Tag Archives: domestic violence

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.

Keeping victims safe: Crisis response planning with perpetrators of IPV

By Thomas DiBlasi and Kelly Smith July 20, 2020

One way that counselors can help victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) is to create behavioral crisis response plans with clients who are perpetrating the abuse. We (the authors of this article) have both worked in various roles with IPV programs, from direct service and administrative roles to research and advocacy. We believe that working with perpetrators of IPV is an essential component of reducing domestic violence.

As such, we are familiar with the research for treating perpetrators of IPV and find the results are often weak. Most clients report an increased desire to change on self-report measures but frequently lack follow-through (for more, see the 2008 article “Motivational interviewing as a pregroup intervention for partner-violent men” by Peter Musser and colleagues in the journal Violence and Victims). We can do more as counselors by providing these clients with behavioral support as they work to change. We must give the clients real, behavioral techniques that they can use in the moment. In this article, we share behavioral techniques that counselors can pass on to their clients to bring about real behavior change.

Crisis response planning (also known as safety planning) refers to creating an actionable plan when faced with a maladaptive response to a situation. Crisis response planning is often used with clients experiencing suicidal urges (as Barbara Stanley and Gregory Brown shared in their 2012 article, “Safety planning intervention: A brief intervention to mitigate suicide risk,” published in Cognitive and Behavioral Practice). In the context of IPV, safety planning has historically been associated with helping victims prepare for and engage in behaviors that will keep them most safe when faced with threats from a partner (for example, see Christine Murray and colleagues’ 2015 article, “Domestic violence service providers’ perceptions of safety planning: A focus group study,” in the Journal of Family Violence). We are advocating for the use of a crisis response plan, similar to that of Stanley and Brown’s, with clients who perpetrate IPV.

Crisis response planning is effective for mitigating acting on harmful urges; in this case, it is to manage urges to engage in abusive acts. To be clear, the objective of the crisis response plan is crisis management. It is not a tool that will reduce the occurrence of the urges to engage in abusive acts, but instead one that targets managing urges.

When the client perpetrating the abuse has an urge to engage in aggression, they will use the skills from the crisis response plan (which they co-create with their counselor) to refrain from acting on the abuse. Utilizing the crisis response plan allows clients to decrease their emotional arousal and to train themselves to engage in an alternative behavior when they have an urge to aggress.

This is no small feat given that these clients may have an ingrained history of acting on their urge. For every second that they are engaging in a coping skill from their crisis response plan, they are not aggressing. If a client goes from immediately acting on the urge to delaying the urge for 10 minutes, then therapy would shift from a focus on riding the urge to problem-solving and cognitive restructuring.

A crisis response plan for perpetrators of IPV

The adapted crisis response plan by Stanley and Brown asks questions to help clients identify warning signs, coping strategies, people they can call, emergency contacts, how to make the environment safe, and the most important reason to not engage in abusive acts. It is recommended that clients repeatedly review the crisis response plan and carry it with them at all times. The following is a review of each section of the crisis response plan.

Identify warning signs. When asking clients who perpetrate abusive acts to identify warning signs that lead to abusive behavior, it is best to focus on cross-contextual experiences. For example, helping clients identify that they are more likely to engage in abusive behaviors when the dishes are not done is good, but what is more helpful is identifying their anger (which is likely an underlying emotion). Anger has been consistently identified as a proximal factor in IPV but is not consistently addressed in treatment for IPV. Identifying the anger as a warning sign will transcend more contexts and ultimately make the crisis response plan more helpful. Warning signs could include physiological arousal, emotions, and thoughts such as demandingness or personalization.

Activate internal coping strategies. Internal coping strategies keep the clients from engaging in abusive behavior against their partners. These strategies may not reduce their anger or the experience of their urges, but the goal of the strategies is to not act on the urge. As long as they are not choosing abusive behavior toward their partner, they are being skillful. Using distraction (e.g., watching TV, going for a walk, listening to music), practicing progressive muscle relaxation, or listening to a funny show, skit or video (humor is a useful intervention in reducing anger) can all be helpful.

A skill that many clients like is changing one’s temperature. It involves holding one’s breath underwater for 30 seconds to activate the mammalian dive reflex, at which point the temperature causes the client’s heart rate to decrease, also lowering their anger levels. If they are not able to hold their breath underwater for 30 seconds (e.g., by using a sink), they can splash cold water on their face or use ice cubes. Clients may be more likely to use this coping strategy if they practice it in session. If they are wearing a Fitbit or something similar, they can instantly see the effects. This skill is commonly used as a crisis management skill in dialectical behavior therapy.

The most important thing is finding and listing the skills that work for your client.

Activate external coping strategies. It is important to help clients build self-efficacy by using their internal coping skills first. However, if they are not able to manage the urge or think they may still engage in aggression, then it is best for them to call someone. Calling a friend or a family member can serve as a distraction. The client does not necessarily need to tell the person about their urge to engage in abusive behavior. If your client can identify a friend who loves to talk about themselves, now is the time for them to call that friend. Talking to someone on the phone decreases the likelihood that the client will act on their urge. If that is not effective, they can call someone they trust (e.g., a close friend or family member, a spiritual guide) to speak to about the situation. If they are still fighting the urge to aggress, they can contact a crisis resource (see the resources provided at the end of this article).

Plan ahead. In addition to intervening, the crisis response plan also works as a preventive measure by focusing on what the client can do to make the environment safe. This could mean removing threatening objects (e.g., knives) or speaking through a locked door. For instance, if the client or their partner know they are about to have a difficult conversation concerning finances, they could agree to have the conversation standing on opposite sides of a physically locked door in the home so they are separated from each other, or they could agree to have another person present. Many clients who perpetrate IPV will not engage in abuse behaviors toward their partner in front of another person.

Lastly, the crisis response plan asks the client to name the most important reason for them to change. It is best to frame the reason in a positive direction (“I want a strong, healthy relationship with my wife and kids”) rather than the absence of something (“I don’t want to get divorced”). This reason reminds the client what they are working toward, so it is best to bring up this reason frequently in treatment.

Practice. The crisis response plan works best when it is rehearsed outside of the triggering context. Similar to basketball players rehearsing their form in practice so that they can shoot the ball in the game (and under pressure), a client needs to rehearse these behaviors prior to using them in the moment.

Behavior change is hard, particularly for clients who engage in abusive behaviors toward their partners. Trying to come up with alternative behaviors while angry is unlikely, particularly given that anger is associated with tunnel vision. Practicing these skills ahead of time allows the client to expand their behavioral repertoire in the heat of the moment.

Additionally, behavior change is challenging given that clients’ abusive behaviors have been positively reinforced in the short term. Clients who engage in IPV often get what they want after committing the abusive act (e.g., punishing their partner). Counselors working with clients who perpetrate abuse know that abusive behaviors are learned behaviors. The crisis response plan assists in clients learning new, more positive behaviors between sessions.

Working with perpetrators is an essential part of reducing instances of IPV and increasing victim safety. Crisis response plans provide an effective tool for counselors to use in their work with these clients.

 

Additional resources

 

****

Thomas DiBlasi is an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College where he teaches undergraduate students and researches domestic violence, anger, aggression and revenge. He has given presentations locally, nationally and internationally and has published predominantly on anger and aggression. He is a member of the leadership committee for the special interest group of Forensic and Externalizing Behaviors. Contact him at tdiblasi@sjcny.edu.

Kelly Smith is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor who began her work with sexual assault and domestic violence (SA/DV) agencies in 2006. She is also a certified partner abuse intervention professional. Beginning in 2015, she facilitated partner abuse intervention program groups and, most recently, served as director of abuse intervention services for a comprehensive SA/DV organization in Illinois. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Springfield College with a research agenda that includes addressing issues related to perpetrators of IPV. Contact her at ksmith27@springfieldcollege.edu.

****

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.

How to help domestic violence clients during shelter-in-place situations

By Federico Carmona April 13, 2020

It’s heartbreaking to read the variety of articles circulating about vulnerable people trapped at home with their abusers because of shelter-in-place mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, experience reminds us of a concerning reality that is typical of these uncertain times: Adverse labor market conditions are positively related to domestic violence. Research conducted after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the Great Recession of 2008 found that economic crises have significant negative effects on the quality of intimate relationships and parenting in working families. Marital conflict, abuse (particularly violent controlling behavior), and a decline in parenting quality are among the harmful effects in families of a macroeconomic downturn.

In my role as a trauma therapist, I have seen dozens of domestic violence clients during clinical intakes and in counseling. I have also read a multitude of articles on the subject about studies and reports from different parts of the world. Shelter-in-place mandates aren’t a good thing for women and children who are the targets of abuse. The anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty of these times can cause negative emotions to churn, leading to behaviors that increase the already-concerning number of domestic violence and child abuse cases. There is no “how-to” manual to deal with the current situation, of course, but the safety of this vulnerable population demands us to do our best.

How can the counseling community help domestic violence clients who are trapped at home with their abusers? I offer a few suggestions:

Reach out between appointments/sessions. One of the critical signs of abuse is the isolation of victims of domestic violence from their networks of love and support. An occasional check-in from us can empower these clients to tell us more about their situations and perhaps even dissuade their abusers from further violence as we keep checking in.

Listen, just listen. People experiencing domestic violence need an empathic ear — someone who will allow them to vent their repressed emotions and feelings without judgment. We are not to offer advice, only listen and empathize. It’s just time to build trust.

Validate clients’ feelings, emotions and beliefs even when they don’t make sense. The best way to build trust with clients experiencing domestic violence is by being present with them. We’re present with them through our vicarious empathy, active listening and compassionate validation. Our empathy is vicarious because it takes an emotional toll to connect with someone’s anguish and suffering. Active listening requires us to be disciplined enough to fully concentrate on what the client is saying rather than on the answer that we might have in mind to their situation. Clients experiencing domestic violence require validation — compassionate validation — because many times, their decisions (or lack of them), circumstances and beliefs don’t make sense to us.

Introduce them to mindfulness exercises. Clients experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they’re worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of and control the incipient abuse. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear.

Mindfulness can help these clients become aware of their emotions, thoughts and bodies to take control of them and find much-needed relaxation. Meditation exercises shouldn’t necessarily be long. There are plenty of sites online with short, simple exercises, from breathing to stretching, that can help clients gain the bodily and emotional awareness they need to function.

Remind clients of their strengths and qualities. One of the benefits of practicing active listening is the ability to notice in clients’ stories what they have forgotten about themselves: their own power, qualities and strengths. By doing this, we help clients not only to survive their circumstances but also to move toward a better future as survivors of domestic violence who deserve lives of meaning and purpose.

Help clients to start a project. Because of shelter-in-place mandates, more perpetrators of abuse are at home all of the time. This increases the emotional state of “walking on eggshells” for domestic violence clients. We can help distract these clients from that state by brainstorming with them or suggesting a project to them. It could be an individual project based on their abilities, strengths and qualities that we noticed in their stories, or it could be a project that involves their children.

Assist clients in making a safety plan. Making a safety plan is incredibly useful. It doesn’t need to be complicated or lengthy. The simplest way of doing this is by helping these clients become aware of their circumstances (call the problem what it is — domestic violence). The rest of the plan might involve:

  • Trying to avoid conflicts and arguments during the mandated confinement
  • Involving their children in most of their home activities
  • Reaching out to relatives and trusted friends (when possible)
  • Being prepared to leave at any moment (i.e., having money, documents, car keys, children’s backpacks filled with some clothes and snacks ready to go)
  • Calling 911 when they feel that they or their children are in danger (even in a shelter-in-place situation, law enforcement will issue an emergency protective order to separate victims from their abusers)

Involve others. We can help our clients experiencing domestic violence to think about the resources they possess to deal with their situation. One of these resources could be men who are part of the couple’s life in some way (e.g., clergy, friends, relatives, co-workers, classmates, teachers, bosses).

When families and friends get involved, perpetrators of abuse can sometimes be dissuaded from causing harm to their partners and children. The presence of fathers, brothers, neighbors and friends prompts accountability. Some of these individuals might be willing to offer their support and speak up against the ongoing abuse. Victims of domestic violence can only break their silence and become survivors if they feel supported. We need to be cautious, however, and see each client in their particular context, giving consideration to whether this type of intervention could put them in more danger than they already are.

Help clients build a network of support. Isolation is one of the most critical signs of abuse. It creates a hated dependency on the abuser. Imposed isolation robs victims of domestic violence of their personhood. It suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece as family members and friends are pushed away. Connections are the simplest way to beat domestic violence. It is critical that victims of domestic violence get reconnected with relationships they trust. It is also crucial to get these clients connected with other survivors of domestic violence (via online groups) so they can claim their victory and begin the journey of healing from the trauma caused by the abuse.

Inspire clients to pursue self-sufficiency. Studies show that when women’s wages are relative to those of men in dual-income couples, there is a significant reduction in domestic violence. To be self-sufficient is to have bargaining power. It’s to have the ability to exert influence in the relationship. There are public resources designated to help survivors of domestic violence pursue further training and education with the purpose of becoming self-sufficient. Check with social services agencies about these resources.

These recommendations aren’t intended to override the urgency of calling 911 when someone is facing a clear and present danger at home. Let law enforcement personnel figure out how they will bring individuals and families to safety during shelter-in-place situations. Emergency protective orders are being issued even with the courts closed.

 

****

Federico Carmona is a trauma therapist for victims of domestic and sexual violence at Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles. He is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The experience of domestic abuse in his ministry and his own family motivated him to seek specialization in clinical counseling, specifically in trauma, to assist survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and violence to reclaim their identity, peace, and lives with dignity and purpose. Contact him at federico@peaceoverviolence.org.

 

****

For more information

 

****
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 intimate partner violence with clients

By Bethany Bray June 24, 2019

Licensed mental health counselor Ryan G. Carlson had just earned his master’s degree when he began working on a grant-funded project to provide relationship education to couples in the Orlando, Florida, area. Overseeing the intake process as local couples came into the university-based research center to participate, he quickly learned two things: Domestic violence “is very prevalent — much more prevalent than I realized — and it’s complicated,” says Carlson, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina. “Every case was a little bit different than the next.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines across the country receive more than 20,000 phone calls.

Approximately 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 16% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Carlson’s experience led him to study domestic violence while earning his doctorate, and it remains a career focus for him as he conducts research, does interdisciplinary work and conducts trainings for mental health professionals. “We assume when there’s violence in a couple’s relationship, they will tell us [in counseling]. What I’ve learned is if we don’t ask the right questions, they won’t tell us, and you shouldn’t ask those questions if you’re not ready for their disclosure,” he says. “It’s really complicated and emotionally charged. … A victim’s safety should be at the center of every decision we make as counselors.”

Handle with care

Counselors who notice patterns of maladaptive behavior, self-esteem issues or what appears to be poor decision-making by clients may automatically want to roll up their sleeves and dive into goal-setting and other go-to techniques to foster change and growth. However, engaging in change-focused work when a client is experiencing IPV may be harmful, warns Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit agency in Texas that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also offers an intervention program for offenders.

The tried-and-true counseling method of talking through clients’ life scenarios, behaviors and choices while asking questions such as “What could you have done differently?” or “What would you want to change if this happens again?” can be hurtful because a counselor may inadvertently be placing the responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of on the abuser, Cameron says. She cautions that counselors must choose their language carefully to avoid making the client feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse they have endured.

“Victims of domestic violence do many things to survive or to try to protect themselves within the relationship,” says Cameron, an American Counseling Association member. “However, the partner carrying out the abuse is solely responsible for the violence.” Ultimately, the client can’t control — and should never be made to feel that they shoulder the blame for — what their partner does, she emphasizes.

Carlson, who is also a member of ACA, agrees. He notes that it isn’t helpful for professional clinical counselors to identify client behaviors that could be changed or avoided when clients may have adopted those patterns as a means of self-protection.

“It’s important to be careful about how we phrase things with [these] clients,” says Carlson, director of the Consortium for Family Strengthening Research and coordinator of the Center for Community Counseling at the University of South Carolina. “Avoid anything that has to do with ‘what could you have done differently?’ questions, anything that would allude to how [the client] contributed to their current situation. … It’s a delicate balance, but it’s really important to avoid language that [even inadvertently suggests] a victim is somehow at fault for being in that relationship.”

“It doesn’t matter what they change about themselves because that is not going to change the other person,” says Margaret Bassett, an LPC and deputy director at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin. Counselor practitioners must consider the entire context of a client’s behavior to fully understand why they’re making those decisions, she says. Decisions that victims of abuse make — often for reasons of safety — can appear maladaptive from outside the context of the abusive relationship.

Bassett recalls a client who talked about agreeing to meet her estranged husband at a public library. Without understanding the full context of the situation — that if she didn’t meet with him, he had a history of escalating — a counselor might assume that the client was complicit in maintaining the abusive relationship rather than appreciate her layered safety planning, Bassett says.

“It was a brilliant move. It was safe to meet there because he couldn’t escalate without drawing attention,” Bassett explains. “Not meeting him just was not possible. This was meeting on her terms versus his terms. … This ties into [a counselor] listening and really hearing what the person is saying and not judging it out of context. Really being able to say, ‘That is a brilliant idea that you had.’ It’s not a good or a bad choice. Instead say, ‘When I hear that, I hear the safety it creates.’”

Victims of abuse often adopt patterns and behaviors that are the best choices they can make in a bad situation, Bassett notes. Professional clinical counselors should listen carefully to understand the full context of clients’ lives and then validate the choices they are making to safely navigate abusive and potentially violent situations. “Respect that they’re making a decision and really understand their safety concerns so your intervention is helpful and doable,” Bassett says.

Power and control

IPV happens between partners of all cultures and backgrounds — couples who are married and unmarried, heterosexual and homosexual, wealthy and poor, religious and nonreligious, white, Asian, Hispanic, African American and every other race. In addition, IPV often intersects with sexual assault; homelessness or disruptions in housing, schoolwork or employment; financial trouble; parenting issues; and myriad other challenges that spill over into the mental health issues that commonly bring clients to counseling.

Although the terms domestic violence and intimate partner violence both include the word “violence,” the abuse doesn’t always have a physical component, or the violent behavior is combined with emotional, nonphysical manipulation. What defines a behavior or relationship as abusive is a common thread of power and control. In its simplest definition, domestic violence is an intentional pattern of behaviors used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over another person, Cameron explains.

“It’s important to recognize that abuse is not an anger management issue,” she says. “People who are truly experiencing an anger management issue will go off on their boss, their cousin, the random guy at 7-Eleven. Abuse is carefully targeted at one person.”

Controlling behaviors are one of the biggest red flags counselors should be listening for to determine if a client might be involved in an abusive relationship, either as a perpetrator or a victim. Examples include checking or monitoring a partner’s cell phone, email or social media, or insisting that a partner text when they arrive at and leave from work every day. Other cues for which Cameron stays alert include:

  • Clients who clam up in session or appear to be afraid of their partner
  • Clients who are isolated from friends and family
  • Clients who feel they can’t go to work, school or social engagements because it upsets their partner
  • If one partner is the sole decision-maker or in complete control of the couple’s finances
  • If one of the partners continually feels guilty for their behavior
  • A partner who exhibits extreme jealousy
  • Clients who mention “walking on eggshells” around their partners
  • Clients who are having thoughts of suicide or threatening to harm themselves or their abuser
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to use drugs or alcohol or to not use contraception (or who lies about their own use of contraceptives)
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to have sex or to perform sexual acts that the person is uncomfortable with
  • Clients who talk about a partner belittling or embarrassing them in front of other people

Control tactics often go hand in hand with perpetrators minimizing or placing blame for their behavior, Cameron adds. Perpetrators of abuse may tell a victim that they wouldn’t have to act this way if the person came home from work on time, paid the bills on time, didn’t talk back, etc. Or, Cameron says, they may tell a partner, “It could have been a lot worse. I only shoved you. I didn’t punch you.”

In counseling, perpetrators may make statements such as, “I didn’t hurt her. I just punched the wall.” The behavior implies, however, that the perpetrator could have hurt the person, Cameron points out.

“Someone who is abusive will try and deflect attention away from the abuse,” Bassett says. “They will try and name what is happening. Maybe they push or strangle or pull their partner’s hair. But they will say, ‘I am not abusive because I never hit you. Have I ever hit you?’ or [point out that] there was no bruise. There’s a lot of crazy-making behavior that goes on. They’ll deny it ever happened or focus on something else. Abuse is a pattern of behavior, and the abuser will rationalize those patterns as something else. Pay attention to that as a therapist and help them to name the behavior [for what it is].”

If a client mentions that they fight a lot with their partner or that the partner has a temper or a “short fuse,” counselors can prompt the client to explain the fights, Cameron says. For example, “Tell me what these fights look like. Are there times [when] it feels unsafe?” Victims may use phrases such as “sometimes he is rough with me” or he “put hands on me,” not fully recognizing the behavior as abuse, she notes.

Carlson also recommends that counselors use carefully worded questions to follow up on statements made by clients to further explore the nature of their relationship experience. For example, ask clients how they handle conflict with an intimate partner and then use leading questions to learn more: When there is a disagreement, is it safe to talk about the disagreement? Is there any type of pushing, shoving, hitting, use of objects, physical violence, threatening language or name calling? Is jealousy a motivating factor? Does one partner place blame on the other, making statements such as, “You made me do this”? Is the partner violent or hostile outside of the relationship?

“Ask questions that determine if there is regret or remorse [after conflict] or if they recognize that there are other ways of handling conflict,” Carlson says.

In sessions with individual clients, Carlson recommends that counselors preface some of their most direct questions — such as “Are you afraid of your partner?” — with dialogue that prepares the client. “Say, ‘I have some questions for you about how you handle conflict in your relationship. They’re going to be very direct, and I wanted to give you a heads up, but it will help me better understand what you’re going through.’ Really tap into your basic counseling skills, the relationship-building skills that we learn early on, and emphasize those when such important questions are being asked,” Carlson says.

At the same time, Bassett adds, clinical counselors shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions of a client when appropriate. “Ask not just, ‘Has your partner physically assaulted you?’ but ‘Are you afraid of your partner?’ and be willing to explore that. Explore the emotional piece of abuse.”

Counselors can also supplement their own questions by using a formal questionnaire — Carlson recommends Brian Jory’s Intimate Justice Scale — or including questions on intake forms. Keep in mind, however, that clients may answer “no” to questions that later turn out to be a “yes” when explored in therapy.

Perpetrators of domestic violence often use manipulation to gain and maintain control over a person and keep them in the relationship, Cameron says. When alone with a partner, perpetrators sometimes threaten suicide if the partner ever were to leave them, or they make statements inferring that the partner would be worse off on their own: “If you leave, you won’t get any money”; “You will lose the kids”; “No one will ever love you. I’m the only one who will put up with you.”

“One of the biggest power tools is fear — abusers wield fear,” Cameron says. “They use fear to control their partner. In addition, abusers will often apologize for the abuse and say, ‘It will not happen again,’ without being accountable. Then they continue using control tactics.”

This can be complicated further if the couple’s friends and family take sides or if the victim comes from a culture or faith community that emphasizes submission to a partner, views marriage as an unbreakable bond, or values reconciliation over safety, Cameron adds.

Manipulation by a perpetrator can also extend to sexual assault, which often overlaps with domestic violence, Bassett says. “It’s also common for an abusive person to force or pressure sex [with an intimate partner]. They will define the experience as nonabusive and lay the groundwork for the survivor to agree to sex so that they aren’t forced,” she says. “The abuser is [then] able to say that they agreed to sex, making them complicit in what is actually a sexual assault. The abuser defines the experience, and the survivor needs the space and safety to name their experience [in counseling].”

Hard questions, empathetic listening

Most of all, clients who are currently in or have been in an abusive relationship in the past need a safe space to feel heard and validated and to be connected to resources to address their safety, Cameron says. It’s no surprise that building a therapeutic bond is especially important with these clients.

“Communicate that you believe them,” Cameron urges. “The most restorative thing [for the client to hear is] ‘it’s not your fault, and it’s not OK that they are doing this to you.’”

“It’s incredibly important to be nonjudgmental,” agrees Carlson. “There are so many practitioners who have a personal connection to this topic, it can be an emotive experience. The time of disclosure is a very important moment for the victim and can be filled with a lot of embarrassment and shame. When they are deciding how much to disclose, it’s often based on how they feel it will be received. … It’s important to manage your emotions in that moment because it’s such an important moment.”

“You may leave the room and feel, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an emergency. I have to get this person out.’” Carlson continues. “But remember that this is their daily reality. They’ve been living with this [abuse] for a while. It feels like an emergency to you, but to act on that may put the victim in danger. It’s important that the victim drives the steps of what happens next.”

Bassett agrees: “Be very aware that your goal [as a counselor] is not that they should leave the relationship. That needs to be a goal they make themselves. They have to own it, because any decision they make will potentially have ramifications for them.”

Cameron notes that taking decisions out of the hands of clients is one of the worst mistakes counselors can make when working with victims of IPV. “They’ve already had someone control their life, and we don’t want to step into that role,” she says. “The victim has the best knowledge about what they need.”

It’s vital for practitioners to explore a client’s experience with genuine care, says Paulina Flasch, an ACA member and an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University. “Really show concern and empathy and don’t sound like you’re interrogating them,” says Flasch, who runs a family violence research team at Texas State and worked at a domestic violence agency before and during her master’s program. “Focus on the counselor-client relationship, and ask [hard questions] because you really care. Share that what you’re hearing sounds abusive and that it must have been really hard [to go through]. … If you’re hearing that a past relationship was abusive, it’s important to call it that and identify its aftereffects. It can help validate their current experience and help them understand why they’re struggling. Help them look at patterns and how things tie together. … It’s a very powerful moment when the client connects the dots.”

“This is a person whose boundaries have been violated and who has not had safety and security — and we [counselors] have to be careful with that,” Flasch continues. “We have to let them know there will be a different response and they won’t be demeaned. If they went through that, they’re strong. Recognize that.”

All of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend using psychoeducation techniques and the Power and Control Wheel system (available at theduluthmodel.org) to talk through what a healthy relationship looks like (and does not look like) with clients who have experienced IPV. Bassett also stresses that work with IPV clients must be trauma-informed.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), expressive therapies, bibliotherapy or cinematherapy, grounding techniques and decision-making exercises can also help IPV clients, Flasch notes, as can attending support groups for IPV survivors in addition to counseling.

Victims of domestic violence often grapple with intense feelings of guilt or shame, sometimes made worse by harmful stereotypes and society’s general misunderstanding of the complexity of abuse. Victims can hear messages such as “Why didn’t you just leave him?” or “Why didn’t you get out sooner?” in both direct and indirect ways in popular culture, from family and friends, or in offhand remarks by acquaintances.

The reality is that it’s not that simple, Flasch notes. Victims of domestic violence are in the most danger when they are ending a relationship with their abuser (see sidebar, below). In addition, domestic violence often creeps into a relationship slowly over time in ways that are unrecognizable to the victim.

The relationship “hasn’t always been dangerous,” says Flasch, who has a private practice in Austin, Texas, and specializes in working with couples and individuals who have experienced trauma. “There have been a lot of pieces that have kept them in the relationship. If they had known this was going to happen, they would have never been in the relationship. Intimate partner violence is the breaking down of a human. They completely lose their sense of self and begin to believe everything the abuser has said about them. It happens smally and slowly.”

Pointing out this trajectory to the client emphasizes that it wasn’t their fault and helps them learn what to look for in future relationships, Flasch adds. “Normalize it with the client. This [IPV] is very common and very similar in the ways it comes to happen,” she says. “It’s a systematic breakdown of a person that happens in very small steps that no one would recognize unless you know what you’re looking for. Helping them understand what and how it happened can help take away some of that fault and blame. Then work on empowerment. Victims have had to ask their abuser for everything. It’s our job to get their voice back.”

Planting seeds

In addition to providing a safe space to be heard and empowered, counseling can be a place for victims of IPV to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. This is especially true for clients whose histories include past trauma (in addition to IPV) or who haven’t been exposed to healthy relationships in their life, Flasch notes.

“The counselor may be that first one, that first good relationship and having a feeling of being in a room with someone who cares,” she says. “Model that through your interaction with clients. Psychoeducation is a big part of working with [IPV] victims and survivors.”

Flasch suggests using the Power and Control Wheel while discussing what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship: What aspects are present? What does respect look like? How do arguments start and end? What does equality look like?

Making a list of the elements in a healthy relationship can also help, Flasch says. “It’s not tangible [to clients] sometimes. There’s so much self-blame and lack of trust of themselves and their own instincts. They often don’t trust themselves to make decisions or recognize if something [in a relationship] is dangerous.”

It can also be helpful for counselors to talk through boundary issues with IPV survivors, including what is and isn’t their responsibility in a relationship, Bassett adds.

“With someone who is abusive, that person will not accept responsibility [for abusive behavior]. The person who is being abused typically will accept full responsibility,” she says. “They may claim, ‘Oh, he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s so sweet, but when he drinks, or goes off his medication [he turns dangerous].’ That’s just not true: The good parts and the loving parts are part of the [control] strategy. Be very clear about that. … Help them not to buy into it, overtly or covertly.”

Couples counseling and safety

A relationship in which IPV is present has, at its core, an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance makes couples counseling an unsafe environment for the person experiencing the abuse, Carlson stresses. If a counselor is working with a couple exhibiting signs of IPV, he or she should take steps to terminate couples counseling as soon as possible while ensuring the victim’s safety, Carlson says.

“If power and control exist in the couple’s dynamic, it’s generally not safe to be in a setting [i.e., couples counseling] where they’re both on equal ground being asked to practice healthy behaviors and make changes,” he explains. “That can’t happen when there’s inequality.”

Cameron agrees. “Each session is posing a safety risk for the victim. In couples counseling, we’re asking both parties to be accountable for solving problems in the relationship, and part of the control tactics [of IPV] is making the victim feel that it’s their fault.” Perpetrators of abuse may retaliate against their partners after counseling sessions in reaction to what was said or disclosed, she says.

On the flip side, abuse victims may say only what they need to say to keep from “making waves” with their abusers during counseling sessions. In addition, “an abuser may be very charming and manipulate the counselor,” Cameron says. Counselors who don’t recognize the manipulation or other possible indicators of IPV can end up unintentionally colluding with the abuser, she points out.

Both Cameron and Carlson recommend that counselors — whether they work with couples or individuals — seek training on IPV to stay informed on best practices and forge connections with local domestic violence agencies. It is important to establish these working relationships ahead of time so that counselors can readily consult with specialists when they identify signs of IPV with a client (or a couple) on their caseload, Carlson says. “Consultation [with an IPV specialist] helps to create a methodical, well-thought-out plan for that point forward,” says Carlson, noting that any consultation must be done within ethical guidelines and without sharing any identifying details about the individuals involved.

Once a counselor has identified that IPV is present in a relationship, the steps to terminate couples counseling must be handled delicately. Counselors should never let the abuser know that they suspect abuse is taking place, Cameron emphasizes. At the same time, a fine balance must be maintained to ensure that a victim doesn’t lose contact with the counselor and is connected to resources before couples counseling is terminated.

“Never confront abuse head-on with both parties in the room. That will put the survivor at risk,” Cameron says. “Get creative for ways to get the survivor alone. … Come up with a reason to separate them and then check in with the survivor. Ask them if they feel safe at home. Just straight up asking if they are being abused — they are not going to recognize it that way. Often, the abuser has worked really hard to convince the victim that there is no abuse.”

Cameron has known counselors who separate the couple by asking one of the partners to fill out paperwork in the waiting room. Practitioners can also try to speak over the phone outside of session to clients who are suspected targets of abuse, as long as they ensure the client is alone for the call, Cameron adds.

Carlson notes that it’s not uncommon in couples counseling for a practitioner to meet with one of the clients individually to work on an issue. Counselors can fall back on that as an excuse to separate a couple when it is suspected that IPV is present, he says.

“When [you] first meet with a couple, separate them to fill out an intake questionnaire and speak with them individually. That way, you set a precedent of talking separately,” Carlson says. “Then, you can say later, ‘We are going to meet individually to follow up on some of the things we talked about’ [at intake]. There is precedence, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

Flasch agrees and suggests that couples counselors do full individual sessions with both partners after the first two or three sessions, regardless of whether IPV is suspected. In these sessions, counselors should always assess for IPV. She suggests asking questions such as “How do you and your partner show respect for each other?” and “Tell me about your arguments: How do they start and end, and who initiates?”

A counselor’s next step should be to connect the victim with local support services. This must also be handled carefully, Cameron says. For instance, a client could put a domestic violence hotline number in their phone under another name, or the counselor could give the information verbally to the client to remember and look up later. Cameron also recommends that counselors leave pamphlets and other information about domestic violence resources in the lobbies and restrooms of their offices for all clients to see and have access to.

If appropriate, Cameron recommends that counselors also connect perpetrators with a local batterer or offender program.

“It’s important to work in collaboration with your local [domestic violence] agency,” Cameron says. “For us to address abuse in our communities, there needs to be community accountability for abusers, and that can’t just come from domestic violence agencies. It needs to come from all aspects of the community. You’re not going to end domestic violence just by dealing with the aftermath.”

Once clients are given information about IPV resources, it’s up to them to seek help when they are ready and feel safe doing so, Carlson adds. It’s not a counselor’s role to ensure the client has followed up with those resources.

“Sometimes nothing happens,” Carlson acknowledges. “You present resources and opportunities and they know they have options, and that’s the biggest step they want to take at this point in time.”

Relationships post-IPV

Dating and forming new relationships can play a part in the healing process for survivors and help them learn more about themselves, their boundaries and their limits, says Flasch, who co-authored the article “Considering and Navigating New Relationships During Recovery From Intimate Partner Violence” in the April issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development. Counselors should be aware that the risk exists for survivors of IPV to find themselves in another abusive relationship. However, forging new healthy relationships — with a counselor as a support and ally — can be a helpful step in the right direction, she notes.

“Survivors have to work through these issues for a lifetime, so waiting for the ‘right time’ to date post-healing may never come,” Flasch says. “A counselor can be a great support for a survivor. We know that most people continue to date. To say that you should be healed completely before you go out, it’s not realistic. And healthy relationships can be incredibly healing. Having a person who is safe and loving and accepting is a huge benefit. We [counselors] shouldn’t necessarily discourage dating but help them navigate the process. Educate them about red flags and warning signs, and celebrate the successes of milestones reached through dating. Also [process] triggers and things that get in the way.”

“Having experiences with other people and then processing it in counseling can be very powerful and helpful to healing,” she continues. “We can be great allies and celebrate with clients when they try something new.”

For the journal article, Flash and her co-authors studied the experiences of IPV survivors who went on to try new relationships, ranging from casual dating to marriage. Through these relationships, participants reported learning to trust themselves and their instincts and “reclaim parts of themselves lost during the IPV relationships,” Flash wrote with her co-authors, David Boote and Edward H. Robinson.

Dating post-IPV “can be a process for survivors to try and find corrective experiences and explore trust, make decisions that are theirs and be their own person, [and] learn about control and boundaries,” Flasch says. “But this is also a very scary process and one that has a lot of layers to it, so it can bring challenges. It can be hard to learn to trust when it’s been taken away from you in the past.”

 

****

 

IPV: Need-to-know points for counselors

One of the most misunderstood aspects of intimate partner violence (IPV) is how complicated and dangerous leaving an abusive partner can be, says Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at a Texas nonprofit that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The power imbalance of abusive relationships often means that one partner has severely restricted the other’s access to finances, friends and family members, and community resources. Separating from an abuser often means starting life over, which is why there is an intersection of IPV and homelessness, she says. These factors are only exacerbated when children are involved or when the victim experiences other forms of systemic oppression such as racism, homophobia or classism.

“They are often trapped between violence and homelessness,” Cameron says. “The abuser has often messed up their credit and finances or totally controlled them, so they’re starting from scratch. The most dangerous time for a victim is during separation and when they are separated [because] the abuser is losing the power they have worked to gain and maintain.”

According to Cameron, IPV victims are at the highest risk of lethality under the following circumstances:

  • When the couple has separated or is in the process of separating
  • If sexual abuse or sexual coercion is present in the relationship
  • If an abuser makes threats of homicide or suicide
  • When a restraining order is filed
  • If the victim is pregnant
  • If strangulation is occurring
  • If violent behavior is occurring outside of the home (which indicates the abuser has escalated to the point where he or she does not care if other people see the behavior, Cameron says)
  • If there is involvement with child protective services
  • If the abuser has access to weapons
  • If the abuser exhibits stalking behaviors
  • If law enforcement is involved

Counselors should also keep in mind that even when victims leave an abusive relationship, they may still come in contact with their abusers — and be put at risk for retraumatization — through legal proceedings, child custody hearings or stalking behavior, adds Paulina Flasch, an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University.

“Just because someone is no longer in an IPV relationship doesn’t mean they’re no longer in it. Remember that and equip them with tools [to cope],” Flasch says.

 

****

 

Important resources

 

Margaret Bassett recommends the following books for practitioners:

  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men by Lundy Bancroft
  • Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know by Sherry Hamby
  • Coercive Control: How Men Entrap women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence) by Evan Stark
  • Safety Planning with Battered Women: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies, Eleanor J. Lyon and Diane Monti-Catania
  • The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
  • Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies and Eleanor J. Lyon

 

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

****

Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.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.

The wise support system in domestic violence rescue efforts

By David L. Prucha April 9, 2018

A lot has been written about domestic violence, the cycles that keep people in violent relationships and how to get out of them. The commentary focuses on the role of substance abuse, the role of personality disorders and a cycle of conflict that ends with the exchange of a “never again” promise. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Although I believe these are relevant factors in violent relationships, a dynamic often emerges between the victim and her concerned loved ones, and this dynamic might play a role in keeping the violent relationship intact. It is of course sensible to think about the relationship between the abuser and the victim, but what else can we learn by looking at the relationship between the victim and her potential safety net?

If you are a family member looking from the outside in on a violent relationship, things look pretty black and white. The abuser is a bad guy. In fact, it’s probably better to use the word “evil.” He is taking advantage of someone smaller than him, he’s probably done this in previous relationships, and his promise to change can’t be trusted. He is one-dimensional: bad. The hottest place in hell is reserved for men of his ilk.

For those on the outside looking in, this is terrifying. Their loved one is in danger, she is captive, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she seems ambivalent about her chains. This leads family and friends to express their hatred for the abuser, but in their desperation, they might also express their frustration with the victim: “You’re smarter than this. I can’t believe you got yourself into this.” For those in the victim’s support system, a life might be hanging in the balance, so this seems no time to mince words.

If you are on the inside of the relationship looking outward, however, the picture can appear very different. Although the victim can certainly recognize her partner’s shortcomings, she cannot quite see what her support system sees. She doesn’t see a one-dimensional evil man.

Instead, she sees someone who is conflicted, someone who hates himself, someone who can’t get a grip on his emotions. Because she knows the “inner him,” she struggles to reconcile the blunt feedback from her family with the person she loves. The two pictures just don’t add up.

Could her partner really be as manipulative and cold as they say? Surely not. His regret and anguish are sincere. She has witnessed him cry out of self-hatred, and evil men don’t do that. He is broken but not bad. He wants to change, and she can’t imagine leaving because she doesn’t want to be like everyone else who has left him in the past.

 

A disciplined rescue

Before people are open to receiving help, they have to trust that the complexity of their problem is well-understood. When families characterize their loved one’s abuser as pure evil, a demonic caricature with cloven hoof, it delegitimizes their feedback, because for the victim, this evil cartoon character is nowhere to be found. In fact, the blunt feedback often has the opposite effect — it reinforces for the victim that the goodness of her partner isn’t being taken into account. This hardens her conviction that she is alone in understanding the situation, and this has the unintended consequence of further isolating her.

Given that explanation, what can be done? One way to intervene is to help the victim understand that there is a difference between evil people and destructive people, but both types of people can do the same amount of damage. In making this distinction, it validates that her partner is not a one-dimensional monster without dismissing the fact that a destructive reality still exists that needs to be addressed. This approach doesn’t isolate the victim from her support system. It also helps her understand why her situation feels so gut-wrenching: She has to leave someone who is partly good.

But partly good is not good enough. When we offer the truth that people are never entirely good or entirely evil, we offer an alternative worldview that enables victims to refine their partner-selection process in the future.

No longer should they reassure themselves if a destructive person shows goodness, because displays of goodness are no longer sufficient criteria for choosing a partner. Instead, the criteria become more nuanced. Despite the display of goodness, is this person also destructive? Victims learn that the presence of goodness and vulnerability are not the only variables to consider.

A second way to help is to teach victims that empathy is a morally neutral disposition: It can lead to both health and destruction. After all, the best predators use empathy to scan for the psychological vulnerabilities of other people. This maximizes predators’ ability to exploit.

In the cases of victims of domestic violence, their empathy is doing them harm. They are spending too much time thinking about how leaving the relationship would impact their partner and not enough time thinking about how they are themselves being harmed. Their high capacity for empathy has led them to walk around in the mind of their abuser for far too long, thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. The victim is not in her situation because she is foolish but because she has not learned how to manage her empathic impulses. Learning how to power down her empathy is vital, and she can do this by learning how to reprioritize her own needs.

Reprioritizing her needs can lead to feelings of guilt, and this comes from a sense that she is being selfish. The victim is in the habit of giving 100 apples to her partner without taking one for herself, so now taking 50 apples feels incredibly wrong. However, with the right help, she can learn that meeting her own needs is not selfish but is instead necessary to be truly generous.

In fact, when we compulsively engage with something that damages our well-being, it is not generosity — it is addiction. The person with alcoholism no longer enjoys the drink, and the person addicted to empathy no longer enjoys giving. Instead, they both feel bound to their habits. It’s not that virtue motivates the victim to give away the 100 apples; it’s that she doesn’t know how to give less than 100 apples away.

When victims learn that empathy has become a force for harm in their lives and that true generosity can’t flow forth from inner compulsion, the sense of virtue that they previously associated with staying in the relationship is tarnished. It isn’t that the abuser is without a gradient of goodness; it’s that he is still profoundly dangerous. It’s not that she is motivated by virtue; it’s that her empathy has kept her from seeing that her needs for safety and love should be more important to her than his need to avoid anxiety or sadness.

The hope is that thinking about how support systems can unintentionally create defensiveness and isolation in victims of domestic violence will lead to better rescue strategies. Although it feels repugnant for support systems to acknowledge the goodness in the victimizer, in some cases this might allow the victim to see more clearly the destructiveness of her partner. If members of the support system are able to stop themselves from accusing the perpetrator of simply being evil, this might lead the victim to feel powerfully understood. Perhaps the intimacy of feeling understood will increase the victim’s trust in the bridge away from her relationship and into the arms of those who love her.

 

****

 

David L. Prucha is an adjunct professor of psychology at Johnson and Wales University in Denver, Colorado. He is also a licensed professional counselor who maintains an independent practice that specializes in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders. Email him at contact@pruchacounseling.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.