Understanding domestic violence

Domestic violence is such an epidemic that at one point or another it is inevitable that as counsellors we will come into contact with a survivor. Therefore we need to be prepared and have the understanding of the dynamics at play and the complexity of all that is involved in domestic violence. Lack of knowledge can limit us in terms of recognising and correctly interpreting behaviours associated with domestic violence. We have the potential to revictimise a client if we are not educated enough, interfere with any recovery made or support the healing, the latter being what we aspire to do. Societal misconceptions must be challenged as these falsely influence our understanding. Examples can be: domestic violence is a rare occurrence, a private matter or the woman is somehow responsible for her abuse.

In the arena of domestic violence, victim blaming is applied with a vengeance against survivors who stay with a primary aggressor beyond the first obviously violent or controlling episode. This disregards the right of anyone to be in a relationship of his or her choosing without abuse. Staying where there has been abuse does not constitute consent or permission for the abuse. Submission is not the same as consent.

It is important that we challenge our own beliefs about this subject and open our eyes to the truth, leaving behind what we have been conditioned to believe by societal misconceptions.

It is also important to stress that domestic violence can happen to any gender, any person of any sexual orientation, people of all backgrounds, class, occupation...we are all humans, we all have needs and we all have vulnerabilities or start out young and naive, we all can be manipulated and abused. It is never the victim's fault.

Survivors either escape through eventually leaving or being left. In the case of being left by the abuser, the following cycle takes place.

  • Love bombarding or idolisation
  • Devalue
  • Discard

What happens in these situations is that love bombarding sets the stage, it is basically grooming which is the process of manipulating and manoeuvring the victim into a position to create trust and vulnerability whereby this then allows the abuser to break down boundaries and defences. It makes the victim feel adored and amazing and special to the abuser, the intensity can be experienced as a feeling of being in love and that a special bond is had. In fact abusers make their victims ‘fall in love’ because this is a greatest human bond that can be had, it makes manipulating for later abuse easier and for boundaries to be softened.

This takes us to the next stage which is devaluing the victim, here is where abuse and exploitation take place, the abuser gets what they intended on getting and use the victim for their own interest. Here abuse will take place in any form: emotional, sexual, physical, financial or combination of these.

Finally, the abuser will discard the victim, this can mean they either leave and move on to next target or they move on to next target and the victim has to deal with having been betrayed, cheated and abused. This situation is traumatic; the only advantage is that the victim is freed from their abuser.

When the abuser doesn’t leave, the cycle of abuse framework developed by Lenore E. Walker (1979) is a guide to try to understand and explain the dynamics. This cycle consists of:

  • The honeymoon stage
  • Tension building stage
  • Explosive stage
  • Reconciliation stage

In the honeymoon stage, this feels like any loving and healthy relationship. The abuser is love bombarding and showing this through ‘loving’ behaviour such as showing kindness, compassion, devotion, consideration, support and persuades the victim that their bond is one of love, whilst the aim of abuser is to desensitise the victim. No abuse takes place, if this cycle has already been repeated the victim feels that the abuse never happened, is a one-off and things will get better.

In the tension building stage ‘minor’ events such as yelling, criticising, blaming occur, hostility and anger are felt and the victim is literally walking on egg shells, not knowing when the trigger will be pulled, when the bomb will explode. The victim tries to be complacent to avoid being hurt or setting off the abuser.

The explosive stage is when abuse of any kind takes place; the abuser may rape the victim through coercion (emotional duress, blackmail, manipulation, using drink and drugs to paralyse victim) or physical force. The abuser may use physical violence, they may become emotionally abusive and tear the victim down through words and emotional violence, and they may use more than one type to abuse. This is when the abuse takes place.

The reconciliation stage is when the abuser profoundly apologises, usually not because they are genuinely sorry for their actions and hurt caused but because they don’t want to be exposed, suffer the consequences and get caught. They promise it will never happen again, they cry, plead and beg for forgiveness. The victim is in shock making them vulnerable to accept the apology and want to deny and minimise the abuse themselves. The abuser may even blame them for the abuse.

The cycle then begins, the honeymoon stage gets less with continued abuse, the abuser no longer needs to hide behind the mask, the more they gain power and control the less they have to pretend to be who they are not.

Types of abuse


Emotional abuse

  • Jealous and possessive (accuse you of sleeping with others...)
  • Criticism and insults
  • Isolation (from friends and family – to gain control and power)
  • Humiliation, mockery, subtle jokes, embarrassing
  • What to wear, how to do your hair, speak...
  • Blaming the victim for things going wrong and their own abuse
  • Instilling further fear (smashing objects)
  • Threatening to leave or commit suicide if partner leaves
  • Threatening or intimidating to gain compliance
  • Checking up, stalking, looking at emails or phone
  • Yelling and screaming
  • Making victim feel trapped and no way out
  • Threatening to end relationship
  • Telling the victim that they are worthless on their own, without the abuser
  • Psychological abuse

Since abusers know their targets intimately they don't always have to resort to physical force, they often use the victim's secrets and vulnerabilities to control their targets. They don’t need to use force, very often emotional blackmail and other forms of manipulation are enough to get compliance and submission and to work on blame and guilt therefore creating the confusion.

Emotional blackmail is used and achieved through FOG, which stands for fear, obligation and guilt. (coined by Psychologist Susan Forward).

Forward and Frazier identify four blackmail types; 1) The punisher's threat = Do this or I will harm you (or others), 2) Self-punisher's threat = Leave me and I will kill myself. 3) Sufferers threat = After everything I have done for you and the sacrifices I have made for you. 4) Tantilisers threat = Sleep with me and I will not leave you. Hence give you ‘love’.

Other means of psychological abusive tactics used by abusers include the following:

  • Gas lighting – distortion of the victim's sense of reality and perception making them doubt own reality and judgement – crazy making.
  • Reactive abuse – provoking a reaction from a victim to then claim the victim is the abusive one. Pushing the victim to the edge to get a reaction.
  • Manipulation – A favourite manipulation tactic is for the abuser to make the victim fear the worst, such as abandonment, infidelity, or rejection. Then they refute it and ask the victim for something they normally would reply with “no.” This is a control tactic to get the victim to agree to do something they wouldn’t.
  • Guilt trip - People often feel obliged to comply with guilt trip demands as a way of receiving others' approval. Keeps victim feeling bad, in a submissive position. Creating a guilt trip in another person may be considered to be psychological manipulation in the form of punishment for a perceived transgression
  • Covert and overt threats - abusers feel very threatened when their sense of entitlement is challenged in any way. Their reaction to victim setting boundaries or having a differing opinion from theirs is to threaten the victim into submission.
  • Projection – the act of placing unacceptable feelings or unacceptable wants or desires onto another person. The goal of projection is to shift responsibility and blame from ourselves onto someone else. An example is an abuser will accuse the victim of being unfaithful when in reality it is themselves that are engaging in infidelity.
  • Hoovering – abusers tend to “hoover” their victims back in with sweet promises, fake remorse and empty words of how they are going to change, only to abuse their victims even more horrifically. In the abuser’s sick mind, this boundary testing serves as a punishment for standing up to the abuse.


Financial abuse

  • withholding economic resources such as money or credit cards
  • stealing from or defrauding a partner of money or assets
  • exploiting the intimate partner’s resources for personal gain
  • withholding physical resources such as food, clothes, necessary medications, or shelter from a partner
  • preventing the spouse or intimate partner from working or choosing an occupation


Spiritual abuse

  • using the spouse’s or intimate partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate them
  • preventing the partner from practicing their religious or spiritual beliefs
    ridiculing the other person’s religious or spiritual beliefs
  • forcing the children to be reared in a faith that the partner has not agreed to


Sexual abuse

  • sexual assault: forcing someone to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity
  • sexual harassment: ridiculing another person to try to limit their sexuality or reproductive choices
  • sexual exploitation (such as forcing someone to look at pornography, or forcing someone to participate in pornographic film-making)
  • Excessive jealousy, accusing partner of having affairs, holding their sexual past or history against them
  • Denying protection to get victim pregnant, agreeing to use a condom and then taking it off without consent, putting a hole in the condom, saying on the pill when not. Forcing a family when the other partner is not ready, purposely passing on an STD

Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. The abuser will use the relationship to generate guilt and generate a sense of obligation. This stems from their belief, that they are entitled to sex.

Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply; I’ll leave you if you don’t!

The partner won’t necessarily rape his partner in the literal sense of using physical force although some do.

Coercive sex

With coercive sex the abuser manipulates the person being abused to the point where they believe they initiated or concurred with the abusive acts)

When people think about forced sex, they picture physical assault so when it is forced through pressure, manipulation or sleep deprivation, the victim doesn’t know what to call it and may blame themselves and unable to label it keeps them trapped and suffering a trauma that cannot be named yet feels as real as it is.

Your partner should not use force or threats to make you have sex. They should not make you perform sexual acts with which you are uncomfortable. They should not criticise your performance. If they do any of the above, they are using sex to assert their authority and control you. They are in control of your sex life and body not you. Nobody should be having control over these things but you. This is sex on demand not consent, if you are afraid to say no because of repercussions then this is not consent. A fabricated yes, a yes under emotional duress or when no ignored is not a yes or consent, submission isn't consent this is sexual assault.

Victims of sex abuse can be coerced, tricked, pressured and bullied into having sex in many ways, all of which are demeaning and unpleasant.

Coercion can be categorised into four types:

  • Social coercion (obligation and duty of wife – religion)
  • Interpersonal coercion – having sex on demand in the face of threats – infidelity, leave them...can be devastating and traumatic even if no physical force used.
  • Threatened physical coercion – the victim will get hurt if they don't cooperate or killed even.
  • Physical coercion – striking the victim to get them to comply.

“Exploitive, rough, coercive sex is similar to physical violence in its effects, and can be worse in many ways” (Lundy Bancroft)

We and victims in order to understand how anyone can perpetrate the unimaginable, try and make excuses for abuse these can include things such as:

  • Bad childhood
  • Stress
  • Drugs or alcohol (Abusiveness and addiction are separate problems requiring their own solutions)
  • Provocation
  • Previous relationship they were mistreated and as result like this
  • It’s because of how strongly they feel towards me
  • Loses control/anger issue

Note: Abuse is never justified!!!!!! It is never the victims fault!!!!!!

We need to remember that an abusers emotional problems do not cause their abusiveness, many who have had a good childhood still abuse, the problem lies within socialisation. Men’s violence against women is not a separate incident. Feelings do not cause abuse, beliefs, controlling behaviours, values and habits are the driving forces. Reasons for the abuse are just excuses to shift accountability and responsibility away. Abusers like to generate confusion on the abuse itself, they do all to confuse victims so they comply, stay, tolerate and the abuse becomes ‘normal’. If you have never experienced it before or all you have experienced you may not know better.

So this takes us to the question all victims are asked: Why didn’t you leave? So why don’t they leave? Let’s look at this. There are many reasons why a victim would not leave; these are only some of the numerous reasons to explore.

  • Fear
  • Threats/murder
  • Financial instability (many become homeless and in the streets women face more exploitation and abuse with trafficking and prostitution and again murder). Financial abuse may also have contributed to financial difficulties
  • Nowhere to go. Abusers isolate victims to have greater power and control over them. That means taking them away from contact with family and friends, rendering the victim isolated and cut off from these relationships
  • No support when victim does disclose perpetrator uses smear campaign and seduces others)
  • No justice from law, courts and the police
  • Genuine love (wants behaviour to stop), the victim is not sick to love an abuser, it is sick to abuse someone and tell them you love them.
  • Low self-esteem - often destroyed by abuse
  • Traumatic bonding

Research and statistics state that on average two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a partner or ex partner. Half of all female domestic murders occur at the point of leaving a relationship or afterwards and more than 70% of victims to experience post-separation harassment.

The question, therefore, isn’t why don’t they leave? But why do we allow abuse to continue and how can we fight to stop this and how can we support victims? We can see that may things are at stake for the victim when they try to leave and that includes the possibility of losing their lives.

As counsellors we can help in the following ways:

  • We can teach our client, the abusers tactics and manoeuvres. This will keep them from being a victim of mental abuse.
  • Teach elements of the Freedom Programme by Pat Craven. The dominator = the sexual controller, king of the castle, the liar, the jailer, the bully, the head worker, the persuader, the bad father.
  • Show them the power and control wheel – aka the Duluth model.
  • Myth couple counselling – this can be dangerous as an abuser will blame the victim and the victim may blame self for the abuse and take accountability or they will not feel safe to talk. The problem is not with the relationship but with the abuser being abusive and so an individual problem.
  • Person-centred modality – UPR eliminates shame, empathy fuels understanding and trust, congruence builds rapport.
  • Work on shame, the difference between this and guilt.
  • CBT – rebuild self-worth and self-esteem.
  • Rights and boundaries.
  • Assertiveness techniques.
  • Autonomy – give client back control.
  • Grounding techniques, relaxation for panic attacks and dissociation.
  • Strategies for future confrontations, know the limitations of the abused and have an escape plan in place.
  • Frame the clients copying behaviours as means of survival.
  • Respond with belief and validation.
  • Frame questions in a none judgemental way (no whys).
  • Let them know that the way they survived was their way of resisting what was happening to them and saying no, even if it did nothing to stop the person behaving abusive.
  • Check discussions feel safe and not overwhelming (pace of client).
  • Do not force information.
  • Understand how cultural perspectives may influence the therapeutic relationship.
  • Understand trust issues are to be worked around not personal.
  • Don’t ask what is wrong but what happened?
  • See client as more than their symptoms.
  • Reinforce client isn’t bad, what happened to them was bad and that they are more than what happened to them.
  • Accessing the potential danger to a victim by the abuser and to self.

It is also important that we ask the right questions which can be hard with such a sensitive subject, yet having the knowledge of how to ask questions about domestic violence may make the subject more approachable. E.g. No closed questions: are you being abused? Rather ask specific questions, are you being hit, slapped, hurt in anyway? Are you being forced to have sex against your will? This leaves no room for misinterpretation. Other statements that can be used are: “sometimes when I see injuries like yours, the person has been hurt by someone close. Is this happening to you?”

In conclusion, abused individuals are not weak, submissive victims. It takes huge strength to live with an abusive partner. Victims of abuse have to be strong and resourceful, adopting all kinds of coping strategies to survive each day. They are not self destructive or masochists, they do not deserve it or for staying, abuse is wrong and it is never the victims fault.

Survivors need us, our love, understanding and support. They need us to listen to them and to fight with them to end this epidemic.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Antonella Zottola MBACP, Dip. Counselling, CBT Cert, Psychotherapy Cert, PGCE

Antonella Zottola is a qualified integrative MBCAP counsellor. Antonella's private practise is held in Sale and is called Rising Phoenix. Antonella also has a PGCE and teaches counselling; in addition she will be giving a presentation held by the BACP on Domestic Violence and holding workshops to raise awareness.… Read more

Written by Antonella Zottola MBACP, Dip. Counselling, CBT Cert, Psychotherapy Cert, PGCE

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