I’m coming to the end of my time working at a local charity, counselling women who have been affected by domestic abuse and I’ve been taking some time to reflect on those I’ve worked with, the lack of empathy I sometimes encounter in society and how I feel my work as a person centred counsellor contributes to helping survivors heal and grow.
Put simply, domestic abuse has a huge impact on the lives of those who experience it and the leap of faith it takes for a client to open up about their experiences is not to be underestimated. Clients need to be heard, believed and validated. The more experience I gain in this area, the more parallels I see between my work with survivors of domestic abuse and my work with survivors of sexual abuse – disempowerment, fear, mistrust of others and self, powerlessness and a sense of ‘who am I?’
I also find there are misconceptions around domestic abuse. Here are 3 things I’d like to challenge:
I’d never let it happen to me
Don’t kid yourself because it really could happen to you. Yes of course if you’re on a first date and your date hit you or called you a derogatory name, there would likely be no second date, but domestic abuse doesn’t work that way. It is a slow burn, developing over time and gradually increasing in frequency and intensity. Women can experience domestic abuse regardless of class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, disability, religion or lifestyle. Domestic abuse is about power and control.
She must have done something for it to happen
Despite the fact that it can happen to anyone (and I want to say ANYONE in capital letters), society still engages in victim blaming which is incredibly damaging to survivors. Victim blaming is where, instead of placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the abuser, we find a way to judge and place some of the blame on the victim. We victim blame to try and protect ourselves. We don’t like to think that these things can happen for no reason so if we can find a way to put some of the responsibility onto the victim then it maintains a veil of denial that we too could be victimised and that there are people among us who are seeking to do harm.
Why doesn’t she just leave?
It is both difficult and dangerous to leave. It is difficult because there are concerns around money, support, living situation, welfare of children, harassment and/or how one will cope. These are real worries and often women leave with nothing – having given up their home and possessions. That’s not an easy thing to do. It is dangerous because a woman is most vulnerable to being killed when she leaves an abuser and afterwards.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.4 million women suffered domestic abuse in 2013/2014. So there are many, many survivors who could benefit from counselling. As well as reflecting on the lack of empathy I sometimes experience in wider society, I’ve also been thinking about what I offer survivors and why I believe the person centred approach is a very helpful way to work. One of the fundamental theoretical aspects is a trust in the actualising tendency which in layman’s terms means a trust in the individual to move towards growth if the individual can experience a relationship in which they feel valued and understood. The person centred approach to counselling purposely tries to create a balance of power which can be really important. Being non-directive and trusting the client to discuss whatever feels most important, helps foster increased autonomy and trust in the self and others, several things which in my experience are lost when women are in an abusive relationship.