Exploring the Counselor’s Experience of Working With Perpetrators and Survivors of Domestic Violence

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:
Gillian Iliffe and Lyndall G. Steed,
Curtin University of Technology

Published: Journal of Interpersonal Violence , V. 15 (4), April 2000, 393-412

What is the purpose of this study?
Research on the effects of domestic violence work on counselors is lacking. The authors’ intention in this study is to add to the body of knowledge about the effects of providing trauma treatment by specifically looking at domestic violence counselors’ reactions. Specifically, the authors ask:

  1. How does work with domestic violence clients affect counselors’ sense of self, worldview, and emotional and physical well being?
  2. How has work with domestic violence clients challenged and changed counselors’ practice, and what are salient concerns specific to helping this population?
  3. How do counselors cope with the effects of working with domestic violence clients?

How was the study conducted?
This study examined the experiences of 18 domestic violence counselors in Perth Australia. The impact of providing counseling to domestic violence victims and perpetrators was explored using three conceptual frameworks: vicarious traumatization (McCann & Pearlman, 1990), burnout, and countertransference. Vicarious traumatization (VT) directly results from hearing victims’ accounts of traumatic experiences. VT was first identified among rescue workers. Symptoms of VT are usually short-term and resemble symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Burnout refers to psychological and physical symptoms of distress, such as lower self-concept, a loss of compassion and frequent headaches, and can result from working with any difficult client population. Countertransference describes the counselor’s response to clients’ stories that result from the counselor’s personal issues or needs. For example, a counselor might "shut down" emotionally and be relatively unempathic to a client if details of the client’s story too strongly threaten the counselor’s beliefs about the world.


To be included in this study counselors had to have worked therapeutically with domestic violence clients, and such clients made up more than 50% of the counselors’ caseloads. Thirteen female and 5 male counselors from six different agencies in Perth met criteria and participated in the study. At the time, all were helping domestic violence clients. Participants had an average age of 46 years; they averaged 10 years of counseling experience and 5.5 years of domestic violence work experience. Most reported receiving about 3.5 days of training about working with domestic violence.


Researchers used a semistructured interview to collect information from subjects about their experiences as trauma counselors for domestic violence clients. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Each subject was asked to read and make adjustments to the transcript of his/her interview before researchers analyzed subjects’ responses.

Data analysis

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, 1995) was used to explore and analyze responses. In this method, researchers identified recurrent themes in the transcripts. Themes were then reevaluated for clarity and to explore gender effects, rank-ordered, compared to each other to identify higher order themes, and listed.

What were the study’s findings?
Findings supported prior knowledge that helping trauma victims can present psychological and physical risk to the helper. Regarding the impact of working with domestic violence clients, researchers identified six major themes:

  1. Initial impact of domestic violence counseling: Almost all study participants reported an initial loss of confidence in their counseling abilities, feeling overly responsible and worried about clients’ safety, and struggling to remain non-judgmental towards perpetrators and towards the choices of clients who were domestic violence victims.

  2. Personal impact of hearing traumatic material:
    1. Emotional reactions of almost all participants included feelings of horror, lingering visual imagery of severe abuse, difficulty hearing about violence against children or recent violence against a client, and anger towards both perpetrators and the criminal justice system because of inadequate support and protection of domestic violence victims. Several reported that it challenged them to maintain a "clinical distance" that protected them without negatively affecting the counseling.
    2. Physical reactions included feelings of heaviness, nausea, churning stomach and feeling shaken in response to hearing clients’ stories of domestic violence.
    3. Female counselors reported more symptoms than male counselors reported. In contrast to male counselors, most females counselors reported feeling emotionally drained and noticed physical symptoms such as headaches, tension and illnesses that they attributed to doing domestic violence counseling.
    4. Working with domestic violence perpetrators was described as "energizing" by all male counselors and some female counselors.

  3. Changes in cognitive schemas: Work with domestic violence clients changed most counselors’ worldview with regard to sense of safety, trust and power/control issues.
    1. Safety: Overall, participants reported feeling "less secure in the world" and more wary of some people.
    2. Trust: Female counselors reported being less trusting of men whether as part of their work or in their private lives.
    3. Power/Control: Study participants commented that domestic violence counseling heightened their awareness of power and control issues, primarily concerning male dominance of women, and that this had a positive effect on their counseling practices and in their personal lives.

  4. Challenging issues for domestic violence counselors: Study participants reported a number of challenges to doing domestic violence work.
    1. Male and female participants both reported that engaging perpetrators in therapy was the most challenging aspect of domestic violence work.
    2. Confidentiality was reported as complex and challenging because "the rights of the individual versus the safety of the individual" at times seemed to conflict.
    3. To better address the safety needs of clients counseling practices had to include more in-depth assessment, more flexible work schedules (e.g. longer sessions), more lenient policies regarding cancellations, and casework services.
    4. All participants reported being challenged by ongoing concerns about clients’ safety because the risk for retraumatization is high among this client population.
    5. Many participants reported feeling professionally isolated because other colleagues did not understand the challenges of domestic violence work.
    6. Feelings of powerlessness challenged all study participants. Many participants believed that such feelings represented a "parallel process" to the struggles of their clients who deal with similar feelings.

  5. Burnout: Twelve of 18 study participants reported having experienced symptoms of burnout. Long hours and high domestic violence caseloads were named as primary causes; lack of training and isolation were reported as secondary factors to burnout.

  6. Coping strategies: Professional and personal strategies were reported.
    1. Debriefing and peer/team support: These strategies reduced isolation and created a shared sense of responsibility among domestic violence counselors.
    2. Prevention through management of domestic violence caseloads: This meant keeping domestic violence/trauma client caseloads small. Participants identified this as one of the most important ways to prevent VT and burnout.
    3. Good self care: This included physical activity, good dietary, sleep and recreational habits.
    4. Acknowledging clients’ strengths: This enabled counselors to defer ultimate responsibility for clients’ lives to the clients themselves, and to believe that with support most clients can make positive changes in their lives.
    5. Socio-political involvement in domestic violence issues: Participants reported that this strategy gave them a positive outlet for feelings of anger and powerlessness that resulted from the work.

Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, June 2, 2000

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