Counseling Victims of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a pervasive and critical issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of Americans across various demographics. Victims of domestic violence often bear profound and lasting scars — some visible, some invisible. Counseling victims of domestic violence plays a pivotal role in this healing process. 

Related: Nursing Interventions for Intimate Partner Violence 

What is intimate partner violence? 

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is sometimes referred to as domestic violence. Colloquially, these terms are often used interchangeably. However, IPV refers to any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm to those in the relationship. Domestic violence is broader and may encompass not only intimate relationships, but violence in any domestic situation: siblings, children, parents, etc. For the purposes of this article, the terms IPV and domestic violence are interchangeable 

IPV and domestic violence behaviors may include acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and controlling behaviors. IPV can occur in all types of intimate relationships, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. 

Types of domestic violence  

  • Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can include forcing, coercing, or tricking someone to participate in sexual acts without their consent. It could also include sexual contact between an adult and a minor. 
  • Physical abuse. Physical abuse involves causing intentional harm or attempting to cause harm to someone by hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair pulling, burning, etc. Physical abuse can also include throwing objects, punching walls, or banging door.  
  • Emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can involve undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. Abusers may do this by constantly criticizing, name-calling, gaslighting, shaming or humiliating, isolating them from family and friends, monitoring their activities, and preventing them from the things they enjoy.  
  • Psychological abuse. This abuse involves causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, or children; destruction of pets and property; and terrorizing individuals by forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work. 
  • Financial abuse. Financial abuse involves making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources. This might include keeping control of joint finances, withholding access to money, or tracking the partner’s spending. It also involves preventing the individual from taking steps that might make them more financially independent, such as working or studying. 
  • Stalking. Stalking involves a pattern of behavior meant to harass, frighten, or harm the individual. This could involve following them, constantly phoning or texting, or spying on them. 
  • Online abuse. This form of abuse involves using online formats or platforms like email or social media to harass, intimidate, threaten, bully, or manipulate an individual. 

Risk factors of domestic violence 

Unfortunately, anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. There are some factors that might contribute to a higher prevalence of domestic violence – either being a victim of domestic violence or a perpetrator of violence. Risk factors for intimate partner violence involve individual, relational, community, and societal factors. 

Individual factors 

  • Individuals who have a history of violent behavior or have witnessed violence in their family of origin are at a higher risk. 
  • Alcohol and drug abuse can escalate the frequency and severity of abuse. 
  • Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders can be risk factors for domestic violence. 
  • Individuals who are impulsive and have poor anger management skills are more likely to engage in domestic violence. 
  • Lower levels of education are associated with a higher risk of domestic violence. 
  • Unemployment and financial stress can increase the risk of violence. 
  • Younger individuals are more likely to be involved in violent intimate relationships. 

Relational factors 

  • High levels of conflict and dissatisfaction in a relationship can increase the risk of violence. 
  • Relationships with unequal power dynamics are more susceptible to violence. 
  • Isolation from family and friends can increase vulnerability and the risk of violence. 
  • Parents with lower levels of education. 
  • Witnessing violence between parents as a child. 
  • History of experiencing poor parenting or physical discipline as a child. 

Community factors 

  • Limited access to social support networks can increase the risk. 
  • Living in an area with high levels of violence can normalize violent behavior. 
  • Communities with higher rates of poverty and limited educational opportunities. 
  • Communities with higher unemployment rates. 
  • Areas where there is easier access to drugs and alcohol. 

Societal factors 

  • Societal norms that support male dominance and the subjugation of women can contribute to domestic violence. 
  • Some cultures may have norms that tolerate or encourage violence to resolve conflict. 
  • Societal economic inequality can contribute to domestic violence. 

These risk factors do not mean that all individuals will experience instances of intimate partner violence. However, they do have a higher likelihood of increasing the chances that someone will either perpetuate violence or be a victim of IPV. Regardless of whether you are a perpetrator or victim of violence, counseling victims of domestic violence can help address and stop the cycle. 

Consequences of domestic violence 

Domestic violence has severe and long-lasting consequences for victims, their families, and communities. The impact can affect the overall well-being of all individuals involved. 

Physical consequences 

Many victims of domestic violence experience physical consequences. They may suffer from injuries like cuts, bruises, broken bones, and other physical harm. They are also at a higher risk for various health problems including cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive, musculoskeletal, and nervous system conditions. Domestic violence can also include sexual assault, leading to potential issues like sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancies, and other reproductive health problems. 

Psychological, emotional, and societal consequences 

Victims of domestic violence are at a higher risk for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts or actions. Continuous abuse can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and emotional distress. Victims may experience ongoing emotional distress, fear, and helplessness. 

Abusers often isolate their victims from family and friends, leading to social withdrawal and loneliness. Because of this isolation, relationships with children, family, and friends can be adversely affected.  

Economic and societal consequences 

Abusers may control finances as a form of power, leading to financial instability for the victim. Victims may lose their job due to absenteeism or decreased performance related to the abuse. The societal consequences of domestic violence can contribute to the normalization of violence in society. There can also be an economic burden on society due to the healthcare, legal, and social service costs associated with domestic violence.  

Effects on children 

Children who witness domestic violence are at risk for developmental problems, psychiatric disorders, school difficulties, aggressive behavior, and sleep disturbances. Children raised in violent homes are also more likely to become victims or perpetrators of domestic violence in adulthood. 

Domestic violence can affect individuals at all levels. Counseling victims of domestic violence can help address these consequences and improve outcomes for those involved. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, it’s important to seek help. 

Cultural considerations of counseling victims of domestic violence 

Counseling domestic violence victims requires a sensitive and nuanced approach that considers various cultural factors. Different cultural backgrounds can influence how individuals perceive domestic violence, their willingness to seek help, and their expectations of counseling. When counseling victims of domestic violence, it’s important to be culturally sensitive. 

It’s also important to understand differing cultural norms and values. Be aware of and respect the individual’s cultural traditions, values, and beliefs. Understand the role of gender in the individual’s culture, as this can affect power dynamics in relationships. 

Building trust is an important part of providing culturally sensitive counseling. You can build trust by maintaining a non-judgmental attitude and creating a safe space for the individual to share their experiences. Strive for cultural competency. Be aware of personal cultural biases and beliefs and seek to understand the individual’s cultural background. 

Language and communication 

Be mindful of potential language barriers and provide translation services if necessary. Also, pay attention to non-verbal cues, as these can be crucial for understanding the individual’s emotions and experiences. 

Religion and spirituality 

Understand the role of religion and spirituality in the individual’s life, as this can influence their coping mechanisms and decision-making. If appropriate, incorporate spiritual support into the counseling process. 

Stigma and shame 

Address stigma by understanding that there may be cultural stigma attached to domestic violence. Work to address and reduce feelings of shame. Ensure confidentiality, as fear of community judgment may be a significant concern for many individuals. 

Considerations when counseling victims of domestic violence  

Engage in ongoing education to increase your cultural competence and stay informed about best practices for counseling victims of domestic violence from diverse backgrounds. Counseling victims of domestic violence requires a comprehensive, culturally sensitive approach that acknowledges and respects the client’s unique experiences, values, and beliefs. 

Reporting requirements for domestic violence can vary by state and location. In various jurisdictions, professionals such as healthcare providers, educators, and social workers are mandated to report suspected cases of domestic violence against children, dependents, and elderly.  

However, there are varying regulations and requirements for reporting domestic violence. It’s important when counseling victims of domestic violence, that you familiarize yourself with your state’s laws and regulations