Domestic abuse

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Julie Crawford
Last updated 23rd May 2022 | Next update due 22nd May 2025

Domestic abuse (also known as domestic violence) can involve physical, emotional, mental, financial and/or sexual abuse. Usually, it happens with someone you are close to, either within a romantic relationship or family setting. Abuse can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or social background.

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According to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), the police in England and Wales receive over 100 domestic abuse calls every hour. But, because domestic violence tends to happen behind closed doors, it’s hard to know exactly how many people are living in a domestically violent environment.

Here we’ll take a deeper look into the subject of domestic abuse, including how to recognise the signs, deciding to leave, and moving on. Whether you’re reading this because you believe you may be in an abusive relationship or you’re worried about someone else - know that support is available.

In this video counsellor Sam Cotterill talks about domestic abuse and how working with a therapist can support you. 

What is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid define this type of abuse as “an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.”

There can be many forms of abuse used within a domestically violent relationship, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse and financial abuse.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when the perpetrator uses physical violence to hurt you. This may include hitting, kicking, pulling hair, controlling medication and/or destroying personal property. This is the type of abuse most commonly associated with domestic violence, likely because it can be the easiest to notice. 

Emotional abuse

This is when someone consistently uses manipulative techniques to make you feel a certain way and ultimately control you. This could involve someone putting you down, calling you names, blaming you for the abuse, controlling what you do and who you see and/or intimidating you. Over time this wears down a person’s sense of self, making it difficult to know how/when to reach out for support.

He made me do things that I never wanted to do. He got inside my mind and pre-empted the script he wanted me to act out.

- Read Holly’s story.

Mental abuse

Also known as psychological abuse, mental abuse is when the perpetrator seeks to distort your sense of reality. This may include gaslighting, making you think you've said/done things when you haven't, and gradually eroding your sense of self-trust.  

Sexual abuse

This is any form of sexual activity that happens without your full or informed consent. This includes rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation. In some cases this can involve someone withholding their partner’s contraception or forcing them into sexual practices they find degrading.

Financial abuse

This is when someone controls your money, including the way you acquire it, manage it and use it. Someone might spend or take your money without consent, stop you from working to earn money, build up debts in your name and/or damage your possessions or property.

The common thread running through all of these is the element of control and power that’s held by the abuser. Often an abuser will use these tactics to control you and keep you within the relationship.

One of the most important things for you to do is to recognise that what you’re experiencing is abuse and that you deserve help. 

Therapists who can help with domestic abuse

Recognising signs of abuse

Educating yourself on the different ways abuse can manifest is an important first step in changing your situation. You don’t have to live like this. Abuse can take many different forms and every situation is unique, however, there are some common signs of abuse you may well recognise:

  • verbal abuse and criticism (shouting, name-calling, threatening, mocking)
  • guilt/pressuring tactics (threatening self-harm or suicide, taking away your phone/laptop, threatening to call the authorities on you, lying to friends and family about you)
  • putting you down (disrespecting you in front of others, not listening or responding to you when you talk)
  • isolation (monitoring or blocking your connection with others, stopping you from leaving the house, telling you where you can and cannot go)
  • lying to you (breaking promises, having affairs, often blaming you)
  • threats (physically or verbally threatening you)
  • sexual violence (using force, threatening you to perform sexual acts, forcing you to have sex with other people)
  • physical violence (hitting, kicking, pushing, restraining you)
  • denial (making you think you’re imagining the abuse, saying they can’t control their anger, appearing charming/calm in front of others, begging for forgiveness)

Domestic abuse against men

Statistically, it is more common for women to be affected by domestic violence, but it’s important to note that men can be victims too. We don’t truly know how many men are affected as, with any form of abuse, it can be difficult to talk about.

The situation is awful for both women and men, however, men may face the additional stigma of not wanting to appear as a ‘victim’ or even worrying that no one will believe them. Whatever your gender identity, it’s important to know that abuse is never OK and is never your fault.

Everyone’s experience is so unique, but I would encourage all boys and men to talk more. A lot of males think they have to “man up”, but I have a saying: man up means shut up; shut up means bottle up; bottle up means put up (or put ’em up); and then eventually you f*ck up. Don’t man up – speak up.

- Read Phil’s story.

Barriers to leaving an abusive relationship

When talking about domestic violence, a question can often hang in the air: Why don’t they leave the relationship? This seemingly innocent question implies that deciding to leave an abusive relationship is easy when nothing could be further from the truth. This question also leans towards victim-blaming, when the victim, rather than the abuser, is blamed for the situation they’re in.

Here we look at some of the barriers that can hold people back from leaving relationships to acknowledge that it is not easy but also discuss how it can be done.

Shame or denial of abuse

Your abuser may be well-liked in the community and make you feel like you cause the abuse. This can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment. Your abuser may even minimise or deny that the abuse is happening, making you feel like you’re making a fuss over nothing.

Fear of further violence

Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous. You might be worried that your abuser will become more violent towards you and even that your life is at risk.

Fear of being alone

Abusers often isolate their victims, cutting off contact between them and friends and family. You might worry that you have no one to turn to when you decide to leave or that you’ve become too reliant on your abuser.

Low confidence

Abusers are experts at chipping away at self-worth. This can lead you to feel incredibly low in confidence and unable to make decisions. You may be suffering from trauma too, clouding your judgement and ability to cope.

Practical reasons

If an abuser controls every aspect of their victim’s life, leaving can be practically very hard. You may not have financial independence. You may have children you are worried about or, if you have an unsecured immigration status, fear you’ll be deported.

Lack of support

A running thread through all of these barriers is a lack of support. You may feel as though you have no one who can help you, or perhaps you’ve tried to get support before but had a bad experience.

It’s helpful to understand these different barriers and show yourself some compassion. You are in an incredibly difficult position and you should not blame yourself for your circumstances. Asking for help isn’t always easy, but it’s the best way to find the support you need to make your decision.

Leaving an abusive relationship

If you decide you want to leave, know that you are not alone in this and that it is not your fault. An excellent first step is to get advice from a dedicated domestic abuse organisation such as Women’s Aid or Refuge for women, or the Men’s Advice Line for men.

When making plans to leave, take care of who you tell to ensure your abuser doesn’t find out. Women’s Aid has put together some helpful advice for anyone looking to leave a domestic violence environment (whatever your gender).

The first time I tried to leave was unsuccessful. I left but the guy threatened to come after my older sister, so I went back – and suffered more. The second time I tried to leave, I succeeded. I got a new phone so he had no way of contacting me and blocked him on everything.

- Read Lola’s story.

Rebuilding life after abuse

Once you have left your relationship, it’s understandable for there to be mixed emotions. You may feel a sense of loss and sadness, guilt, overwhelm and/or anger. You may blame yourself and think you could have ‘worked harder’ to make the relationship succeed or feel as if you are ‘weak’. Of course, the truth is, you have been exceptionally courageous and strong.

Rebuilding life again after relationships like this can be hard. The traumatic nature of abuse can lead you to experience flashbacks and you may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your sense of self-worth and confidence may be in tatters, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and afraid to move forward.

Counselling for domestic abuse

The reactions and emotions following abuse can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. To gain some support through this, many people are recommended to have counselling. Remember, a counsellor can work with you at any stage of your journey, whether you’re out of the relationship or still in it.

Counsellors can work with you to help you recognise signs of abuse and help you understand your own behaviours/way of thinking. There are many different techniques and approaches that may be able to support you, from assertiveness and grounding techniques to CBT to improve self-esteem.

You have all the strength and courage within you to move forward with your life, but there is no shame in asking for a helping hand to get there.

Being on the receiving end of domestic abuse is simply horrible, and can leave long-lasting scars – visible and invisible. However, it is not a life sentence – your life is not over: there can be a rich fulfilling life after domestic abuse.

- Counsellor Rita Edah, MA, MBACP (Accred).

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or therapist?

Currently, there are no official rules or regulations in place that stipulate what level of training a counsellor dealing with domestic abuse needs. However, it is recommended that you check to see if your therapist is experienced in this area. A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in abuse counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.

Another way to assure they have undergone this type of specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing counsellors dealing with domestic abuse.


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