Daniel Sonkin, PHD. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist HOME | CONTACT | ABOUT
header articles

A Counselor's Guide to Learning to Live Without Violence - Chapter Two

What Is Violence?

Developing a working definition of domestic violence is an important first step to identifying those behaviors the program is designed to stop. Domestic violence consists of physical, sexual, and psychological violence perpetrated by an individual in an intimate relationship. This relationship may be dating or committed as manifested by cohabitation or marriage. The ages of these individuals may range from adolescence to older adulthood. What differentiates domestic violence from other forms of family violence is that the relationship is supposedly equal, as opposed to a child and parent/adult relationship, or an adult child and his or her elderly parent.

Differing definitions between professionals of the various forms of violence become a problem when screening individuals for a program as well as when evaluating treatment outcome. Therefore it is important to specifically define those behaviors that constitute each form of violence. Physical and sexual violence are less difficult to define than psychological violence, as we shall discuss later in this chapter.

I have developed a Violence Inventory (commercially available through author) as part of a comprehensive lethality assessment questionnaire for domestic violence clients. The Violence Inventory, an extensive list of physical, sexual, and psychological acts of violence, can be completed by the interviewer with the client in order to assess the extent of previous acts of violence.

Physical Violence

Although physical violence may appear on the surface to be easily defined, many men enter into counseling with a limited definition of what constitutes physical violence. This may in part be attributed to patterns of minimization and denial, but it may also relate to society's perceptions of violence. We see so many severe acts of violence through the media that minor acts, such as pushing or grabbing, may not be consciously noticed at all. We have become desensitized to the most mild and frequently used acts of physical aggression.

For the purpose of treating male batterers, acts of physical violence include:

  • Slapping
  • Drowning
  • Grabbing
  • Hair-pulling
  • Punching
  • Arm-twisting
  • Pushing
  • Hanging by neck, arms, or feet
  • Kicking
  • Handcuffing
  • Kneeing
  • Tying up with rope
  • Choking
  • Clawing or scratching
  • Pushing to ground
  • Threatening with gun or knife
  • Biting
  • Using knife or gun
  • Threatening with object Burning
  • Using object Spitting
  • Breaking or throwing objects

Using a consistent interview tool to assess the types, severity, and frequency of physical violence is important so that counselors do not overlook these details with any client. Denial, minimization, and simple lack of memory can prevent clients themselves from fully disclosing the extent of their violent behavior. Therefore it is up to the counselor to ask about specific acts, as described above, in order to make accurate determinations as to both potential lethality and a treatment plan that addresses the client's needs. Additionally, many clients do not consider pushing or grabbing "violence," so that an open-ended style of questioning alone is not likely to obtain descriptions of these less-than-lethal forms of physical violence. Additionally, asking direct questions about the specifics of their violence helps to break patterns of minimization and denial. The Violence Inventory inquires into the specific acts of violence, their frequency, and any injuries that have resulted from those acts.

Because of the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from abusers as to the extent, severity, and frequency of their violence, it is important for counselors to conduct separate interviews with the partners of their clients. There are several purposes for these interviews. The first is to obtain a more accurate violence history. Although victim's accounts of violence may also be prone to minimization or memory loss, experience has shown that they are likely to be more accurate than their abusing counterparts. Second, conducting a thorough violence history with the victim helps her to break any tendencies to minimize or deny the seriousness of her situation. Lastly, perpetrator-counseling programs are encouraged to maintain contact with the partner to determine if there are any additional acts of violence. This is especially important if the client is having contact with her. How these follow-up interviews are handled is discussed later in this book.

Sexual Violence

Because of both counselor and client's discomfort in discussing sexuality in general, sexual violence is often not addressed. However, research indicates that this form of violence may occur in over fifty percent of physically violent relationships. Many acts of sexual aggression also occur in concert with physical violence.

Acts of sexual violence include:

  • Forced intercourse
  • Beating on genitals Inserted objects
  • Forced prostitution Forced masturbation
  • Forced pornography Forced anal intercourse
  • Forced sex with others
  • Forced oral sex

In addition, many men use psychological violence (e.g., intimidation and coercion) in order to engage their partner in sexual activity. Counselors should take special care to discuss these matters with men on a regular basis once they have developed sufficient rapport.

Psychological Violence

Psychological violence has been defined in a number of ways over the years. Unlike physical and sexual violence, psychologically violent acts can range from the overt ("I'm going to kill you.") to the subtle ("If you leave, I can't be held responsible for what I do."). Only recently has there been any attempt to define it in any measurable way. It is important to arrive at clearly defined behaviors that constitute psychological violence, because it can be as emotionally damaging as physical or sexual assaults. However, many programs across the country use different definitions, which may add to confusion as to what counseling approach is best for your clients. Let's examine the various definitions of psychological violence used by programs today.

Duluth Model

Certain programs, such as the Domestic Containment Program in Duluth, Minnesota (Pense and Paymar, 1993), have used the most inclusive definition that could be referred to as psychological abuse. This defintion is likely to include some men as batterers who in the past may have been labeled as abusive, unfair fighters, or chauvinistic. Their power and control wheel describes eight forms of psychological abuse consisting of specific behaviors.

  • Using coercion and threats (making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt her, threatening to leave her, to commit suicide, or to report her to welfare, making her drop charges, making her do illegal things)
  • Using economic power (preventing her from getting or keeping a job, making her ask for money, giving her an allowance, taking her money, not letting her know about or have access to family income)
  • Using male privilege (treating her like a servant, making all the big decisions, acting like the master of the castle, being the one to define men and women's roles)
  • Using children (making her feel guilty about the children, using the children to relay messages, using visitation to harass her, threatening to take away the children)
  • Minimizing, denying, and blaming (making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously, saying the abuse didn't happen, shifting responsibility for abusive behavior, saying she caused it)
  • Using isolation (controlling what she does, who she sees and talks to, what she reads and where she goes, limiting her outside involvement, using jealousy to justify actions)
  • Using emotional abuse (putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, calling her names, making her think she's crazy, playing mind games, humiliating her, making her feel guilty)
  • Using intimidation (making her afraid by using looks, actions, gestures, smashing things, destroying her property, abusing pets, displaying weapons)

Amnesty International Definition of Psychological Violence

Lenore Walker (1994), author and clinical psychologist, has suggested using the definition provided by Amnesty International (the human rights watch group) of psychological violence or terrorism because it closely resembles the ways that male batterers control and intimidate their partners.

  • Isolation of victim
  • Induced debility-producing exhaustion
  • Monopolization of perceptions, including obsessiveness and possessiveness
  • Threats, such as death to self, victim, family or friends, or sham executions
  • Degradation, including humiliation, denial of victim's power, and verbal name-calling
  • Drug or alcohol administration
  • Altered states of consciousness produced by a hypnotic state
  • Occasional indulgences that keep hope alive that the abuse will cease

Following are some examples of such actions as they might occur in cases of domestic violence.

Examples of isolation would include not letting her socialize with friends or family members, forcing her to stay at home or not letting her leave the house without his presence, moving away from all her support systems, such as friends or family members.

Induced debility-producing exhaustion would include keeping her up all night during a fight, waking her up to argue with her or abuse her physically or sexually, making her do all the work at home, forcing her into a servant role, keeping her pregnant, or not allowing her to have support in taking care of the children.

Monopolization of perceptions includes pathological jealousy, having to know where she is all the time and who she is with, accusing her of being with other men, looking at other men, or wanting to be with other men, following her, controlling finances so she cannot leave him, stalking her after a separation or divorce, or refusing to obey restraining orders. Stalking is a specific form of psychological violence to be described later in this chapter and discussed more fully in Chapter Ten.

Threats to kill her, kill others, or kill himself are common forms of psychological abuse that are intended to control her and get what he wants.

Verbal degradation is another common behavior that men use to cope with their fears, control their partners, and deal with their own sense of worthlessness. Comparable to physical abuse, the verbal name-calling has as much, or sometimes more, impact on the victim in that it serves to damage the victim's sense of self-worth, resulting in feelings of powerlessness. She feels she must give up her own values, her point of view and feelings, in order to keep him from becoming physically violent.

Drug or alcohol administration is common in many battering relationships. Many male batterers encourage their partner to use alcohol or drugs, some force her use of chemicals, and many battered women simply do so as a means of coping with their depression or anxiety about their situation. Women with preexisting chemical abuse problems often gravitate towards partners with similar problems. Frequently, violence is a prominent aspect of these relationships.

Altered states of consciousness is a term that often refers to the batterer's attempt to invalidate his partner's perceptions. Many men try to convince their partner that she is crazy or is hearing or seeing things that did not happen, or that she can't live without him. The motion picture Gaslight quite effectively illustrates this dynamic.

The occasional indulgences that we often hear are typified by the statement, "I promise dear, I'll never do it again." In psychological violence, this is followed with loving behavior, such as gift-giving, sensitivity, and tolerance for a short period of time before the old behavior sets in again.

This list provides a comprehensive description of psychological violence but is more narrow than the Duluth program definition. The Amnesty International definition describes the more severe forms of psychological violence without including what may be termed dysfunctional or negative interpersonal problem-solving behaviors. However, even many of these criteria are susceptible to interpretation and therefore may be criticized for not being clearly and consistently definable.

Using the Penal Code to Define Psychological Violence

Use of the criminal penal code is one way of formulating a more clear and reliable definition of psychological violence. In most states a threat to hurt or batter is called assault. Simple assault may be a verbal act but is most commonly accompanied by a physical gesture, such as threatening with a fist or an object. Aggravated assault is usually a threat to kill as indicated by the use of a weapon, such as a knife or a gun. Threats to kill or terrorizing threats are also described in the penal code. Therefore, if we were to use the law as the criterion for defining psychological violence, then any threat to hurt or kill would be a part of this definition. Additionally, stalking would be an important part of this definition. Briefiy, this includes any attempt on the perpetrator's behalf to follow, watch, harass, terrorize, or otherwise contact his partner against her desires.

The use of the penal code can be a good start in developing a working definition of psychological violence. Many of the men referred for treatment are court-ordered, and as a condition of probation or diversion are required to sign a statement indicating that they will abide by the court mandate as well as obey all laws. If the client threatens or assaults his partner, then he has broken the law and therefore is in violation of his probation or diversion. When this type of behavior is reported by the treatment program the criminal justice system is likely to respond, as opposed to the mere reporting of an argument where the man called his wife a derogatory name.

On the other hand, the obvious problem with using the penal code is its narrow and restrictive definition of psychological violence. Name-calling, for example, can over time be experienced as painful and traumatic as a physical threat of violence. Not addressing this fact in counseling gives the message that any behavior is acceptable as long as it is not illegal.

Inventory of Psychological Violence towards Women

Developed by Richard Tolman (1989) at the University of Illinois School of Social Work, the Psychological Violence towards Women Inventory is the first psychometric-type test that has been developed for specifically measuring psychological violence by male batterers. Tolman developed items that fell into six categories:

  • Attacking her personhood, demeaning, belittling, undermining self-worth
  • Defining her reality, getting her to question her own perceptions and judgments
  • Controlling her contact with outside world and support systems
  • Demanding subservience, complying with rigid sex-role expectations within the family
  • Withholding positive reinforcers within the relationship
  • Threatening nonphysical punishment for noncompliance with requests; status and emotional regulation

After analyzing the fifty-eight-statement questionnaire using responses of both battered women and male batterers, Tolman found that statements fell into one of two categories: domination/isolation (which included isolation from resources, demands for subservience, and rigid observance of traditional sex roles) and emotional/verbal (which included verbal attacks, behavior that demeans the woman, and withholding of emotional resources).

Psychological Maltreatment towards Children

Psychologists in the child maltreatment field have been working hard to understand the effects of psychological maltreatment so that a mandated reporter can better identify such situations. Marla Brassard and Stuart Hart (Brassard, et al., 1993), from the University of Indiana, are two of the leading authorities in the field of psychological maltreatment of children. Through their efforts, a concise definition of psychological maltreatment of children is well on the way to being developed. The most recent definition is as follows:

  • Spurning: rejecting (refusing to acknowledge or help, treating differently from others in ways that suggest dislike), degrading (depreciating, calling stupid or worthless, publicly humiliating)
  • Terrorizing: intimidation, fear, violent dread, fright, witnessing extreme violence towards others, which includes witnessing the threat of serious injury or death, or the actual infiiction of serious injury or death, threats to kill
  • Isolating: separating from others, locking in a closet, room, not allowing to socialize with peers or other family members
  • Corrupting: modeling pathological, violent, antisocial, or self-destructive behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, which includes the misuse/abuse of alcohol and drugs as administered or encouraged by the parent/caregiver
  • Exploiting: using for one's own advantage or profit, forcing to take on the role of a servant, forcing or coercing to partake in pornography or prostitution
  • Denying emotional responsiveness: the "deprivation suffered when a parent does not provide the normal experiences producing feelings of being loved, wanted, secure, and worthy." Emotional neglect is the failure to take into account or respond to the basic emotional needs of a child; the failure to treat them as human beings. Abandonment would also fall under this category.

This definition of psychological maltreatment is fairly consistent with the other broader definitions described above. However, for our purposes, some of the terminology would need to be changed to relate to a battered adult partner rather than a child. Which Definition to Use?

Given these definitions of psychological violence, it is doubtful that any of us have escaped being victims or perpetrators at one time or another (e.g., wanting to make a unilateral decision on a particular matter; being called by or calling our partner "stupid," or being publicly humiliated by a partner). However, most of us probably experienced or perpetrated these acts under conditions that lacked sufficient intensity, frequency, and duration to have lasting negative effects. This is probably not the case in many batterers' lives. It is the extreme, frequent, and consistent experience of psychological violence that we need to look for and document if it exists. While each type of psychological violence described above is distinct in principle, in practice there is a great deal of overlap, so that we rarely see only one type of psychological violence. Therefore, no matter what definition or combination of definitions you use, it is important for a client to understand each type of psychological abuse he has perpetrated and the effects of that abuse on his partner.

Researchers in the field of child maltreatment have been examining the issue of defining psychological abuse for many years. Like family violence advocates, researchers, and clinicians, they have struggled with the advantages and disadvantages of broad versus narrow definitions of psychological maltreatment. Broad definitions of psychological abuse recognize its manifestations in both obvious and subtle forms. Broad definitions also help to clearly illustrate the pervasiveness of this type of abuse and the gray boundary between abusive and nonabusive behaviors. Broad definitions make the connection between social and cultural factors and their infiuence on the experience of the individual or family. On the other hand, these broad definitions of psychological abuse may often disregard important individual and cultural differences creating standards of conduct defined by a few but compared to many. The greatest drawback to broad definitions of psychological abuse is that the definition may be so vague or general that it makes the majority of parents (or men) vulnerable to being identified as abusers. This also gives the subtle or direct impression that these "borderline" cases will eventually become full-fiedged cases of physical or sexual abuse, even though there is no definitive research that supports this theory. Narrow definitions tend to restrict the list of actions constituting psychological maltreatment to the more blatant and more easily agreed-upon behaviors that constitute psychological abuse. By their less-inclusive nature, these definitions are less vulnerable to the problems of the broader definitions. However, these more-narrow definitions often ignore the subtle forms of abuse that may be equally injurious as, or predictive of, the more serious forms. Narrow definitions may also fail to identify social forms of psychological abuse such as racism and sexism.

Another issue related to definition of psychological maltreatment is how one determines what acts constitute psychological abuse. Is it the act per se that is abusive, or is it the effect it has on the victim? Simply defining acts as abusive does not take into account the range of possible reactions by individuals. There is still much research that is needed as to what acts have what effects under what circumstances (severity, frequency, etc.). Another question needing exploration is the effect of repeated abuse over time. Is there an accumulation of psychological effects over time, making a person more vulnerable to psychological injury and less able to defend against psychological attacks on the self?

With child victims, the stage of development plays an important role in what constitutes psychological maltreatment and its subsequent effects. Particular acts of abuse may have a more devastating effect on a younger child than an adolescent. Considerable research has supported that early psychological maltreatment may have profound and lasting effects on children, leading them to experience many of the same problems as those who have been physically and sexually abused. Developmental issues play less of a significant role with adult victims of psychological abuse. However, adults who are victims of repeated trauma may experience a diminishing of internal psychological defenses and resources necessary to fend off the negative effects of abuse over time. Another problem in accurately defining psychological maltreatment has to do with the issue of intent. It has been suggested that a victim's past experiences may either exacerbate or diminish the effects of the abuse. For example, a person whose self-esteem has been damaged by past acts of violence may define some acts as more abusive than an objective outsider would. Even some individuals who have greater psychological resources may experience a particular negative comment or abusive action in a detrimental manner.

It is clear from the literature that there are more questions than answers regarding definitions of psychological maltreatment. Therefore, counselors are encouraged to cautiously use a definition of psychological maltreatment, particularly when working with court-mandated clients and handling crises. Because psychological abuse is likely to regularly occur with male batterers in treatment, it is suggested that counselors clarify with probation, the courts, and clients themselves what acts of psychological abuse will be considered a reoffense and therefore reported to the court (or probation). Similarly, it is suggested that counselors use caution when using psychological abuse as a basis of exercising their duty to protect when that would necessitate a violation of confidentiality and/or call for involuntary hospitalization. In these situations, I would recommend that counselors use the more narrow, crime-specific definitions of psychological violence (threats, harassing, stalking, etc.) and reserve the broader elements of the definition (name-calling, using male privilege, etc.) for the education component of the treatment program.


Brassard, M.R.; Hart, S.N.; and Hardy, D.B. (1993). The psychological maltreatment rating scales. Child Abuse and Neglect, v17 (6), 715-730.

Pense, Ellen and Paymar, Michael (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth Model. New York: Springer Publications.

Tolman, R.M. (1989). The development of a measure of psychological maltreatment of women by their male partners. Violence and Victims, Fall, v4 (3), 159-178.

Walker, L.E.A. (1994). Abused women and survivor therapy: A practical guide for the psychotherapist. Washington, DC: APA Press.