Breaking The Cycle Of Domestic Violence By Working Systemically
Updated: Oct 23
By Angela Mayer (Family Therapist, Counsellor and Mental Health Accredited Social Worker)
Thoughts and Curiosities...
Often any discussion of working systemically stops once domestic violence is identified, but is this helpful? Especially as domestic violence doesn’t necessarily stop if a couple separates, and the potential impacts on children and future generations.
As systemic practitioners, when and how can you work safely with a relationship where there is domestic violence?
Are Practitioners and Counsellors now so familiar with terms like ‘domestic violence’ and ‘coercive control’, that sometimes they dismiss the impact on real lives?
Unfortunately, although awareness has grown, domestic violence hasn’t disappeared. Each time I talk to a client experiencing abuse, converse with a supervisee about a case, or observe a Men’s Behaviour Change group, I’m reminded of the difference one person can make by acknowledging and working to create change.
Based on my experience in this area, I will outline six considerations for working systemically with domestic violence and coercive control for practitioners to reflect upon.
1. Understand that domestic violence isn’t a single phenomenon
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘domestic violence’? It is actually a whole variety of behaviours: lethal/life-threatening physical abuse and strangulation, obvious emotional and verbal putdowns, controlling the way a person thinks and lives, surveillance or insidious undermining of the person’s identity, to manipulation of their emotions and relationships. It is important to know that domestic violence is more than physical and sexual abuse, it includes coercive control:
”Coercive control is when someone uses patterns of abusive behaviour against another person. Over time, this creates fear and takes away the person’s freedom and independence” (Factsheet: Australian Government Attorney General's Department, 2023).
Moreover, it is important to recognise that domestic violence disproportionately affects women and children (it affects men too but at significantly lesser rates and lethality), and special consideration needs to be given to those with disabilities, from Indigenous backgrounds, culturally diverse contexts and LGBTIQ+ backgrounds.
Systemic practitioners are used to working with complexity and the grey areas of relationships. For example, systemic practitioners take the time to understand interaction patterns, identify how a problem impacts on and is impacted by the family relationships, and then work to collaborate with families to make sense of their experience and find a better way forward. However, working systemically around domestic violence requires starting with a number of lenses, not just couple communication, or common interaction patterns like pursuer/distancer, or even the impact of trauma on interactions. Being trauma-informed or aware of attachment injuries is not enough.
When working systemically in the field of domestic violence it is essential to have lenses that encompass entitlement, power, and violence and control. In session, practitioners need to be consciously and competently assessing power imbalances, noting the entitlement present in the room, and listening to their own ‘spidey sense’ when something feels unsafe in a relationship.
2. To focus on the couple's issues or safety first?
For systemic practitioners, think both/and - there is a need to focus BOTH on safety first AND on the couple's issues, not either/or. And this approach needs to continue throughout therapy. The pressure to produce instant solutions for distressed couples can be intense in the initial session. So, slow it down – it is possible to assess and intervene at the same time.
Some ways to work systemically in the first Intake session with a couple:
Whether it’s an individual, couple or a family, providing a rationale for how you work will help to settle clients into working systemically.
Provide a framework for your work. Let clients know relationship counselling allows for a mix of individual and conjoint sessions – this leaves your options open should domestic violence be identified.
In the initial couple session have some individual time with each partner, even briefly, to assess initial risk levels and follow through on safety planning.
Identify the levels of domestic violence. Is it life-threatening or psychologically damaging? If so, this rules out conjoint work.
Beware of collusion with a perpetrator, where one partner is more clearly using controlling tactics. It can be difficult to assess if there is one main perpetrator and supervision is a good place to identify and discuss these dynamics. It is essential to delve beneath surface impressions, as the individual who appears rational might be subtly manipulating their partner, leading to emotional or verbal reactions.
Be aware of your own experiences and possible countertransference in seeing a couple.
Promote boundary setting and safety planning with all couples. Think of yourself as the session “host” who wants to ensure all clients are treated respectfully, both in session and between sessions.
Think carefully about activities you might set for homework between sessions so that any power dynamics are not escalated.
Actively reflect on your cases in supervision!!
3. Conducting an assessment and deciding the best way forward
Research suggests that “in the actual clinical work with these couples, counselors are advised to conduct a thorough assessment of the type and severity of the violence as well as the couple’s stage of change” (Bograd & Mederos, 1999; Lipchik & Kubicki, 1996 in Attunes-Alves, Sara and De Stephano, Jack, 2014 p64).
What are some key areas to be aware of in assessing risk?
A useful risk assessment looks at the likelihood of risk, the consequences of risk, and the level of fear, intimidation and lethality. Couple sessions cannot go ahead if one member of the couple is fearful or states they are concerned the other might kill or severely injure them or any children, if there have been injuries in the recent past, if there are threats to injure or kill, or they feel unsafe going home after sessions. Instead, individual work is advised.
Be aware that there are different types of violence. For further information, research by John Gottman or Michael Johnson can be one helpful starting point. They identify two main types: (1) “characterological violence” or “intimate partner terrorism” is violence that involves fear, intimidation and control, and is different from (2) “situational violence” where couples lack conflict resolution skills, disagreements escalate out of control, and it can include some physical violence. There is no excuse for any form of abuse, and both types can escalate to dangerous levels, however where your assessment suggests “situational violence”, couple counselling can be beneficial.
Be aware of coercive control as well as physical abuse, and build your knowledge of how to identify this. Coercive control is an element of Intimate Partner Terrorism, and it uses psychological and emotional abuse, manipulation and control, and often there may be no physical abuse present. This can be hard to assess as partners are fearful and yet also emotionally connected to the one perpetrating the abuse. They can feel confused and there is a need to assist the partner (victim) experiencing the fear to identify the controlling behaviours/threats to understand that love includes respect and equality, and to identify subtle forms of abuse such as gaslighting, isolation, financial abuse and emotional manipulation.
Evaluate if each person can have a voice in the room. If one person is continually shut down, intimidated, belittled, talked over, interrupted or called names, or you as a practitioner feel compromised, then as the “host” of the session it is your role to establish boundaries or move to individual sessions. Both the Gottman Couples Therapy framework and Emotion Focussed Therapy model suggest that skills around de-escalation are an essential ingredient of conjoint therapy.
Risk assessment and safety planning are ongoing throughout therapy, especially where there has been domestic violence.
4. Working systemically with an individual or couple
Not all couple therapy frameworks are safe to use with couples where there is domestic violence, as couple therapy relies on partners being willing and safe to be vulnerable in each other’s presence and to be able to share emotions and negotiate needs. Where there are unequal power dynamics and domestic violence in a relationship, caution must be exercised with models such as Emotion Focussed Therapy, a fact acknowledged by the originators. There also needs to be care taken in activities such as ‘soothing the other’, so that both partners are taking personal responsibility for their own feelings and behaviour.
Other blogs on this website offer ideas around working systemically with an individual and this is a valid option when supporting people affected by domestic violence. As a systemic practitioner, you have a lot to offer an individual, even if they are not ready for conjoint sessions or conjoint sessions are contraindicated. Systemic practitioners possess a wealth of techniques that can assist individuals, such as:
Providing a contextual understanding of abusive behaviour and recognizing relational dynamics and repetitive patterns, all without condoning the harmful actions.
Assisting people to understand that the perpetrator of abuse often uses minimisation, denial, blame and justification to invite their partner into a cycle of violence/control. This education can help both partners take responsibility for their own behaviours and offers both partners the choice to change or leave the cycle.
Drawing a sequence, or working through a Genogram, may also offer insight into the impact of abuse, and what needs to change and why.
Coaching clients in communication and conflict resolution skills to promote interacting respectfully and in healthy ways. With individuals, however, there needs to be more discussion on the rationale for change and how this information might be shared safely and effectively with a partner at home if they wish to do so. For those who have been experiencing abuse, speaking about their own needs could actually decrease their safety. For the partner who has been more controlling, they can demand new behaviours from their partner, and good communication skills can be utilised to continue the manipulation or control, both intentionally or unintentionally.
5. Intervention - systemic activities and strategies
Whether you are working with an individual or a couple, one of the most critical steps after a risk assessment is to initially listen to your clients and acknowledge their particular experience. Both victims and perpetrators will often minimise their situation and be distrustful. Therefore, instead of immediately validating their perspective (without necessarily agreeing with them), the initial step involves acknowledging their experiences without judgment and then using curiosity and open questions to unpack this.
Some other activities a systemic practitioner might utilise with couples:
Drawing a behavioural sequence, then adding in thoughts and emotions, to highlight the interaction pattern and allow for discussion around ways to break the cycle.
Use of John Gottman’s Rapoport/Active listening activity, the 4 Horseman and Antidotes, the Conflict Blueprint, and Conflict Resolution skills.
Working with the process in the room, coaching healthy responses, listening and negotiating.
Identifying core beliefs behind behaviours and the impact this might have on choices and behaviours (see Ken McMaster’s HMA website for useful resources).
Asking curious questions to highlight the issues, safely challenging the power and control issues, and broadening the alternatives going forward.
Later in therapy consider the following:
As well as exploring interaction patterns, looking at attachment injuries and working on de-escalation of the conflict, then rebuilding of trust.
Domestic violence is a betrayal of the commitment and trust in a healthy relationship, so working with the couple to explore intimacy, connection and trust, once communication skills improve.
Drawing their interaction as a sequence and then overlaying the general cycle of violence (this can assist in naming the behaviour as domestic violence).
Using Alan Jenkin’s book “Invitations to Responsibility” (reprint 2001). He uses Narrative Therapy questions to open up discussion with those using abusive behaviour and provides ways to highlight difference and choice.
Using Allan Wade’s ideas around “acts of resistance” can assist those who have experienced domestic violence to validate their experience and choose a way forward. Wade has a model called “Response Based Practice” and contends that “alongside each history of violence and oppression, there runs a parallel history of prudent, creative, and determined resistance.” (Wade, 1997). In Narrative Therapy we look for the alternative story. Instead of just focusing on the abuse, we can assist those who have experienced abuse to identify their personal power, expose and name their partner’s tactics, list their own acts of resistance, reclaim the parts of themselves they value and affirm what they hold as precious, so creating an alternative story (Wirtz, 1990).
6. Teamwork and group programs
Referring individuals to single-gender group work can be an effective method for facilitating individual growth. In such settings, individuals have the opportunity to challenge disrespectful beliefs, acquire new skills, and benefit from positive peer pressure, which encourages positive change. Currently, in Australia, these groups are predominantly tailored for men; however, individual work can be done with women. The effectiveness and safety of group sessions are enhanced when accompanied by a Partner Advocate who possesses a systemic perspective. A Partner Advocate can assist partners to understand and safely respond to attempts by their partner when adopting new skills and behaviours.
Often systemic practitioners are wary about referral to group work, but when couples are not ready for conjoint work, thinking of a team approach where systemic practitioners and group facilitators can collaborate and support the other’s work, can be very effective.
7. Domestic and Family Violence isn’t just young couples
Domestic and Family Violence has far-reaching effects that extend beyond couples, particularly within the context of families. Systemic therapy recognizes the profound impact of domestic violence on parenting, whether within intact families or those navigating post-separation dynamics. David Mandell, as highlighted on the "Safe and Together" website, sheds light on the diverse ways in which domestic violence influences the parent-child relationship and is a good resource for those interested.
Contemporary practitioners no longer view children merely as witnesses to domestic violence; instead, they acknowledge that children directly experience the violence and abuse. The perpetrator of domestic violence can undermine the parenting abilities of their partner or ex-partner, coercing children to pick sides, employing manipulative tactics like "love bombing," and resorting to fear, intimidation, and threats against the children. Working systemically means seeing the whole family system as impacted by domestic violence and working in ways that will not only change the couple's interaction, but move on to strengthening family and parenting relationships, and nurture healthy attitudes toward gender equity.
Elder abuse is a growing concern for the 65+ age group. It includes couples who have lived with domestic violence all their lives, as well as issues with adult offspring or relatives. Family violence includes controlling, neglecting, abusing or manipulating older family members, often for financial gain. Seniors need support from practitioners who can view their situation systemically, understand the complexities that have developed over time, and identify where parental guilt keeps an older person stuck in abusive cycles with their offspring, especially where mental health issues or addictions have become part of the mix.
Addressing domestic violence is an essential responsibility for practitioners with systemic training. The impact of your work, even when it seems like merely listening and validating someone's experience, can be profoundly transformative for your clients. Moreover, the simple act of sparking curiosity might lead to significant improvements in a family's experiences for generations. Recognize the significance of your role and the potential long-term positive effects it can have.
For further reading:
https://www.gottman.com/couples/ The Gottman Institute
https://www.responsebasedpractice.com/ (Allan Wade)
https://www.hma.co.nz/resources/family-violence/ (Ken McMaster)
Attunes-Alves, Sara and De Stephano, Jack; (2014) Intimate Partner Violence: Making the case for Joint Couple Treatment, The Family Journal: Counselling and Therapy for Couples and Families Vol 22 (1), p62-68 (SAGE)
Hill, Jess (2019/2020); See what you made me do – power, control and domestic abuse (detailed research by an Australian journalist within the Australian context)
Jenkins, Alan (2001) Invitations to Responsibility – the therapeutic engagement of men who are violent and abusive, Dulwich Centre Publications
Mayer, Angela G Krieg (2017); Intervening with Couples Experiencing Domestic Violence: Development of a Systemic Framework, ANZJFT Vol 38, p244-255
Wirtz, Helen; 2020, A Narrative approach to men’s violence toward women (AASW workshop)
About Angela Mayer
I have a BA in Social Work and have worked in several states, in both city and rural contexts. Soon after graduating as a Social Worker, I completed Family Therapy studies and this continues to be my over-arching framework. Later I also completed a Graduate Diploma in Human Services (Relationships Therapy), a certificate in theology and training in working with domestic violence. I am a Clinical member of PACFA and AAFT, and a Mental Health Accredited Social Worker. I also served on the executive for the Queensland Family Therapy Association (QAFT) for many years.
I have worked in diverse areas including relationship and family counselling, family therapy, emotional disorders, school counselling, child abuse and foster care, supervision and domestic violence.
My background has been mostly in several large non-government services. In addition to Counselling, I have provided clinical supervision, management of a counselling team, training in responding to domestic violence, and men's behaviour change group co-facilitation. I have also two published journal articles, one on developing a systemic framework for working with couples around domestic violence (ANZJFT) and the other on the experiences of rural Social Workers.
Visit https://www.angelakmayer.com/ for more information.
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice. Please seek support if required.