Finding a good counselor
Finding a counselor who is competent to counsel victims of abuse can be quite challenging. Some counselors have a good understanding of domestic abuse but many do not.
Catherine DeLoach Lewis is a Christian counselor who was untrained in domestic abuse until—by the providence of God—she woke up. We interviewed her on this blog and she said:
I began my professional counseling career August, 1998. I was working with a married couple and in what came to be our last marriage counseling session, I noticed how close he was sitting to her and how he kept smiling and squeezing her hand. I also noticed how frightened she looked. I knew something was very wrong but I did not know what it was.
The next day I was attending a workshop on domestic violence and substance abuse. During my first break, I called the wife of this couple and said, “I am in a workshop on domestic violence and now I know what is wrong in your marriage. I will not conduct marriage counseling because now I understand you are not safe disclosing your concerns in front of your husband. If you can forgive me, I would love to work with you in individual counseling to help you work on your safety concerns. Would you be willing to work with me individually?” Through her sobbing on the phone, she said yes.
I heard of a psychiatrist who repeatedly told a twice-victimised woman, “Put it behind you; don’t think about it; get on with your life.” This survivor had left two abusive husbands and had many post-traumatic symptoms. At that stage she hadn’t dealt with all her horrific memories: she was getting flash backs, she was easily triggered and she was struggling to deal with many practical aspects of her life. Thanks to the encouragement of other survivors, she eventually joined a survivors’ support group. With astonishment she told me how much that group helped her disentangle and process her memories and recover from the abuse.
It’s naïve to expect that psychologists are more likely to pick up on domestic abuse than psychiatrists. Some evidence suggests that women take longer to leave the abuse situation when they have been seeing psychologists. It would seem that psychological training focuses on individual pathology, couple dynamics and family dynamics, but it doesn’t adequately cover the dynamics of domestic abuse. What a great shame this is! What a terrible hole! If a mental health professional belittles or disregards your domestic abuse experience I encourage you to find a different therapist.
The Codependency Model
While some survivors report that learning about codependency helped them separate from the abuse, we believe the model of codependency can be dangerous. Why? Because it subtly (or not so subtly) blames the victim. The codependency model sees the victim as defective because it assumes or implies that she has an underlying need to surrender her autonomy. When counseling victims of domestic abuse, professionals who use the codependency model can make the error of expecting an abused woman to readily detach from her partner. And they may not pay enough attention to the first priority in all domestic abuse: safety planning.
If a counsellor subtly blames you for staying in the abuse, complying with the abuse, failing to set boundaries, being ‘avoidant’, loosing yourself in the relationship, being dependent on the abuser, or ‘loving too much,’ that counselor will not be of much help.
Rather than labelling the victim as codependent, we believe it is far more helpful to elucidate and honour the victim’s responses to the abuse. Wherever there is oppression, the oppressed person resists the oppression. So rather than pathologizing victims by labelling them as codependent, we believe in honoring victims’ resistance.
You can find more articles on codependency at our FAQ page Are abuse victims codependent?
Other marks of an unhelpful counselor
Other unhelpful types of counselors are the kind who comes across so detached and objective that you feel they are critical of your emotions and your indignation about the injustices you have suffered. If they privately interpret your moral outrage as vengefulness, this may come across as subtle disapproval of you. A counselor will be of limited help if he or she cannot or will not support and empathise with your healthy indignation against evil.
Marks of a helpful counselor
A more helpful counselor will help you come out of the fog that the abuser has been pumping out at you from his fog-making machine — his lies, his manipulative tactics, his shifting of the blame onto you, etc. A good counselor will help you find your lost self, like the woman who swept her house carefully until she found her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). He or she will give you validation by affirming the existence and worth of your ideas, opinions, perceptions, feelings, your styles of behaving, and your aspirations, hopes and dreams. And of course, if you have been brainwashed into believing the false thinking of the abuser and false teachings of churchianity, a good counselor will help you identify and reject the false stuff, and cling to the truth.
A good counselor will do more than just affirm “you have been in abusive relationship.” He or she will help you identify the techniques of abuse used by your abuser so you can see what’s been done to you and how you have responded and resisted. Here is what Alan Wade says about this process:
Talking about these responses and resistance restores dignity to the victim by calling attention to the prudence, imagination, strength, determination, compassion, and sense of justice evident in his/her actions and subjective experience. Previously overlooked acts—for example that of a child taking two hours to walk home from school to avoid being alone with an abusive parent—can acquire new meaning and significance. Accounts of resistance also contest the stereotypical image of passive, socially conditioned, and dysfunctional victim featured so prominently in clinical and public discourse.
—”Honouring our clients’ resistance to violence and oppression: Tom Strong talks to Alan Wade.” New Therapist 21
If you are really fortunate, a good counselor may be reasonably familiar with the procedures of the legal / police / compensation systems and be able to give you suggestions about when and where to take action in these areas. On the other hand, you may have to do this leg-work for yourself or get advice from a women’s domestic abuse support service.
Christian vs Secular
Many Christian victims feel they would prefer a Christian counselor. However, Christian counselors can be hard to find and many of them do not understand domestic abuse well. Under these circumstances it might be better to choose a non-Christian counselor who really understands domestic abuse.
If you can find a good Christian counselor who rightly uses and interprets scripture in their counseling practice you will be doubly blessed. On the other hand, you probably will be further traumatized by the kind of Christian counselor who is heavily influenced by the “Biblical Counseling” movement (see our tags Biblical Counseling and Nouthetic Counseling).
We also suggest you steer away from anyone who uses Peacemakers materials. The Peacemakers organization has no policy on domestic abuse and are clueless about how to properly deal with it.
The Role of Prayer
Sometimes counseling may be complemented by prayer ministry. It’s unwise to see prayer as a quick fix. Prayer can indeed sometimes bring a rapid change, but very often it doesn’t give a quick solution. The work of recovery from trauma—stitching a new, life-enhancing and beautiful garment after having been been systematically unpicked by an abuser—is generally an incremental process with back-stitches as well as forward stitches. (see the backstitch analogy).
Some of your responses may have been apt while living with the abuser but are now habits and patterns that are better off left behind. Some of your deeply held beliefs may have been false teachings that naive or foolish Christians taught you. Prayer can be helpful with things like that.
If you want another person to pray for you, I suggest you choose a wise person who will pray for you without coercively controlling you. In my experience, the formulaic ‘Prayer Ministries’ often don’t understand domestic abuse well enough, so I encourage you to keep your antenna up and if something doesn’t feel right to you, pull back…or redirect the praying person so that he or she addresses what you really feel needs to be addressed.
Questions to ask a counselor
When interviewing a counselor or therapist prior to entering counseling with them, here are some questions you can ask. You might also like to put these questions to a pastor to help you decide whether you want to become a regular attender at his church.
How do you view abuse in a marriage?
They’ll probably say firmly “It’s unacceptable,” but that means little. It certainly doesn’t guarantee they are a competent domestic abuse counsellor. Ask them “Could you please elaborate?”
How would you define or describe domestic abuse?
If they do not use key words like ‘power’ and ‘control’ then be wary. Also look for the key idea that it is a pattern of conduct designed by one party to control the other. How many types of abuse do they mention? How well do they cover the different types of abuse: emotional, verbal, social, financial, sexual, spiritual, and using the children as pawns of abuse? If they only mention physical violence, they are not competent to counsel for domestic abuse. If they only mention physical and verbal (or emotional) abuse, they are only partially competent.
Is it a communication problem? Is it simply a result of childhood trauma?
If they answer Yes to either of these questions, they are not competent to counsel for domestic abuse.
What do you think causes domestic abuse?
There should be a clear articulation that domestic abuse is solely caused by one spouse— the abuser— not by both spouses. If there is any hint of victim-blaming, ‘mutual responsibility’ or ‘it takes two to tango,’ steer clear of this counselor!
What are your thoughts on abusers reforming?
If the counselor fails to say that abusers are best treated in a group program rather than one-to-one counseling, that counselor isn’t sufficiently educated about domestic abuse. Look for humility in the counselor and recognition that treatment for abusers is often ineffective. For more on this, see our tag for Mens Behavior Change Groups and our FAQ page What if the abuser is repentant?
Often, victims don’t leave abusive relationships. Why do you think this is?
Look for insight into the dangers involved in leaving an abuser, the multiple ways abusers control victims, and some understanding of traumatic stress. Also, does the counselor know about the responses bystanders often make to victims— how bystanders pressure victims to reconcile with their abusers, how they fail to believe and fully support victims.
What do you think about couple counseling for domestic abuse?
If they say couple counseling is recommend, or worth trying for a while, they are not competent. If they say it’s only appropriate under very specific conditions they may be safe to work with. See our FAQ page What about couple counseling?
What are your thoughts on divorce for domestic abuse?
This question is optional. You may feel that it risks exposing you to a response that is too hurtful. You might want to leave it to last, and only ask it if you feel safe enough having heard their previous answers. You can always ask this in another session, if you feel safer then.
If you ask this question, look for a nuanced scriptural reply (should the person be a Christian) and for the counselor to explicitly say that a victim of domestic abuse is at liberty to divorce and that it’s not a sin to divorce on grounds of abuse. See our FAQ page What about divorce?
Another optional question: Could you please tell me about some cases of domestic abuse you’ve dealt with (without disclosing confidential details).
Look for how robustly the counselor responded to other cases. Did he or she strongly support the victim? Does the counselor seem aware of how abusers try to enlist the counselor as an ally? Does the counselor believe she or he brought resolution to the situation by “reconciling the couple”? If so, did it sound like a superficial reconciliation, or one where deep and lasting reformation had been made by the abuser?
If your counselor takes the abuser’s side and tells you it’s your fault and you are the one that needs to do most of the changing to fix the relationship, then you can complain to the relevant professional board about the counselor’s professional misconduct.