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.
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.