The new domestic violence policy that says you should sit in a room with your abuser.

Kate* couldn’t believe it when she entered the counselling room with her abusive partner, Chris*, to find a male counsellor there to greet them as a couple. She had disclosed fears for her safety in an intake form which in her opinion was never read.

“The first thing I thought was – I’m not going to be able to say anything. What’s the point?’

Chris had inflicted emotional, psychological, financial and physical abuse on Kate, including strangulation, and had threatened their children’s lives and Kate was terrified.

Many women feel pressured to undergo counselling with their abusive partner and this pressure is not always experienced in a direct way. For some women experiencing domestic abuse, they genuinely want to attend couples counselling, feeling in some way responsible for the abuse and hoping to find a way to help make it better. In Kate’s case, she had been referred by a health service and by child protection and she felt that there was an “unspoken expectation” that she would go.

Women and violence: The hidden numbers. Post continues after video.

Soon after commencing the therapy, Kate realised that she was going to have to be extremely careful about what she said and how she said it and went to great lengths to minimise and excuse the violence and abuse so as to protect herself and her children.

It did not take long for the “arguments” between the couple to be characterised as Kate’s fault. “The blame was all put on me. I went away with the message that I needed to do more and take pressure off him.”

When the counsellor separated Kate and Chris for individual sessions, Kate felt she could be a little more candid but was really worried about what information would be shared with Chris when they came back together for the couples session; a fear that was not unfounded.

“I definitely felt less safe [as a result of the couples counselling]. I was walking on eggshells. And when he refused to go back, I was kind of glad.”

Couples counselling is unsafe in the context of domestic abuse because the safety of victims cannot be assured. In fact, couples counselling can actually exacerbate the risk of harm to victims of abuse and this is why the women’s safety sector have come out in strong opposition to the Morrison Government’s decision to spend $10 million to expand “whole of family” approaches to domestic and family violence which include couples counselling as a service intervention.


Shockingly, the initiative was announced under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children. However, the women’s safety advocates advising the Government under the National Plan did not recommend it. To the contrary, they had recommended that the crucial service gaps in women specialist and accredited men’s behaviour change programs be addressed.

In the grant documents, a number of organisations are listed as being invited to apply for the funding. Most of these are faith-based organisations which operate a range of family services. It is not a requirement to have experience working with families in the context of domestic and family violence and there are no guidelines or requirements around working with either of the parties safely and in an integrated way with state and territory-based women’s safety interventions. Nevertheless, the services themselves are misleadingly referred to as ‘Specialised Family Violence Services’.

After women’s safety practitioners and advocates came out in criticism of the initiative, the Government said the funding would be targeted towards interventions for children and other high-risk cohorts and that no one would be forced to undertake couples counselling in the context of domestic and family violence.

However, this response by the Government shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics at play in an abusive relationship and the pressures to which victims will likely be subjected. The nature of domestic abuse is such that victims are often made to feel responsible for the behaviour of the abuser and this is part of the pattern of coercive control. For some women, there may be very real threats of harm if they do not agree to undergo counselling if that is what their abuser wants.

Dr Karen Williams is a psychiatrist who treats victims of violence daily and is also the Director of the Doctors Against Violence Towards Women advocacy group. According to Dr Williams “there is no evidence that counselling in this situation is beneficial, or that it reduces violence, however there is evidence that it increases the duration of time in which the individual remains in this relationship and therefore increases her exposure to violence, increasing hers and her children’s risk of physical and psychological injury as well as death”.

This is exactly what happened to Kate who blames couples counselling for her decision to remain in the relationship for nearly a decade longer. Kate says it would have been “fantastic” if she had have been referred to a women’s specialist domestic violence service at that point. “I would have had individual counselling. I needed reinforcement that [I was in] was an unsafe environment. That was never communicated to me.”

The role of women’s specialist services is to support victims of abuse, to validate their experiences, and to resource them as best as possible to be able to make informed decisions around their safety, and the safety of their children.

Accredited men’s behaviour change services, where they exist, aim to work with men to take responsibility for their behaviour and the impacts the abuse has had on the family members and others in their lives and to begin to make changes to their behaviour with a focus on women and children’s safety.

Rosie Batty speaks to Mia Freedman on No Filter. Post continues after podcast. 


Each of these services – women’s specialist and accredited men’s behaviour change services – are provided in a highly integrated way with the frontline services system to ensure the appropriate protections are in place for women and their children, and that there is effective monitoring and information sharing to maximise safety.

Providing couples counselling where domestic abuse is occurring is a whole different ball game. In this context, women often feel silenced and/or have their experiences misconstrued. Indeed, many women relay that the couples counselling session itself served as an abusive process.

Helen* undertook couples counselling with her abusive partner, Lee* after he had had an affair. She too had tried everything she could to “fix” the relationship feeling as though she had been thoroughly “brainwashed” that it was her role to make it better.

When Lee started to behave in an abusive manner in the counselling sessions, the counsellor separated them for split sessions for a while, but Helen didn’t feel safe or heard.

“The counsellor could separate us while we were there if Lee exploded, but then that was it, and I was the one to deal with the repercussions when I got home.”

Helen now describes couples counselling as “one of the worst ideas that anyone could come up with”.

“In an abusive relationship we learn to manage the behaviour of the abuser to stay safe and protect the children, and we do that the best that we possibly can. But when forced to go to counselling you do not have control over what is discussed. In this case, one of two things will happen- either you’ll say something and be punished, or you’ll lie and it is a complete waste of time.”

Women’s Safety NSW, along with its partners in the women’s safety sector are calling on the Government to listen to survivors of domestic abuse and to the specialist services that support them as to what the priorities are for frontline services, and to act in accordance with the evidence base for what have been proven to be safe and effective interventions in the context of domestic abuse.

It’s time for the Government to step up on this issue. This is life and death. And we can’t afford to put a foot wrong.

Hayley Foster is CEO of Women’s Safety NSW (formally WDVCAS NSW), a state-wide peak body for women’s specialist services advocating for women’s safety in the context of domestic and family violence.

Hayley has over 15 years’ experience in the domestic and family violence and justice sectors working in practice, policy and law reform, with a focus on integrating system responses in both metropolitan and regional, rural and remote settings.

Hayley holds advisory roles on the NSW Women’s Alliance, the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and is an Endorsed Trainer with Griffith University’s Violence Research and Prevention Program and Our Watch’s Change the Story and Workplace Equality and Respect Training.

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