Female Violence: Can We Therapists Face Up To It? – Dec 2002

Back in the days of my counselling training, one of our tutors, when asked about her views on working with child
abusers said, ‘of course I would work with an abuser, as long as HE stops the abuse whilst working with me.’ I
thought this position to be reasonable; I would probably do the same would I work with a child abuser. At the
time I did not notice the assumption an abuser is male.

I have to date not worked with a male child abuser. Instead I have worked with a female client who attacked her
husband with a knife while he held their child in his arms. Another long-term client I have worked with engaged in
regular fights with those around her. This same client frequently tried to bully me. Sadly, this bullying became so
severe that, following an intense period of consideration and consultations with my supervisor, I terminated the work
with her after three years. Acknowledging that we had exhausted the possibilities of our work together was tough. She
left angrily and I was left doubting my skill and integrity.

I thought it was situational stress combined with the trauma of painful childhood experiences that were the reasons for
the aggressive and violent behaviour of both my clients. In retrospect I believe that this view was probably a contributing factor in the failure of the work with these women.

A female client is more likely to disassociate from violent notions because violence does not fit with sanctioned identities and expectations. As already indicated, the role of mother and primary caregiver, for instance, is for most people irreconcilable with violence. If we as therapists are led by this stereotype we will restrict the field in which we can work with our client. Primarily it is our task, rather then the client’s, to allow violence to be explored. Basically, a phenomenological standpoint that is free of restrictive value judgements is key.

A creative exploration of her own violent images and feelings will help a client, in time, to become aware of unconscious disassociations. Working with subpersonalities with the aim to facilitate integration can be used in this context. Following from there an exploration of the practical consequences of acting out of anger ought to be included. The aim is empowerment: The client should be able to hold an awareness of her feelings without needing to disassociate from them or acting them out.

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