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Two perspectives on counselling people in abusive relationships

June 15, 2011

I received a lot of positive feedback from last week’s blog. A few friends of mine wrote or called me up to talk more about what to do when a friend is a victim of relationship abuse (e.g., physical, psychological, verbal, financial). In particular, one friend asked about the specific role that a psychologist had in counselling people living with abuse. Specifically, she wanted to know whether a psychologist would counsel their client to leave an abusive relationship. Or, would they let the client decide on their own, even if it meant returning to an unhealthy and potentially unsafe relationship.

Humanistic versus Feminist Approaches to Individual Counselling

What I have found is that there are two approaches or ideologies that guide therapists working with clients in abusive relationships. These approaches originated with humanistic and feminist theories of counselling psychology. According to the humanistic or person-centred approach, the emphasis in the counselling process is for the therapist to ask questions that respect the client’s autonomy to make a decision. Believing that the responsibility for change lies within the couple, the therapist’s role is to facilitate change without imposing his or her own values, even though such a stance may result in avoiding the discussion of violence altogether.

Therapists working from a feminist perspective will make reference to the battered woman syndrome. According to Dr. Walker’s research (Cycle of Violence), women in highly abusive relationships develop a type of learned helplessness. That is, they become so accustomed to the abuse in their lives that they begin to believe that change is impossible; that they are helpless in changing their circumstances. Learned helplessness and the psychological trauma incurred as a result of the abuse, according to feminists, may render a person incapable of making balanced and thoughtful decisions. In other words, feminist theory would argue that because of her trauma, the battered woman is not capable, or is limited in her ability, to choose what is best for them and their children. As a result, therapists operating from a feminist perspective believe in persuading a battered woman to leave an abusive partner.

Facilitating Empowerment

In the end, a psychologist’s ultimate goal is to create a therapeutic environment that enhances their client’s ability to explore the pros and cons of their decisions, regardless of the theory, or theories, that guide their work. Psychotherapy provides opportunities for people to feel empowered and autonomous in deciding what is best for them during difficult moments in their lives. For many victims of abuse, feeling empowered and autonomous is a significant step towards healing and moving forward.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in mid-town Toronto. Click on the About Me tab above for more information or to book a session.)


Hunter, S. (2001). Working with domestic violence: Ethical dilemmas in five theoretical approaches. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 22(2), 80-99.

  1. would like to know your perspective. If you had a client that was in a consistently ‘battered’ relationship and she was convincing herself to go back. Would you try to talk her out of it?
    Not sure if that is a question you can answer.


    p.s. – love your posts.

  2. Hi Fred,

    Firstly, I would explore with the client what was it about the relationship that was attractive to her and worthy of returning. What are the thoughts contributing to the desire to return? What emotions are leading her to return? Then, I’d help the client evaluate the pros and cons of returning, and the pros and cons of remaining away from the relationship. Sometimes, writing some of these things down and seeing them on paper can help us make a more objective decision.

    Thanks for the good question…

    p.s. – I’ve been enjoying your posts as well!

  3. makenzie permalink

    i have a friend and she dosnt relize that the person she is talking to is controlling her little more each time i see her. First she not allowed to go with me to one of my friends houses becasue he dosnt want her to and he constantly yells at her. I know from passed situations that this is the first sighn of an abusive relashionship and would like to get her help.
    thanks for reading, makenzie.

    • Hi Makenzie,

      Thank you for your post…It’s so difficult to see a friend go through an abusive relationship, and so easy to feel helpless. But, there are things you can do. I reviewed a few sites and here are some of the Do’s and Don’ts when someone you care about is in an abusive relationship.


      Ask if something is wrong.
      Express concern.
      Listen and validate.
      Offer help.
      Support his or her decisions.


      Wait for him or her to come to you.
      Judge or blame.
      Pressure him or her.
      Give advice.
      Place conditions on your support.

      Click here for a link to the full article.

      Remember: Your goal is to let your friend know that you are there to support her no matter what she decides to do. Let her know you are concerned about the quality of person she is dating; but that you are not going to tell her whom she should and should not talk to. Being present for her – being a stable support person – will prove more effective in the long run and will encourage her to make choices that benefit the friendship.

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