“Each year, around 2.1million people suffer some form of domestic abuse” (Safe Lives 2015).

Domestic abuse of course relates to a variety of forms of abuse including physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and psychological. All will have an impact on the victim.

As a therapist, counselling survivors of domestic abuse can be tough enough, but what if the client continues to remain in that toxic relationship?

I’ve spoken to therapists who find that they can work well with a client who has chosen to leave but find it too frustrating when they return to their abuser, to the point they have referred clients elsewhere, finding it too difficult to understand.

So why don’t they just leave? The relationship is recognised as unhealthy and potentially dangerous and some clients are genuinely scared for their own safety and sometimes the safety of their children yet appear to choose to stay.

The majority of us have probably been guilty of blaming the victim for their poor choices, myself included. My experience of counselling survivors of domestic abuse with Bolton Women’s Aid however, and the opportunity I had to work with groups of survivors in facilitating the ‘Freedom Programme’* gave me a valuable insight into life within an abusive relationship and opened my eyes to the reality of the situation.

When working with a client living within an abusive relationship, it is important that the client’s reasons for staying are addressed as these can be explored in terms of their individual situation and own self-image. You will find that common factors will be issues such as, but not confined to, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, isolation, anxiety, fear, guilt, and blame.
It is worth bearing in mind that clients will have suffered prolonged and intense manipulation at the hands of their abusers and will need support in recognising this. It is this element of the relationship that leads to the above issues and prevents them from breaking away.

Clients will need to feel accepted without judgement and be supported to work through the restraints keeping them (and their children) at risk. The relationship between counsellor and client can be a useful tool in the process of building the client’s self-esteem and resources as this will be built upon mutual respect and equality, both of which will be lacking in their relationship with the abuser.

is essential that therapists recognise the level of risk the client is at and it may often be necessary to complete a risk assessment tool and refer for practical support alongside the counselling to ensure their safety. Training and resources such as the CAADA-DASH form can be found online.

Other considerations to take into account may include financial difficulties, housing issues, child care, lack of family support, health problems, child contact, and employment, to name but a few. There are many local domestic abuse services that could be of great benefit to assisting such clients with more practical issues. Don’t be afraid to make the referral if the client is in agreement and needs you to do this on their behalf.

Therapists should also be aware that those clients, women in particular, who have recently separated from an abusive partner are potentially at an increased risk as the abusive ex-partner will likely be seeking to regain control and/or revenge. “2 women are killed each week by their partner or ex-partner” (Women’s Aid 2011)

As therapists, it is usual for us to include a confidentiality statement in our contracts that permits us to report safeguarding concerns. Potentially these clients (and their children) are at risk of serious harm and possibly death. However, reporting these concerns without appropriate support could also be detrimental to the client. It is important therefore to discuss this with your client to gain a full understanding and work out a suitable way forward together.

*Freedom Programme – www.freedomprogramme.co.uk
Safe Lives (2015) – www.safelives.org.uk
Women’s Aid (2011) – www.womensaid.org.uk

By Tracy McCadden