Counseling for Domestic Violence Survivors

Domestic violence survivors are at a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or stress-related mental health conditions. Survivors can have upsetting memories or flashbacks, fear or a sense of danger that they cannot overcome. They may feel numb or disconnected from the rest of the world (National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health). Learning to cope with residual emotional pain and fears is essential to healing.

Breaking the isolation of domestic violence by seeking counseling and support from friends and family can help survivors to move forward. Counseling sessions provide a safe and confidential environment for survivors to express their feelings, thoughts and fears. Counselors are nonjudgmental third-party advisors who listen and can help survivors work through the things that they are experiencing.

Speaking with a trauma specialist can help survivors to deal with their remaining anxiety and find ways to relieve that stress. These specialists can help to process traumatic memories or experiences so that it is possible to move on. They can also aid survivors in learning to regulate their strong emotions like fear and anger.

Group counseling can also be beneficial. Attending a group session can allow survivors to connect with others who have been through similar situations. Connecting with these people can reduce the feeling of isolation often created by abusers. Other survivors can also offer advice on how they got through tough situations.

Overcoming a traumatic experience can be scary. It’s important that if you do decide to seek counseling, that you find a well-trained professional or group that you are comfortable with. Often domestic violence programs offer individual counseling to survivors in their communities. If that’s not a possibility, ask potential counselors about their experiences and strategies for supporting victims of domestic violence.

Please note: if you are still in an abusive relationship, please keep in mind that we don’t recommend attending couple’s counseling with your abuser. Here's why?


Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, negatively impacts individuals, families, and communities. Injuries sustained by a partner are the most common reason American women under the age of 50 seek emergency care (at age 50 domestic violence is no less common, but other ailments that come with advanced age surpass it in frequency). Domestic violence (DV) can range from the apparently mild – such as a single incident of pushing or slapping – to the very severe, such as repeated beatings leading to injury and, more often than many could believe, homicide. Even apparently mild cases of DV can become severe quickly, and in most cases DV does not get better without outside intervention and some very direct action by the recipient of the violence, such as police intervention or leaving the relationship.

The key points we address at WADT counseling sessions address the core points below:

Relationships and Domestic Violence
Relationship Cycles and Domestic Violence
How to Stay Safe When Leaving a Domestic Violence Relationship
Counseling for Couples and Domestic Violence
Therapy for Survivors of Domestic Violence
Medical Concerns with Domestic Violence
Couple in Therapy for "Blow Ups" - Case Example
Husband Feels like "Jekyll and Hyde" - Case Example

Relationships and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence appears to be most commonly committed by men against women, but all genders are possible of being domestic violence perpetrators, and in some relationships the violence goes both ways. Certainly, in general, men are bigger, stronger, and more likely to display aggression than women (though there are plenty of exceptions) and women are at greater risk statistically, by far, of being seriously injured by domestic violence.

Domestic violence usually does not occur suddenly or in an isolated context without warning signs. Most often, it occurs in the context of a controlling, emotionally abusive relationship between a person with an aggressive personality and one who is more passive. Often, such relationships are codependent. Other forms of abuse are already present, such as controlling finances, isolating the victim, making threats, and verbal abuse.

Relationship Cycles and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence usually has some predictable cycles, often described as:

Tension – Arguments and threats in the relationship escalate.
Act of violence – Usually violence becomes more more severe over time.
Honeymoon – During the honeymoon phase the couple reunites, experiences intense “closeness,” idealizes the emotions felt in the relationship, and promises never to fight again. Often the perpetrator of the violence apologizes profusely, or blames the recipient, who often accepts the blame, especially early in the relationship.

How to Stay Safe When Leaving a Domestic Violence Relationship

Domestic violence is most likely to be most serious, and even fatal, when the recipient of the violence attempts to leave the relationship. This is one reason people often stay in violent relationships. It is essential to get help from a DV agency or experienced therapist, who can provide safety plans and other measures to protect all parties from harm.


Counseling for Couples and Domestic Violence


It is important to know that couples’ counseling is generally not appropriate when violence is present in a relationship, in particular chronic or severe violence, and certainly when the violent partner does not fully understand the unacceptable nature of their behavior. The safety of the therapy session encourages open communication, but such communication can be dangerous in a violent relationship and subject the recipient to more violence. Also, couples’ work is based on the agreement of shared respect for another and shared responsibility for the relationship outcome and process. When violence is present, one person has more power than the other, and is taking less responsibility for his or her actions. Until the violent partner gets help to stop their abusive behavior, and until the recipient is able to discover why he or she tolerates such abuse, couples work is likely to harm more than it helps.


Therapy for Survivors of Domestic Violence

Therapy can be a powerful tool to facilitate healing in survivors of domestic violence. Children who were victims of domestic abuse carry scars of their trauma into adulthood, often seeing the negative consequences of the trauma manifest through lost jobs, troubled relationships and unhealthy behaviors. By addressing, rather than avoiding, the trauma of domestic violence through therapy, survivors can free themselves of fear, resentment and guilt. Therapy allows a survivor to identify their role in the trauma and let go of self-blame. By acknowledging they were a victim, not a perpetrator; clients are able to see themselves in a new light, often seeing their own value and self-worth for the very first time. Survivors of domestic violence struggle with self-esteem, abandonment, fear and post-traumatic stress that can impact every area of their lives. Therapy allows these clients to gain a healthy perspective on the trauma, thus decreasing the negative symptoms associated with it.

Medical Concerns with Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence perpetrators may be diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder, antisocial personality, or narcissistic personality. They are also more likely than the general population to abuse drugs or alcohol, and may have underlying depression. Many were abused or neglected as children.

Domestic Violence recipients often meet criteria for dependent personality, and are often depressed and/or anxious. Many were abused or neglected as children and may have post traumatic stress disorder, due both to childhood abuse and to more recent incidents of DV. Domestic violence can lead to a host of physical and mental health problems. Dependent upon the extent of injury from the abuse, medication, long-term care, and surgery may be necessary. Physically, continued abuse can affect well-being and ability to accomplish seemingly easy and daily tasks. Mentally and emotionally, abuse situations must be treated with caution and care from medical professionals. Anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication may be needed for a period of time during and/or after abuse.


Husband Feels like "Jekyll and Hyde" - Case Example 1


Dr Jekyll and Mr (or Ms) Hyde.  You hear that a lot when victims talk about abusive partners.  Me included.  That they have ‘two sides’.  The wonderful Dr Jekyll to the darker Mr Hyde, if you like.    My ex did.

When we first met he love-bombed me with full-on attention.  Declared his undying love for me.  He promised marriage, babies and a long, happy life together.  All within the first few weeks.   It must have been what my insecurities wanted to hear. It sucked me in.

I thought I’d found what I’d been looking for.  Someone to love me, care for me and grow old with me.  I trusted him.  I let go and allowed myself to be vulnerable with him.  Then I met Mr Hyde.

It was a brief glimpse at first and it shocked me.  But it was brief enough for me to think: did I imagine him?  And brief enough for me to minimise the unacceptable behaviour I’d just witnessed.  Especially when Dr Jekyll offered profuse apologies for him.  And bought me flowers.

It’s a sort of emotional bait and switch.  The romantic, wonderful person hooks and reels you in.  Then bam, there’s a sudden switch to this moody, darker side.   But no sooner do you get a glimpse of that, it switches back and it’s all wine and roses once more.

I didn’t fall in love with a violent man.  I fell in love with a man who later became violent towards me.   There’s a difference.  It’s an important distinction to understand.

From then on it becomes a cycle of seeing one, then the other.   To and fro. But you never know which one you’ll get on any given hour or day. It throws you off balance.  You walk on eggshells, never knowing what will lead to Mr Hyde coming out.  All you know is you never want to see that side again.

So, you try everything you can not to provoke an appearance.   But no matter what you do Hyde will return.  And you’ll be blamed for any abuse he (or she) dishes out.

Your self-confidence is stripped away.  Especially as you start to see more and more of your partner’s darker side.  The gorgeous person you fell in love with becomes harder and harder to find.   You know they’re there.  But in your mind they’re just hidden deep within this imposter Hyde.

Here’s the thing.  This is why we stay with abusive partners.   We are desperate to get the wonderful Dr Jekyll back.  The side we saw when we first met.   We spend all our energy in a futile search for it.  The ‘nice side’.  The person we fell in love with.  We do everything we can to appease Hyde to let Dr Jekyll give us some special time.   It becomes like an addiction, a craving for that initial high again.

The truth is:  there aren’t two sides to abusive men (or women).   They are one and the same person.   Understanding this was key to my recovery.

I was convinced my ex had ‘two sides’.  The man I fell in love with and the damaged man that revealed himself later.   The latter was the moody and abusive side.   The one he himself needed rescuing from.  The man I fell in love with wasn’t to blame for the abuse I suffered, that darker side wasn’t the ‘real him’.  I thought: if I just loved him more.  If only I could prove to him I was worthy of him, then that would be all he needed to nourish the good side and banish his bad side forever.

But if I’d seen him as I see him now, things might have been different. The darker, damaged soul wasn’t a ‘side’ to him.  It was him.  The loving, romantic side was more a mask he’d learnt to wear to hide that fact.

Abusive people are masters of disguise.  They know exactly what to say to reel you back in, especially after they’ve hurt you.  How to convince you they have two sides.  And can even express their own shock or anger over Mr Hyde’s abhorrent behaviour.  ‘That’s not me’ they might say.  Or they might blame a troubled past. Cry in horror: ‘I don’t want to become like my (parent) and repeat what they did to me as a child’.  Anything but take responsibility for Hyde’s actions.

I’ll say it again.  There aren’t two sides to them.  They are one and the same.  They are responsible for both.

I always say: ‘Watch not what they say but what they do’.  The good ‘side’ is brilliant at saying everything you want to hear.  At pouring out love. Particularly after an abusive episode.

But forget about this ‘side’ or that ‘side’ of them.  Watch what they do.  As I’ve said in an earlier post, love is a verb not a noun.   The real person shows you who they are, no matter what they say.   That is what matters the most.

Ask yourself:

  • Do they treat me with respect?
  • Do they speak in that way to others about me?
  • Do they love me by caring about me and my wellbeing?
  • Are they proud of me, even in moments when I have success and they don’t?
  • Are they nice to me?
  • Polite to me?
  • Good to me?

When I realised the answers to these questions were all no for me, I knew I couldn’t stay.  I could have spent my life justifying the ‘bad side’ of him.  Forever hoping for that ‘good side’ to return and stay for good.

I finally understood they were one and the same.  Both sides were him all along.   If I loved him unconditionally that meant I had no right to change him.  I had to accept him as he was, both good and bad.

I finally saw him for who he was.  He was Mr Hyde, at times wearing a Dr Jekyll mask.   He was responsible for his abusive behaviour.  Just as I was for my own actions.   We all are.   But if he chose to avoid that responsibility, then our relationship was no longer a good enough for me.   I drew on every ounce of strength I had and found the courage to leave.

Written by Vivian McGrath

Source: Vivian McGrath is a TV Executive Producer who makes documentaries for major US, UK and Australian broadcasters.  She is also a survivor of domestic violence.  Her book ‘Unbeatable (How I Left a Violent Man)’ – her story of surviving abuse to finding success in love and life – will be published soon.  She hopes this will help others to become strong, fearless and successful too.  Find out more about Vivian Here.



Recommended reading:

Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited - by Sam Vaknin
Breakaway - by Nadia Sahari
PUSH- Sheryl Brown (Available at WADT Library