Domestic Violence During the Pandemic (2/5): Therapeutic Skills
Domestic abuse has surged during the coronavirus lockdown, with calls to one dedicated UK helpline doubling in recent weeks. Dr Jeannette Roddy is a counsellor, author and academic specialising in this area. In the second of a five-part weekly blog about working with victims of domestic violence during the Covid-19 crisis, she outlines three key skills therapists need for this deeply relational work.
Survivors of domestic violence have difficulties that have developed as a result of their experiences, rather than their thoughts or behaviours. They will often have spent months or years trying to work out what they needed to change so that they do not provoke their partner. However much they try to change, there is always more to be done, as control is exerted by keeping the victim ‘guessing’. Hence therapy focusing on what the client can change or do themselves is unlikely to be helpful.
Instead, as the client is presenting with a relational issue, part of the solution is in the relationship between therapist and client. Three of the key skills in the initial stage of the work are relational: building and maintaining trust, allowing the client to lead, and advanced empathy. These present therapeutic challenges, as clients have had challenging relationships with their partner and often find it difficult to trust anyone with their experiences.
1 Building and maintaining trust
Building trust is about being competent, consistent and having the client’s interests at heart – that is, having the experience and knowledge required to be able to help, putting clear boundaries (such as contracting) in place and being dependable and authentic session to session.
In the current situation, where therapy may be delivered remotely, it is much more important to contract extensively about what to do, for example, if the home situation becomes unsafe, if the perpetrator answers a call, or if the call remains unanswered. If you are using text-based services, ensuring that the client knows how to delete texts and browser history, for example, shows care, concern and competency.
Perpetrators tend to be inconsistent and manipulative and it is important that the client experiences their therapist as someone who is consistent and will do their best for them, even if that means disclosing something elsewhere. Good contracting helps that process.
2 Allowing the client to lead
Allowing the client to lead may sound like a straightforward or normal approach to therapy. However, for clients who have spent their lives responding to someone else’s needs, it can be very frightening. An abuser might ask them to talk about something and then use the information to perpetrate further abuse.
At the outset of therapy, it is important to provide some structure or guidance to create a safe space, whilst ensuring that the client can say what they need to say. In the beginning, this can be about specific difficulties with life at that moment, rather than starting with the scope and scale of the abuse. Once the client is used to sharing aspects of their life, it becomes easier for them to introduce other, more complex, issues.
3 Advanced empathy
Advanced empathy is empathy at a higher level than that required by most counselling courses for counselling qualification. Given the difficulties that this client group has in connecting and sharing with the therapist, it is more important that the therapist can connect at a deep level to identify what might be going on for the client and offer that insight to them. Some of the emotions that come with domestic abuse include guilt, shame and fear. It can be very difficult to share those feelings with someone you have only just met. However, the therapist seeming to ‘just know’ makes it easier to talk about what has happened.
Often the ‘just knowing’ aspect of therapeutic work is linked to the knowledge that the therapist has of domestic abuse and its effect on individuals. Next week, part 3 of this series will highlight some of the main theories that it would be useful to understand when working with this client group.