Finding Your Way Forward Through Domestic Violence Counseling

Updated June 14, 2024by Regain Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Experiencing domestic violence can be disorienting, frightening, and deeply painful. In addition to the immediate negative impacts on your happiness and safety, domestic violence can cause lasting trauma and damage to your mental health. 

A licensed therapist who specializes in domestic violence can help survivors grapple with disorders that often occur after experiencing abuse, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders, connect survivors to resources, and support survivors as they work to regain self-confidence and well-being.

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What is domestic violence? 

Domestic violence (sometimes called domestic abuse or intimate partner violence) refers to a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship, where the abuser repeatedly makes efforts to gain control, power, or influence over a partner. 

Although many people think that domestic violence refers to physical violence, there are several types of abuse that qualify as domestic violence, and they often do not include physical harm.

Types of abuse that commonly occur in domestic violence situations include: 

  • Physical abuse: This type of abuse may include any type of physical violence (such as pinching, shoving, pulling hair, or hitting), withholding medical care, or forcing the use of substances. 
  • Sexual abuse: This type of abuse may include things like sexual contact or advances without consent, coercion to perform sexual acts, harming sexual body parts, and withholding sexual contact as a form of manipulation. 
  • Financial abuse: Financial or economic abuse occurs when the abusive partner controls access to finances that the other partner has a right to. Examples include damaging their credit score, limiting job prospects, restricting access to money, forcing the partner to default on financial obligations, or using conservatorships or other positions for exploitation.  
  • Emotional abuse: A partner who engages in emotional abuse may make demeaning comments, gaslight, repeatedly criticize their partner, call them names, or otherwise act in ways that intentionally harm their partner’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and/or independence. 
  • Technological abuse: When a partner uses technology such as internet-connected devices, social media, apps, cameras, or location tracking devices to do things like stalk, harass, exploit, or monitor a partner, it may constitute technological abuse.  
  • Psychological abuse: Actions taken to intimate or threaten a partner (or their children, family, friends, or pets), destroy property, or force isolation, may constitute psychological abuse. 

While some victims may have a single type of abuse committed against them, it’s common for multiple types of abuse to occur in domestic violence situations. If you’ve been abused by someone close to you, you are not alone. Reports suggest that approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. Receiving help from a domestic violence counselor can help you recover and move forward.

What are the benefits of domestic violence counseling?

People who are currently in an unhealthy relationship, survivors of domestic violence, and their loved ones, may benefit from domestic violence counseling in some of the following ways: 

  • Identifying warning signs

Many therapists focus on educating their clients about what healthy relationships look like, and what potentially toxic relationships look like. In some cases, therapists can help their clients leave unhealthy relationships before abuse escalates by helping them identify things like: 

    • Love bombing
    • Excessive jealously and/or accusing the victim of flirting with others or infidelity 
    • Isolating from others
    • Gaslighting 
    • Name calling
    • Unpredictability
    • Controlling behavior
    • Victim blaming 
    • Controlling finances
    • Humiliation
    • Minimizing their harmful behaviors
    • They hurt your feelings, apologize, and then return to the same hurtful behaviors

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence provides a more extensive list of warning signs of abusive behavior

Oftentimes, abusive relationships do not seem unhealthy early on. Instead, it’s generally a cyclical and escalating pattern of abusive behavior that escalates over time. Becoming aware of red flags early on can help you avoid some of the physical danger and mental health impacts that abusive relationships can have on survivors.  

  • Planning for safety

Domestic violence can escalate over time, sometimes to the point where the victim’s life is at risk. For example, reports suggest that almost half of all female victims of homicide over the past decade were killed by their partners. For people currently in abusive relationships, it is important to plan how they will leave the relationship as safely as possible, because leaving an abuser is often the most dangerous time.  

You can make your escape plan safer by taking steps like: 

    • Identifying safer areas of the home to go if an argument starts, such as a room without potential weapons (such as a kitchen), and with access to doors or windows
    • Share code words with trusted friends, family, or neighbors to indicate that you need help, and they should call authorities
    • Keep your car fueled, facing towards the road, with the door unlocked, and a spare key in a location with easy access
    • Store phone numbers and copies of important documents at a safe location, such as a friend’s house
    • Practice an escape plan 
    • Use a “burner phone” or a friend's phone when seeking help, if possible, to protect youself
    • Check your live location tracking and smartphone settings 
    • Use a safe computer, such as at worker, a library, or a borrowed device from a friend to protect your browser history
    • Change passwords for your bank, social media accounts, emails, messaging apps, etc. 
    • If you find that they’re using tracking devices such as hidden camaras or GPS devices, it may be a good idea to leave them in place until you’re ready to leave so you do not alert them to your knowledge or plans

Therapists may be able to offer evidence-based advice on creating a plan to safely leave, or they may be able to connect you with resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

  • Opportunity for self-expression

People in abusive relationships may feel unable to honestly express their thoughts and feelings for fear of saying something that might trigger unpredictable or hurtful responses from their partner.

Even after leaving an abusive relationship, the feeling of being guarded or fearing emotional vulnerability may persist. Therapy can offer a safe space for those who have experienced intimate partner violence to share their emotions, thoughts, and stories.

  • Improved self-esteem

Research indicates that many survivors of intimate partner violence experience damages to their mental well-being, self-perception, and self-esteem. Survivors may have difficulty trusting their own abilities and judgment. Sometimes, they may not believe that they “deserve” happiness, security, or a loving relationship. 

Holistic care for any physical injuries, mental health challenges, and substance use disorders (which often develop in people who’ve survived traumatic experiences), is often recommended. Licensed therapists trained in domestic violence counseling are specially equipped to help survivors rebuild their identity and confidence after having it systematically broken down by an abuser. 

  • Connection with resources

Controlling and violent partners frequently attempt to cut their partners off from money, social support, transportation, and other potential sources of independence. Counselors can often help survivors access the resources they need to build a life separate from their abuser, such as:

    • Temporary shelter
    • Permanent housing
    • Protective orders
    • Legal services
    • Childcare
    • Medical assistance
    • Job training

An experienced domestic violence counselor may be able to offer referrals to other social services, sometimes acting as a liaison with the relevant agencies. They may be able to help fill out forms and navigate bureaucracy and may also appear in court to advocate on a survivor’s behalf.

  • Management of PTSD

Being subjected to violence, emotional abuse, sexual coercion, and/or controlling behavior from a loved one can cause lasting trauma that extends far beyond physical injuries. Many people develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of domestic violence. Counseling can include trauma-based therapy to help survivors process their experiences and substantially reduce symptoms of PTSD.

  • Mental health treatment

In addition to PTSD, domestic violence can be a risk factor for disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The intense stress of an abusive relationship may significantly impair mental health. Licensed domestic abuse counselors can provide evidence-based therapies to help clients manage their symptoms and improve their well-being.

  • Care and healing for children

In many cases of domestic violence, the romantic partner of the abuser is not the only one affected. Children may also develop psychological and behavioral challenges when they witness intimate partner violence, even if they themselves were not abused. If your children have been affected by the violence you’ve experienced, a trained counselor can teach you effective strategies for helping them recover emotionally.

  • Better relationship skills

As you move on from an abusive relationship, you may wish to find new romantic connections. But your past experiences of domestic abuse may have negatively affected your confidence or distorted your ideas about how relationships work. Counseling can help you develop healthy, effective ways to look for love and relate to future partners.

Connection with support groups

Individual therapy (usually cognitive behavioral therapy) is often a first-line treatment for survivors of domestic violence. However, it can also be beneficial to get support from a community of other survivors. Support groups can bring survivors together to offer each other companionship, assistance, advice, and a chance to share experiences and be understood. A domestic violence counselor can often help you find groups in your area or online.

Can domestic violence counseling help abusers?

Most counseling resources for intimate partner violence focus on assisting survivors. But what about the people responsible for the abuse? Can psychological treatment help them reduce or eliminate their violent behavior?

Although there are a number of treatment programs that aim to correct abusive behavior, the evidence for their effectiveness is limited. Many attempts to evaluate how well these programs work at reducing future violence have found only small effect sizes.

Some people experiencing domestic violence may be interested in pursuing couple’s therapy. They may hope that they can develop healthier relationship dynamics and convince their partners to stop their abusive behavior. Many counselors and assistance organizations don’t recommend this type of treatment, however, because they’re concerned that the discussion of sensitive issues in counseling may result in further violence from the abuser in retaliation.

There’s controversy about this issue among psychological researchers. Some studies suggest that couples therapy might help in cases where abuse is infrequent and situational. However, more research is likely needed to recommend this type of treatment. And in cases where a partner is showing a sustained pattern of controlling, violent abuse, there’s a strong chance that couples counseling would not be helpful.  

It’s generally best to prioritize your safety over trying to salvage the relationship. If you’re concerned that therapy might provoke a violent response in your partner, you may not want to encourage them to attend.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
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Online counseling may help

If you’re in the process of healing after leaving an abusive relationship, you might feel more comfortable attending sessions from the comfort of your home. Additionally, many survivors who recently left abusive situations may not have reliable access to transportation or health insurance, making online therapy more convenient and oftentimes more affordable. 

Online therapy platforms, like Regain, offer therapy from licensed professionals who are knowledgeable about domestic violence, and the cost of therapy is comparable to what you might expect from an insurance co-payment. A randomized trial of an internet-based therapy method found that it was effective for symptoms of PTSD and depression, and many of these benefits persisted after a 40-week follow-up. 


Counseling can provide a wide range of benefits for those who have experienced intimate partner abuse. It can improve self-esteem and help with mental health difficulties like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Domestic violence counselors may also be able to help with the pragmatic challenges of exiting an abusive relationship, such as safety planning and accessing social services. Working with a licensed therapist online can be more accessible and improve symptoms of disorders like PTSD, depression, and anxiety for survivors. 

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