The dynamics of violence found in intimate relationships between women are complex and multi-faceted. These range from relationships where the abuse is mono-directional to bi-directional patterns of violence. Since both women participate in the process of violence, both must be offered appropriate support while the violent dynamics are being brought to an end. At the moment, neither the victims nor the perpetrators of violence are provided with adequate and comprehensive psychosocial care. In general, very few specialist organisations have confronted the phenomena of violence in lesbian relationships and consequently they cannot offer adequate counselling for victims or appropriate programs for perpetrators. Because services such as women’s refuges and other traditional victim support organisations generally perceive themselves as responsible for the female victims of male violence, many do not see the need or consider it necessary to confront the phenomena of Violence in lesbian relationships or to develop appropriate concepts and programs (cf. Ohms, Müller; 2001).

A prominent problem when working in the area of “Violence in lesbian relationships” is the unequivocal identification of the perpetrator and victim. This will be given closer consideration in the following and a summarised description will be provided of the various dynamics of violence in lesbian relationships.

This differentiation of the various dynamics make it clear that it is necessary to distinguish between a defensive victim and a person who both exerts and experiences violence in her relationship.

Lesbian women who experience violence as well as lesbian women who resort to violence seek counselling for different reasons. The last mentioned ones either they themselves are suffering, remorseful and want to change things, or a partner who wants them to deal with their behaviour has sent them. There are also clients who seek counselling because they see themselves as victims, whereas the counsellor has the impression that they are actually the violent offenders. In all cases the client’s motives have to be clarified. A clearly structured catalogue of questions, such as that proposed in the following, can be helpful for the first consultation and the development of an appropriate anamnesis.

It is also important that professionals and specialist services working in this area examine their own attitudes to violence by women, especially violence in lesbian relationships and possibly also their attitude to lesbianism. Correspondingly, their standard work must be expanded to include lesbian-specific issues.

Knowledge and understanding of the specific life situation of lesbian women is just as necessary as knowledge of the dynamics of violent lesbian relationships.

Regular exchange on work-related issues and networking with other colleagues and institutions and the maintenance of a referral list of addresses for referrals are important prerequisites for the development of an adequate support infrastructure for lesbian women experiencing violence.

The following presents important considerations when working with lesbian women who are mutually violent and participate in a bi-directional dynamic of violence in their relationship. These are different to the considerations that are important when working with lesbian women who are victims in a mono-directional violent relationship.

However, the complexity of the subject should not discourage professionals or specialist organisations from offering support for lesbian women in violent relationships.

The Various Dynamics of Violence (Mono-directional and bi-directional)

A prominent problem encountered when working in the area of “violence in lesbian relationships” is the unequivocal identification of the perpetrator and the victim. In same-sex relationships there is no gender labelling (in the sense of male = perpetrator, female = victim). This makes the classification of the perpetrator/victim more difficult (cf. Chapter 0.3).

In addition, the dynamics associated with the use of violence are often accompanied by the use of defence, which can easily give rise to the erroneous picture of mutual abuse.  However, there are basic characteristics that provide a basis for identifying and distinguishing between the two different types of violent dynamics.

The use of violence in a perpetrator-victim dynamic is mono-directional while between mutually violent partners the dynamic is bi-directional. The mono-directional use of violence is stems from the objective of gaining and maintaining control over the partner (cf. Allen/Leventhal, 1999). Here, there is a clear distinction between the perpetrator and the victim.  It is possible to recognise a repetitive behaviour pattern that constitutes a three-phase cycle beginning with a build-up of tension, followed by violent release and a reconciliation phase, whereby each phase can be of different duration. If the relationship is considered over a longer term, it is evident that the one partner is subject to repetitive violence.  These roles cannot be exchanged within the relationship. The behaviour of the partner (the defence) can be described as resistance against attempted control (cf. Hart, 1986). However, active defence decreases with the increasing duration of the relationship; the severity of violence by the perpetrator increases correspondingly. 

In a bi-directional exertion of violence,  it is not possible to identify a clear victim role, even if the relationship is viewed over a longer term. The partners demonstrate equally aggressive and controlling behaviour; both wish to assert their wishes (sometimes unconscious) and power over the other.  The use of violence does not occur simultaneously, i.e. not in the form of a “brawl”, in which they are equally involved. Rather, each is violent at different times and out of different motives.

A further phenomenon also supports this classification of the dynamics of violence: The presence or absence of fear in one of the partners.  In the perpetrator-victim dynamic, the victim’s fear is a determining characteristic of the partnership.

The fear that the victim has of the perpetrator is omnipresent. She reckons with assault at any time. In addition, she also attempts to avoid all situations in which the partner might become violent.  

In the dynamic of bi-directional violence, fear may be present in specific situations but is not a dominant characteristic of the relationship. Here, neither of the women experiences constant fear of her partner and neither considers the possibility of avoiding or averting violent abuse.

As described in the chapter titled “Theoretical Underpinning”, there are also other characteristics that differentiate the mono-directional and bi-directional dynamics of violence. Accordingly, it is possible to identify two further sub-categories, which are described more closely there.  

The First Consultation

The existence of violence in a relationship, the experience of violence and the use of violence within a relationship are not usually reasons for the first counselling session. Consequently such experiences are not initially mentioned openly. Women usually seek counselling for other reasons, for example; feeling desperate or generally unsteady, everyday relationship problems, fear of the future or identity crises. Very often the client mentions the violent aspect of the relationship incidentally and without connection to the original issue. She is often not even conscious that what she experienced was violent behaviour.

In this situation it is important, that the counsellor is sensitive to any indication of violence within the relationship. It is her task to identify and name the signs in the context of a possible violent relationship.

Lesbian standards and values, for example, lesbian self-perception of a strong, courageous and self-confident woman make it difficult for the client to accept emotions such as fear and the fact that she has experienced violence in a relationship. It is essential to name the violence as such, and to confirm the client’s view of the situation.

In the first counselling session, the situation has to be analysed and a case history compiled. It is essential for the continuing process to have a clear picture of the relationship, the kind of violence involved and the circumstance that accompany it. Counselling is also open to clients who, from an objective point of view, behave violently but who sincerely believe they are victims and see themselves as their partner’s victims. There are also lesbian women who approach a counsellor knowing that they behave violently, are under a lot of pressure and want to change their behaviour. In order to do justice to all these different women it is essential to have an accurate diagnosis and precisely specified counselling aims.

It is important to find out what the exact situation was and to put a name to what happened. The following questions will help create a picture of the kind of violence involved in the relationship:

  • What happened?
  • What kind of violent behaviour was used?
  • How did each woman react during the situation?
  • How threatening is the situation according to the client? Is the client afraid of her partner? How realistic is her assessment? (Very often the intimidation is made light of by both sides) Were there any further threats?
  • Is the client / the partner safe?
  • Has physical harm been done? Has a doctor been consulted?
  • Were the police called? Has a lawsuit been filed?
  • Is there any contact between the client and her partner? Do they live together? Are they still in a relationship? Are they about to separate? Are they separated? Are they still in touch with each other?
  • children involved? If so, where are they?

And furthermore:

  • What did the client think during and after the violent situation? How did she feel?
  • What had preceded it?
  • What are the psychological consequences of the endured violence? Insomnia, loss of appetite, depression, risk of suicide...
  • Were drugs involved?
  • Have there been comparable situations in the past? When did things start to go wrong? What were the signs?
  • How does the client perceive and describe her partner? Does she still see her good and bad sides or does she downgrade everything?
  • What kind of emotions does the client show during the counselling process with regard to the violent behaviour? Is she anxious, does she feel guilty, angry or does she feel anything at all?
  • Has the client experienced violence in previous relationships? Or during childhood?
  • Is she embedded in a social network? Is the violent structure of the relationship known? If it is, what has the reaction been?

When a woman living in a violent relationship decides to talk to a counsellor she is taking the first step towards changing her situation. This is usually preceded by various unsuccessful attempts to find solutions for dealing with difficult situations, e.g. avoiding violent situations, talking to friends, reinterpreting the experienced situation.

For many women, telephone or personal counselling is the first time they have spoken to anyone about the violence in their relationship. For that reason counselling fulfils the important function of lessening the pressure. It is therefore essential to create a confidential atmosphere, not treat the lesbian way of life as the problem and to listen to what the client has to say without judgement.

The aim of counselling has to be to end the violence and find ways out of a damaging relationship. Depending on the individual case, the solution might be immediate separation (the rule in most violent relationships) or working out new ways of relating to each other. Everyone involved is responsible for their own behaviour: The offenders for the violence and the damage they cause and have caused in the past and those who put up with a violent relationships for not undertaking anything to change the situation.
(Source: Frenznick, M./Müller, K. 2002: p.51 ff)

Attitude / Standards

An essential requirement for the counsellor working with lesbians who have experienced violence is an attitude based on general standards of psychological counselling. These are exemplary: Partiality for the client, transparency in the counselling process, a holistic approach (integration of the health, economic and social situations of the client into counselling), resource orientation and empowerment (i.e. strengthening self-esteem and encouraging self-determination and the ability to act), integration of the social context (see Frenznick, M./Müller, K: 2002).

When working with lesbian women, it is absolutely essential to apply the named standards to the realities of lesbian lives.  Following this, specific standards for counselling lesbian women have been developed, for example empathy for lesbian life-plans. This requires a fundamental knowledge of lesbian-specific circumstances. Apart from knowing about the socialization of lesbian girls and women in a mainly unreflecting heterosexual society, fundamental knowledge of the consequences and dynamics of internalised homophobia is also necessary (ibid. p.64f.).

The counsellor has to make her professional attitude towards violence clear and to address the client’s violent behaviour without condemning her as a person or labelling her a criminal. By simply judging she would discourage compliance, an important basis for an effective working relationship. It is also important to agree upon the precise aims of counselling and to work towards a specific target. It is very tempting for both sides to evade the difficult topic of violence and to discuss other, less risky ones.

Every counsellor and therapist who works with a lesbian client in a violent relationship has to ask herself whether or not she would also be prepared to work with the offender. It is also necessary to redefine the concepts of empathy, concern and partiality. Empathy can be taken to mean understanding but not sharing the same view as the client. Awareness must be created of one’s own potential to become a victim or an offender. Partiality, to support the client in trying to change her ways (ibid. p.59).

To ensure that the counselling of lesbian women conforms to these standards it is advisable to seek the regular support of a qualified supervisor as well as taking part in training programs.

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