080 – Counselling Clients with Domestic Violence

080 – Domestic Abuse – Trauma-Informed Practice – Cognitive Dissonance

subscribe_itunes button small

In episode 80 of the Counselling Tutor Podcast, Ken Kelly and Rory Lees-Oakes talk about counselling clients who are affected by domestic abuse. ‘Practice Matters’ discusses trauma-informed practice. Last, the presenters explain cognitive dissonance.

Domestic Abuse (starts at 1.27 mins)

All counsellors are likely to encounter clients who are experiencing domestic abuse at some stage in their career. It is really important to raise awareness of this issue among counsellors and others – this really can save lives.

Rory shares some shocking statistics relating to domestic abuse in England and Wales, most of which were gathered from the website of Women’s Aid:

  • Two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner every week.
  • Of all recorded crimes, 10% are domestic abuse.
  • 100 calls per hour relating to domestic abuse are received by the police.
  • Where gender is recorded, 92.1% of defendants in domestic-abuse cases are male, and 7.9% female. Meanwhile, 83.3% of victims are female and 16.7% male.
  • On average, each victim of domestic abuse has made seven to eight attempts to leave the abuser.

The clues to domestic abuse against a counselling client can be very subtle; it is important to be vigilant in order to pick up on these. The abuse may not be physical, but rather psychological or emotional. For example, the abuser might use gas-lighting (intentionally eroding the victim’s belief in their own sanity) or threaten to put intimate photographs on the internet.

Many victims of domestic abuse may feel tied into the relationship, and even have partners who are loving and caring for part of the time. The abuser may be full of regret and remorse after each incident, and the victim may believe that they really will change. However, it’s unlikely that real change will occur without the abuser facing their challenges through therapy of their own.

Explaining and holding the limits of confidentiality is of critical importance in this work, supporting the building of the therapeutic relationship while balancing the need for safeguarding too. Above all, be prepared: if a client does hint at domestic abuse, it is useful to understand something about this, and to know where you could refer them on to for expert help, guidance and protection.

Trauma-Informed Practice (starts at 14.42 mins)

Up until 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) did not exist as a diagnosis.  It was only when clinicians ‘joined the dots’ in the cases of Vietnam war veterans – realising the common threads of alcoholism, self-harm and anger-management issues – that the disorder was officially recognised.

There are remarkable similarities between how victims of all different types of trauma process this. Understanding of PTSD, including how the human brain processes trauma, has grown hugely over the last 15 years in particular.

Rory asserts that – in contrast to the usual stance of person-centred therapy, which advocates the uniqueness of each person’s experience of the world – it can in fact be useful to use trauma-based interventions. In other words, it can really help clients to offer them psychological education.

Understanding how the human brain is programmed to react in situations of trauma can provide clients with a huge sense of relief – for example, helping them understand why they did not fight back.

Cognitive Dissonance (starts at 20.10 mins)

Rory shares the story of US psychologist Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. In an unusual piece of social research, Festinger and two colleagues infiltrated a doomsday cult.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ describes the situation when a person has conflicting beliefs or values. Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory suggests that this makes the person feel uncomfortable, and so leads them to adjust one of the beliefs or values, harmonising these in order to reduce the discomfort we feel.

So how does cognitive dissonance theory apply to counselling? One area that it relates to is clients in abusive relationships. Because people have often invested heavily in such relationships (for example, financially, or in terms of children), they may tend to remain in them and to find ways to justify to themselves that the abusive behaviour is somehow acceptable. Known as ‘trauma bonding’, this is best tackled in counselling through a ‘high challenge, high support’ therapeutic relationship.