Domestic abuse is about psychology

The police tend to ignore everything except physical abuse, for two reasons. First, physical can be visually seen and photographed in evidence. Second, most police officers, to be police officers, have black and white thinking (legal or not); that everyone being abused will come forward and report it – their fault if they don't. No greys. No understanding of the power of coercive abuse, narcissistic control or the needs of the psychologically damaged suffering it.


I'm speaking from first-hand experience, as well as from observations about clients who have come for help. Regardless of gender, the modus operandi of both abuser and victim is seen again and again. It's as if abusers are given the same script to work through:

  • "You made me do that."
  • "It's your fault that happened."
  • "You have to pay more attention to what I want."
  • "I love you so much but I can't help you when you keep doing things wrong."
  • "(You) stop making me angry."

Whether directly stated – it usually is – or simply implied, the victim is always blamed for the abuse inflicted on them. This is no accident. This is the abuser psychology. They have issues inside themselves they refuse to deal with so externalise their issues on their victim – to offload their anger/rage/upset. It's why you can see abusers crying while they shout/scream/hit their victims. "Why do you keep doing this to me?!", shouted as they attack their victim.

Victims have a role in this, too. Nobody deserves to be a victim or asks to be a victim but victim psychology does play its part in enabling the abuse. Again, I'm speaking from first-hand experience, as a survivor. And again, the psychology and script tends to repeat:

  • "I'm sorry."
  • "I didn't mean to upset you."
  • "It wasn't my intention."
  • "I want us to work through this."
  • "I want you to be happy."

Notice the key traits with the wording. With abusers, the blame is always directed at the victim. With victims, the blame is also directed at the victim. Most victims are codependents who don't believe they are worth a better relationship and focus on looking for the positives while surviving the negatives.

In all cases I've seen (including my own), the psychological issues started early in life. In young childhood. For myself, I was about two, going on three years old – which is a surprisingly common age for such things to develop. In my case, I grew a lifescript of "Don't belong" that came from the dynamics of my family: with a newborn sibling being dangerously ill and my older sibling established as the star of the family show. Who was I? All of a sudden, I felt like a nobody.

The abuser I married had grown up neglected by busy parents, looked after by a child brother, and required to perform on stage from a young age to get even basic attention from parents – she grew up with anger and insecurity. Our foundations were made.

Although everyone's details are different, the fundamental mechanics of victim psychology lie in codependency. And, when that is our psychology, it doesn't matter how many times others tell us we deserve more or we are worth something better – until we are able to tell that to ourselves, those words do not go in. With therapy, codependents can be helped to believe in themselves – unlike abusers, they still have ears that listen.

The fundamental mechanics of abuser psychology lie in the Cluster B spectrum of narcissist, sociopath and psychopath. For them to stop projecting their anger/upset on others, they would have to accept it is they who have the issues – quite a safe bet to say that will never happen. The only things their ears are open to hearing are new ways to manipulate the cries of their victims or those able to hold them to account.

As abusers tend not to focus on details but on single elements of half-truths, which they build a tower of lies around, they can be caught out by inconsistencies. The power of their lies is the passion behind them – so passionate it goes against the nature of others to not believe they must be telling the truth. Who could possibly lie so strongly? Abusers can. Look beyond the emotions, note the details. Note the changing details and lack of supporting evidence.

Victims tend to speak less than their abusers. Often they don't have a voice – partly out of fear for how anything they say can be turned against them. Victims have no need to lie, beyond denying they are being abused – including to themselves.

After 10 years with my abuser, things getting worse and worse, as is the nature of such things, I had lost so much touch with normal me I had to Google: "Am I being abused?" Still have some prints of the pages found. The conclusion was very black and white: Yes.
Ways of getting out of it were not at all black and white and took another four years to escape with the children – at many stages made even harder by the system.

What to do if you have a client who is being abused

It could be their abusive partner has sent them to therapy, as another part of putting them down, blaming them as the one needing to change. It could be they have come for a whole host of issues but it is unlikely to be directly to ask for help with abuse. Those direct requests usually come after escaping.

So, you have a client, sharing their woes and you realise they are being abused – even though they just think there are relationship issues. What would you do? What I do is this:

First, I want to make sure they are aware. It might be by asking if they are aware or asking if they think what they are describing could be called abuse. The exact way of discussing it depends on the therapeutic relationship with the client and the client's ability to take such information on board. Not everybody is ready or willing to hear it – at least not yet. At the very least, the seed of the idea gets planted and is left to grow at its own pace.

Second, we have a duty of care to our clients. Is there a safeguarding issue? Is the client or someone in danger of harm? We usually have a pretty good idea on this front, from the things we are told. No black and whites here, a balancing act is required. If there is a danger of harm, my approach is to discuss them getting support (from family/friends, police or other agencies) and we take it from there.

They need to know we are on their side and they are not alone.

Were we to just get on the phone to officials and force help on them, not only would we be breaking their trust in us, but we could potentially be making things worse for them at home. How? Imagine the police have just turned up to question their abuser. How do you think that abuser will behave once the police have left and they are alone behind closed doors again?

Third, as people are mostly in abusive relationships because of low self-esteem, the biggest help we can give is empowerment. Find out where their low self-esteem comes from and re-parent them to love and value themselves.

Finally, no matter how much they might cry at the realisation the person they love is focused on hurting them, be there for them – as a good parent would be. Am not talking about outside the session but, during the session, never give even the slightest hint of anything but steadfast support. It could be the first time in their life someone has ever stood by them.

I'll give you an example. A young mother came to me, infant in pram, on anti-depressants and talking of suicide – which instantly rang a silent alarm bell in my head. She went on to share how she loved her partner but they just weren't getting on. He was more focused on work during the week and golf at the weekends, while she was left holding the baby, with no other family support, going nowhere fast.

While suicide ticked the safeguarding issue box, she clarified she would never actually do it, because of having her little girl. Her partner wasn't physically abusive – it was all psychological. Put downs, criticisms, blaming – pushing her low self-esteem even lower. She demonstrated great care for her child, who clearly loved her too so had no concerns on that front.

What we focused on was getting to the beginning of her need for a partner to make her feel worthy, even though he was doing the exact opposite. It led us to her childhood and male role models there – her parents separated when she was less than five, with her dad moving 100 miles away for another woman. Her grandad became her surrogate male until he died a few years later.

The female side of her family was mostly loving but her mother, now a single parent, struggled to find quality time – as any single parent will tell you. It left her feeling twice abandoned and desperate for love so she began looking for validation in others. Fast forward 10 years to her 20s and there she was – newly arrived in my room, feeling lower than low.

It took a year of re-parenting to help her regain her love for herself. Never criticised the anti-depressants though we both knew it would be better not to take them – a decision only she and her GP could take. As her sense of self was reborn, she no longer felt the need for the anti-depressants. She no longer felt the need to stay in that relationship either.

These days, she is a cheerful single parent, with a happy child and focused on fulfilling her childhood career dreams. Her ex-partner hasn't changed one bit but does contribute financially and look after their child at agreed times. When she's ready, she'll date again – healthily this time.

None of this was achieved by focusing on the abuse but on the victim's psychology. As with most issues, help with the psychology and we empower the client to help themselves. Abuse is almost always a symptom of damaged psychology, manifesting itself in tolerating an abuser. It is not a gender issue, it is an abuse issue. We know they are worth better. High time they do too.

I hope this helps deepen understanding for those unfamiliar with this topic. For further support, here are some links to relevant organisations:

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9
Written by Brad Stone, Integrative Therapist - MBACP, Dip.
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9

Brad Stone (MBACP) is a Milton-Keynes based writer and integrative therapist, in private practice.

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