations are connected to programs and services, but we tend to forget about how children are affected by the abuse. As we encourage adults to seek counseling, we should encourage them to seek therapy for their children as well. Second-hand violence is just as impactful as firsthand violence.

Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash.com

Being willing to be uncomfortable

In working with youth, we need to get used to the idea of introducing the concept of consent and safe sex at an early age. Contrary to popular belief, this will not encourage youth to have sex. It will, however, ensure that they are properly educated and prepared when they do decide to engage in sexual activity.

We also have to start having the same conversations with boys and girls. We can’t teach our girls about consent and not our boys. We can’t see only our girls as having the potential to be victims and not our boys. All children should be provided with the same knowledge, skills and tools to combat abuse.

Finally, we must create the possibility for prevention. Sex education should include more than discussions about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Safe sex should refer not only to using condoms and contraceptives but also to discussing actual safety. Safety includes consent, mental and emotional safety, physical safety, the environment, etc. Using a condom does not make sex safe.

I had a client say that she hadn’t been raped because she didn’t scream and he used protection. We must change the narrative of what rape looks like in our society. We have to educate our youth in all things concerning sex, not just the parts that are comfortable to discuss. Then and only then can we begin to end the cycle of teen dating violence and sexual 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 leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.

****

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.

A survivor’s lens on counseling and intimate partner violence

By Leontyne Evans August 12, 2021

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.

Natalia Lebedinskaia/Shutterstock.com

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 leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.

****

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.

Using apps to promote client safety

By Marissa Gray and Victoria Kress August 12, 2020

Daily, professional counselors work with clients who live in unsafe situations involving exposure to violent and exploitative relationships. These unsafe situations might include experiencing partner violence or being the victim of child abuse or human/sex trafficking.

Especially now, during the coronavirus pandemic, partner violence and child abuse are on the rise. Clients are at a heightened risk of violence during the pandemic because of increased stress (which can exacerbate violence), isolation from support systems, and more time spent in close quarters with potentially abusive family members.

When working with clients who are being victimized, counselors have an obligation to promote these individuals’ safety. While perpetrators often use technology against clients to control and further victimize them, recent technology apps have been developed that can help counselors facilitate client safety. We will discuss several of these apps in this article.

Harnessing technology to empower clients

Many client safety concerns must be considered in counseling. First, technology is often used by perpetrators as an additional vehicle for abuse. Technology outlets provide perpetrators with opportunities to antagonize, stalk and ultimately continue abusing and exploiting their victims. Technology that can be used to perpetuate abuse includes tracking devices, location-enabled applications on cellphones, cameras, microphones, social media apps and even simplistic communication methods such as abusive text messages, emails and phone calls.

Clients are often forced to surrender their devices completely, especially if their technology use is being monitored by their abuser or if their number is in any way known by their abuser. Clients might consider changing their phone numbers and presence on social media, but this can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming.

Although taking steps to maintain digital — and, thus, physical — safety involves placing thick boundaries around technology use, it is important to realize the role that technology can also play in supporting survivors’ safety, autonomy and empowerment, all of which are crucial factors in a trauma-informed counseling approach. Counselors can work with clients to maintain their desired level of digital connection while also encouraging them to take measures to be safe. 

Overview of apps for client safety

Several apps exist that can offer crucial support and assistance to clients. These apps are free and are compatible with iOS and Android devices, meaning they are widely accessible regardless of the devices clients use. These apps can be powerful and empowering resources. They are particularly helpful for those in violent relationships and for trafficking survivors seeking to extricate themselves from unsafe relationships. They can also empower clients who have been sexually abused or assaulted, as well as those looking to enhance their safety “just in case.”

All of these apps can be easily incorporated into clinical practice. For example, counselors can support survivors in setting up and configuring these apps and talk with clients about how best to use these apps to promote their safety. For many survivors, these apps can be a small step on the long road toward rehabilitating a sense of personal safety. Thus, counselors can play a crucial role in supporting survivors as they process the tangled emotions that accompany the steps of starting to feel safe again.

In this way, the use of technology via apps is an interactive and engaging intervention that can help empower survivors. By incorporating these safety apps into counseling, clinicians can help survivors begin to feel, perhaps for the first time, that they are worthy of protection and deserve to feel safe.

myPlan

Safety plans are an important part of counseling when working with clients in unsafe relationships. Historically, counselors have developed written safety plans on paper with clients, but these can be dangerous because abusers can discover them, and this may invite violence.

One app that can be useful in developing electronic safety plans is myPlan. This app allows clients to craft safety plans and keep them stored in the cloud of their devices. Plans are saved in the app itself, which is then backed up in the cloud, making it difficult for perpetrators/abusers to access.

On this app, individual survivors respond to several brief questions (automatically generated by the app) regarding their relationship and situation. The app then produces a safety plan tailored to the specific needs of the survivor, based on the responses the person provided to the questions.

Use of this app puts a more secure and technologically advanced spin on safety planning. Keeping safety plans in the cloud allows clients to have immediate access to their plans. In addition, this app connects survivors with local resources, live chats with advocates (trained volunteer advocates working with loveisrespect.org) and even emergency medical/shelter options. The live chat option provides real-time support for survivors that can complement and enhance the safety plan.

Noonlight (formerly SafeTrek)

Noonlight allows individuals to call emergency services without having to dial 911 or make any sudden motions that could alert the abuser that the person is seeking help. In actively unsafe situations, this app can save lives. The app can be especially useful for clients who remain in harm’s way or continue to have contact with their abusers.

Noonlight allows users to simply hold the phone in their pocket, purse or another location that is not suspicious. The app comes equipped with a large safety button that, when gently touched, gives real-time notification to local emergency services to send help. The app is location enabled and holds an individual’s data to pass along to law enforcement in the event that the individual is unable to speak, text or otherwise seek help.

This app can prove especially useful for individuals who are being restrained or are unable to verbally communicate their distress. Furthermore, it helps to provide peace of mind and a sense of empowerment to clients. If an individual is at risk of ongoing abuse, this app can assist them in acquiring emergency assistance.

Aspire News

Another app helpful for clients affected by unsafe situations or ongoing abuse is Aspire News. In the event that a client’s phone is being monitored, this app appears as an ordinary news app with daily headlines, weather reports and so on. Embedded in the “Help” section of the app, however, are emergency contacts, resources, and information on shelters and other supportive services offered to those affected by abuse. The app is location enabled, meaning that it can tailor resources for wherever the client is at that particular moment.

Although this app is geared mainly toward clients affected by relationship violence, it can be equally useful when working with clients in other unsafe situations. It may be especially helpful to those being trafficked because these individuals are moved around frequently and may not be aware of local resources or shelters where they can go for assistance. Aspire News can connect these individuals with resources wherever they go, regardless of their familiarity with the area.

Many resources in the app target survivors of intimate partner violence and sex trafficking, but they also service those experiencing sexual abuse or exploitation. Aspire News connects clients with resources such as shelters, food and hygiene pantries, case management, law enforcement and even counseling. Aspire News may be a helpful app to provide to any client concerned about an abuser searching their phones or punishing them for seeking help.

bSafe

The relatively new bSafe personal safety app offers a variety of helpful tools and resources. It provides specific supports to clients who may be enduring ongoing abusive situations and wish to record or gather evidence against their abusers. The evidence can then be saved to the cloud so that it cannot be destroyed.

The bSafe app has both audio and video recording capabilities (the form used is selected by the app’s user) to capture whatever abusive act may be occurring. The app also offers the ability to livestream an abusive incident or assault as it is occurring. All of these evidentiary recordings can be saved to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost or destroyed by an abuser, even if the abuser destroys the device itself. The app also forwards the footage or recording to trusted people whom the client has previously identified and included on their emergency contact list.

For clients who choose not to report their abuse, it can still be empowering for them to know they have evidence to document the trauma they have survived. This leaves the door open for them to report their abuse in the future if they so choose. Accruing such evidence may also help clients feel heard and believed concerning their lived experiences within an abusive relationship. The evidence gathered by the bSafe app may also assist clients in obtaining protective orders against their abusers or perpetrators.

In addition, the app can automatically alert contacts to call 911. The app is location enabled, meaning that it equips trusted social supports with the individual’s location in the event that the individual is in distress and unable to call for help themselves. The app also offers an SOS button and a “fake call” service, further allowing survivors to reach out for support during an abusive situation without pinging the radar of a perpetrator who may notice or monitor cellphone usage. By simply pressing the button, individuals are able to notify emergency services to send help immediately through use of the app’s location-enabled technology.

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Safety planning is crucial when working with clients who have experienced sex trafficking. These clients may be at ongoing risk as various abusers and pimps attempt to wrangle these individuals back into a life of exploitation. As counselors, we can empower this specific population with knowledge of ways to maintain safety during the recovery process.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline has recently begun offering more advanced and accessible options for individuals to use. The hotline provides a plethora of resources and assistance to help clients keep themselves safe. One such resource is the BeFree Textline; individuals can reach out for assistance by texting “HELP” to 233733 in the event they cannot speak freely in the presence of their traffickers or johns. This text line is a powerful resource to share with clients because it offers a great deal of support.

Crisis Text Line

The Crisis Text Line (CTL) can be reached by texting 741741. Callers are then connected with a trained crisis counselor. The CTL is a valid resource for all clients but has immense value for those impacted by relationship violence, trafficking or sexual abuse.

Given that the CTL communication occurs over text, many clients may find it less threatening, or perhaps less noticeable to their perpetrator, to connect with an advocate. The CTL will then connect clients with appropriate referrals and resources that they can use to find support and maintain their personal safety.

Empowering survivors with technology

The aforementioned resources offer examples of apps and other tools that can support clients in their ongoing struggle to maintain safety. Technology can play a unique and emerging role when we work with these resilient clients as counselors. These apps and text tools demonstrate recent advancements in technology that can foster support, safety planning and healing for clients.

Use of these tools is one small way to remind clients that they are indeed worthy of protection, safety, peace and healing. As counselors, we have the privilege of walking alongside these clients in their brave and unique recovery journeys. These technological nuggets provide resources to empower clients while helping to preserve their safety, dignity and healing resilience.

 

********

Marissa Gray is a licensed professional counselor working at Youth Intensive Services in Youngstown, Ohio. She provides trauma counseling to those who have been involved in the sex trafficking industry. Contact her at mgray@youthintensiveservices.com.

Victoria Kress is a professor at Youngstown State University. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published extensively on many topics related to counselor practice, particularly regarding work with abuse and trauma survivors. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

********

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.