Domestic violence is dangerous. To help, therapy must be used appropriately. Couples therapy might not help those in a relationship with domestic violence. It may not be healthy to work on a relationship with an abusive partner. This is even the case if a therapist is present. If your or your children’s safety is in danger, it may be best to leave that situation.
Therapy can be helpful in treating the effects of domestic abuse. Domestic violence may leave lasting physical and mental effects. Therapists can help people work through mental health issues caused by domestic abuse. Therapy for domestic abuse may be most effective when each member of the relationship seeks treatment separately.
One dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when they try to leave the relationship. This may be why some people stay in violent relationships.
If you are in an abusive relationship, create a safety plan for yourself and your children.
- When tension increases and an argument seems near, consider which room in your home is safest. Make sure there is an exit. Ensure there are no weapons in the room.
- Make a contact list of safe people you can contact if needed.
- Develop a code word to use with family, friends, or coworkers. You can use this to let them know you need help.
- Memorize important identification numbers and phone numbers.
- Carry change at all times.
- Consider safe places you could go if you need to leave.
- Hide a bag of belongings somewhere in your house or with a friend.
- Consider opening a bank account or credit card in your name, if you don’t have one.
- If you leave, go to a safe place or a shelter with your children. Seek out legal, financial, and emotional support.
- Arrange for temporary protective custody for your children. Do this if it is not safe or possible to take them with you.
If you need help right away, call 911. You can also contact one of the following crisis hotlines or resources:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
- National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Domestic Shelters
- GLBTQ Domestic Violence Project
There are many resources online for victims of domestic abuse. Keep in mind that an abuser may be able to track your internet usage. Learn to clear your computer’s browsing history. Or consider using a computer in a safe place. You might use a computer at a public library or a friend's house.
Individual therapy. One-on-one counseling can help a victim of domestic abuse. It may reveal the pattern of violence and help them create a safety plan. Survivors of domestic violence can struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, fear, and posttraumatic stress. These issues may impact every area of their lives. Many forms of therapy can address these kinds of mental health issues. Therapy can help people build upon their strengths. It teaches people to challenge negative beliefs about themselves.
Group therapy. Group therapy may benefit domestic violence survivors. Group members’ shared experiences can help normalize their feelings. It may provide them with a support network. Art and music therapies can give survivors a creative outlet for their feelings. Other people learn to trust again through animal-assisted therapies.
Couples therapy. Couples counseling is not advisable if violence is in the relationship. Therapy may not be effective for relationships with violence. In addition, some therapists are unwilling to see couples if violence is present. A safe therapy session encourages open communication. But this can be dangerous in a violent relationship. It may cause more abuse or violence to take place.
Couples counseling is based on shared respect. It hinges on joint responsibility for the relationship outcome and process. A violent partner must first get help to stop their abusive behavior. The person who has experienced abuse must learn why they have tolerated it. Couples work may do more harm than good until partners reach this point.
Children who witness domestic abuse will benefit from addressing the trauma. This is done in an age-appropriate manner and as soon as possible. It may prevent the child from developing mental health issues. Therapy may also lessen the impact of any trauma so it is not carried into adulthood.
Child witnesses to domestic violence may experience:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble with school
- Defiant behavior toward parents and other adults
- Somatic symptoms like headaches and stomach aches
Children may develop unhealthy behaviors to cope with the trauma. In adulthood, these same children may end up in troubled relationships as abusers or victims of abuse. There are many forms of therapy well-suited to work with children. Play therapy or sand tray therapy can help kids who might have difficulty talking about their feelings. Parent-child interaction therapy was specifically designed to help children with behavioral issues.
If a domestic violence case is taken to court, treatment may be mandated for the perpetrator. The goal of this treatment is often to keep the victim of the abuse safe. It may also seek to hold the abuser accountable and to adjust their behavior. Court orders may vary by location and severity of the abuse. If the abuse was lethal or very severe, the perpetrator may be sent to prison. Currently, there is a lack of rehabilitation programs in prison for people who commit domestic violence. When resources are lacking, prison may increase, not decrease, the likelihood of the person committing abuse in the future.
Not all treatment for people who commit domestic violence is mandatory. People who abuse may find a support or treatment group that will help them work on their behavior. These groups may ask them to examine underlying reasons for their behavior. People in these groups may also be held accountable for their actions. Some people who have committed domestic violence in the past may wish to change. They may find intensive treatment with a therapist helpful. One study cites cognitive behavioral therapy as a potential treatment for abusers.
- Couple in Therapy for "Blow Ups.” Danielle and Randy are both 26 years old. They decide to go to couples counseling. In the first session, the therapist asks about the “fights” and “blow-ups” they report. Danielle reports Randy recently pushed her down. She shares that he sometimes pulls things, like the phone or TV remote, out of her hand. Randy admits to this. He counters by accusing Danielle of pushing him once. Danielle says this was self-defense. The therapist tells the couple he will see them separately, effective immediately. They agree to this. The therapist begins by meeting alone with Randy. The therapist spends the session forming an alliance with him, rather than confronting his violent behaviors. In a brief meeting with Danielle, the therapist provides the name of a colleague who can see her. He obtains a release of information from Danielle. This way, he can share his impression of the couple with the new therapist. Randy’s therapy centers on anger management, his beliefs about women, and lack of empathy. Progress is quite slow. Meanwhile, Danielle explores her codependency. She soon resolves to leave the relationship.
- Husband Feels like "Jekyll and Hyde.” Trudy, 32, seeks therapy. She feels “crazy” ever since she married her long-time boyfriend, Jack. Trudy reports that Jack calls her names. He forces her to have sex at times and in ways she does not want. He also stays out late without telling her what he is doing and gets angry if she asks. Before the marriage, he was extremely charming and always kind to her. Sometimes he was a little possessive and jealous, but she found this flattering. Now he seems to have pulled a “Jekyll and Hyde” act. Trudy tried to separate from him but he followed her to her friend’s house. He “nearly broke down the door,” knocking on it at 3 a.m., demanding she “come home.” She did. Trudy feels Jack cannot live without her. He even threatens to kill himself if she leaves. But she cannot stand the verbal abuse. She denies Jack is violent. The therapist points out that forced sex is a violent act. So is “demanding” anything from her with such aggression as Jack displays. Trudy is able to see the true nature of her relationship only after Jack hits her in the face, sending her to a doctor. The therapist helps her plan to leave in safe way. Trudy finds a battered women's shelter she can live in temporarily. The therapist also expresses concern for her safety at her job. Jack knows where she works. Trudy realizes that involving law enforcement is necessary to protect her safety. She obtains a restraining order and Jack seems to give up. Further therapy helps her work through feelings of grief and guilt about the relationship. She learns how she can choose a more appropriate partner in the future.
- Almeida, Rhea V; Durkin, Tracy. (1999). The cultural context model: Therapy for couples with domestic violence. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 3(25), 313-24. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.1999.tb00250.x
- Borrego, Joaquin Jr.; Gutow, Mindy R.; Reicher, Shira; Barker, Chikira H. (2008, March 19). Parent-child interaction therapy with domestic violence populations. Journal of Family Violence, 6(23), 495-505. doi: 10.1007/s10896-008-9177-4
- Ganley, A. L. (2015). Court-mandated/directed treatment for domestic violence perpetrators. Retrieved from https://www.courts.wa.gov/content/manuals/domViol/appendixB.pdf
- Harrell, A. (1991). Evaluation of court-ordered treatment for domestic violence offenders. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/139749NCJRS.pdf
- Interventions for domestic violence offenders: Cognitive behavioral therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.crimesolutions.gov/PracticeDetails.aspx?ID=16