By Megan Burch, LSW, Therapist/Owner of Joy Creek Counseling, LLC
After partnering with survivors of domestic violence for over 10 years, I have heard many comments from other helping professionals expressing their frustrations in working with domestic violence, particularly in working with survivors.
Often, helping professionals ask questions or make statements with no easy answers or no clear context.
Why doesn’t my client just leave?
My client lies to me.
My client is minimizing the abuse.
These questions/statements are loaded with complexity.
When I hear comments like this, I try to look at this from a position of assuming well. I like to assume that, “This helping professional cares about the well-being of their client.” When we make statements like this, it is often out of concern for our clients. We don’t want to see them get hurt anymore. We want the best for them. We want them to be able to live a life free of emotional and physical violence.
Unfortunately, these questions/statements come across as filled with judgement of the survivor’s decision making. The risk of getting caught up with our own feelings of frustrations in working with survivors is that we miss the nuance behind the decision making process of survivors. We put ourselves at risk of losing our trauma-informed lens, and revert back to asking questions, such as “What is wrong with my client?” instead of “What has happened to my client?” We may start taking their decisions personally, instead of valuing the self-determination of our clients.
We are also at risk of losing our ability to see our clients as individuals with strengths, dreams, and hopes. We may only simply see them as a label -- “victim.” When we see our clients as labels, we begin to take away their individual humanity.
In order to move to a place of understanding, let’s deconstruct these common frustrations experienced. Examining survivors’ experiences through a trauma-informed lens can bring back our compassion in working with individuals living in challenging and, at times, dangerous life circumstances.
Let’s start with a brief refresher of the brain/body response of trauma. Survivors of domestic violence are often operating from a trauma mode of fight/flight/freeze. They are making decisions from a survival perspective.
It is important to note that the way their brain/body sees the world does not end once the relationship is over. Often, their partner may still be involved in their lives, continuing to exert power and control through child custody, finances, etc. In addition, they may be involved with systems that are continuing to create an experience of survival-mode, such as civil court, child protection, or the criminal justice system.
Moving forward with the understanding that our clients’ brain and bodies are often hijacked by real or perceived threat, let’s now take a look at some of those common questions/statements.
Why doesn’t my client just leave?
There are a few assumptions with this one. One is that leaving the relationship is easy. It dismisses the fact that major financial and child custody decisions can go unfavorably for a survivor. Documented history of domestic violence often does not impact the outcome of a child custody agreement, despite our assumptions that it may. Also, abusive partners will often continue to use power and control tactics after the relationship has ended, as earlier noted.
In addition, leaving the relationship can be the most dangerous time for a survivor. When a survivor leaves a relationship, the abusive partner is losing their sense of power and control and can escalate in their behaviors. This impacts the safety of the survivor and their children. Survivors may stay in a relationship to protect their children from unsupervised contact from their abusive partners.
Probably the most difficult for us to grasp, again, because we want to see our clients safe and healthy, is that our client may still love their abusive partner. This relationship is probably not abusive 100% of the time. There are good memories and feelings that our clients may be holding onto. When an abusive partner makes promises to get help or change, these promises are believed. Survivors are often holding onto hope that their partner will get the help they need. The same is true of us. When we are in a relationship, we tend to believe the best about our partners. We want to believe that they are capable of positive change.
My client lies to me.
Let’s first acknowledge that all of our clients probably omit some truths or share their personal lens of their truth with us. This is not limited to survivors.
Our client’s decisions are not about us. These decisions are about our client’s ability to move through this world. I really want to emphasize this because I often hear helping professionals take these decisions personally.
Over the years, I have worked with many clients that have hid critical information from me and other helping professionals. When I look at this behavior from a place of seeking understanding, I often see that their decisions were based out of fear.
By omitting pieces of their story to us, or even all of it, our clients may be safely setting some boundaries with another human. Their partners did not allow them to have boundaries. They are often working with systems that feel intrusive, such as family court, child protection, and the criminal justice system. These systems often request every detail of the abuse and their lives.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that a power differential exists between us and our clients. Our clients are very aware of this. We may have contact with their Child Family Investigator (CFI) or child protection caseworker. Even when we review our limitations with these releases or have no release at all, survivors are still weighing the risks of information potentially getting back to the system. Our clients know more than we do about the risks for their safety.
Shame also plays a role in a survivor’s decision to be selective about their disclosures. Some of the decisions our clients have made to survive their lives feel shameful to them. They have been in relationships in which their partners were calculated in taking away their dignity and self-esteem. Survivors are often shamed by family, friends, and the larger community about their decision to stay with their partner or leave their partner. They are given messages that they are abusing their kids because they remain in a relationship or abusing their kids because they keep them from the other parent after separation.
Our clients are coming to us with a foundation of being shamed for their behaviors. We have all made decisions that we are not proud of, and have kept hidden from others. It is important that we see this common humanity with our clients.
My client is minimizing the abuse.
As we know, clients may be in a place of denial as a coping strategy when they are overwhelmed. This experience is not just limited to our survivor clients. When we look at the concept of denial through a trauma-informed lens, we can shift how we view our clients from “This client isn’t doing the work” to “This client is coping the best way that they can right now.”
In partnering with other helping professionals, I have found that some folks expect survivor clients to live in a state of hypervigilance, tears, or shame. Sometimes, the expectation is that a survivor will always have a strong emotional response when speaking about the abuse. A neutral tone, not a numbed out tone, is often misinterpreted as “minimizing.”
An expectation that our clients will always present as emotionally dysregulated is an unrealistic expectation. In addition, our clients may have strong resiliency factors that are allowing them to heal from this experience and present from a more neutral position. Our clients may have healthy coping strategies, a solid support system, and/or have been actively engaged in therapy. These clients may present as more neutral because the abuse does not impact them as intensely as it once did, again, due to these positive factors.
Now that we’ve taken a look at this rich context from both biological and social components, let’s explore how we can shift to look at survivor decisions with compassion instead of frustration or even judgement.
Part II examines how we can enhance our current practices in working with survivors to create a new perspective of understanding and compassion.
Megan Burch, LSW, is therapist/owner of Joy Creek Counseling, LLC. Megan has worked with survivors of domestic violence for over 10 years in a variety of settings, including community-based domestic violence agencies, child protection, and private practice. Megan enjoys partnering with survivors of trauma to see the shift into healing and reconnection with self and joy. Megan is also passionate about cultivating secondary trauma resiliency in helping professionals. For more information about Megan, please visit her website at www.joycreekcounseling.com.