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Finding a therapist is a lot like dating, but without the romance or, let’s be honest, the threat of violence. You may need to try out several therapists before finding the right fit. After all, this is a stranger with whom you will be sharing the most intimate and personal details of your life. You’ll want to choose someone with experience and knowledge in the type of trauma that you’ve endured. For domestic violence survivors, this means making sure the therapist does more than just say they treat abuse survivors, but that they truly know the intricacies of treating a patient that has lived through intimate partner violence.
Trust that when you find the right therapist, it’ll be worth it. One study showed that nearly 90 percent of clients reported an improvement in their emotional health and 66 percent reported improvement in their physical health after receiving treatment from a therapist. In children, it was reported that 73 percent of parents noticed an improvement in their child’s behavior, performance in school and relationship with other children after therapy.
Finding a Therapist as a Domestic Violence Survivor
Sybil Cummin is a licensed professional counselor with Arvada Therapy Solutions in Colorado. She’s specialized in working with domestic violence victims, including children, since 2008. She says while therapists might check the “domestic violence” box on sites like Psychology Today, where many individuals look for a therapist, that doesn’t mean she would necessarily choose them.
“More than just a title matters — it’s about their experience, background and understanding of domestic violence,” she says. In order to determine that, there are a few things you should ask yourself, and them, before choosing a therapist.
1. Can the therapist finish your sentences?
What Cummin means is: does the therapist demonstrate an understanding of domestic violence right away? For instance, you begin to tell them your story of leaving an abusive partner.
“I thought everything would be better after I left him,” you say.
“But it actually got worse?” the therapist responds.
They’ve demonstrated they understand the difficulties and threat of leaving an abuser—not only the doubts a survivor can struggle with but also the often constant sense of fear that the abuse hasn’t stopped.
“You’re worried all the time they might be tracking you, following you. You’re scared for your kids to be with them alone. Things like that,” Cummin says. “The therapist isn’t interrupting but you really believe that this person sees you and believes you.”
2. Do you feel believed and heard?
If you’re sharing what happened with an abusive partner and you get even a mild sense that the therapist is doubting your story, or they interject any kind of blame or shame (But why didn’t you leave the first time?), they’re likely not going to be the right therapist for you. Not every therapist understands that victims of domestic violence often return to an abuser multiple times before leaving for good or have a hard time leaving at all due to myriad barriers. This can include threats to their safety, threats of losing custody of their children, financial or medical dependence, or hope that things will improve in the future, all valid reasons why it’s difficult to simply leave. A good therapist will not only understand that but can help a survivor unpack the complicated feelings that come along with abuse.
3. Does the therapist testify in family court?
If you’re looking for a therapist to testify in family court on your or your child’s behalf, you want to ask about that upfront and also understand the potential pros and cons of that happening. Explains Cummin, “I don’t testify for my adult clients in family court because anything we’ve ever talked about, I would be required to share.” That means that if you, as a survivor, mention that at some point you felt suicidal ideations and the court asks about this, the therapist would have to answer truthfully. This could be used against a survivor by an abuser’s counsel to prove a ”mentally unstable” narrative, putting a survivor at risk when it comes to securing custody of their children.
4. Does the therapist offer different modalities of healing?
“Talk therapy,” also known as psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, is one of the most common modalities of therapy. It describes a therapist and patient sitting down and talking through their feelings and emotions. But for some patients, other modalities may be recommended in addition or instead of CBT. From EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to thought field therapy and many, many more, a good therapist will be able to assess a patient’s needs and recommend the right modality to help them process their trauma. The most important thing, says Cummin, is that the therapist “allows you the autonomy to choose.”
You don’t want to feel pressured into a mode of therapy that forces you to do something you’re not comfortable with. After all, the hallmark of abusers is taking away your ability to choose, and therapy should empower you to do the opposite. Keep in mind that therapists are trained in and use different modalities, so having a good understanding of modalities can be helpful. A therapist will be able to tell you which modalities they treat with and explain which ones they’d recommend for your treatment.
5. Do they take insurance?
Therapy isn’t cheap, so if you can find one who takes your insurance, all the better. If not, you want to establish fees up front or ask about payment plan options. For free, low-cost or sliding-scale therapy resources, see “Ask Amanda: How Can I Get Therapy If I Can’t Afford It?”
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Where to Look Online for a Therapist
Here are a few places to begin the search for a therapist online:
- DomesticShelters.org Get Help Page. Type in your ZIP code, call a shelter near you and ask if they have referrals for therapists who work with domestic violence survivors.
- American Psychological Association
- GoodTherapy.org (for telehealth appointments)
- Military OneSource (for servicemembers and their dependents). Therapy provided by the military is offered free of charge, but it’s not guaranteed they have knowledge of domestic violence.
- Call your insurance company or Medicaid, though it’s hit or miss if this will pan out. “They’re supposed to have care coordinators,” says Cummin skeptically. “Sometimes they’re helpful.” Most insurance companies also have a website that shows which therapists in your area accept your insurance.
- Ask friends for a referral. Word of mouth is a great endorsement, but just make sure the therapist has knowledge in domestic violence.
To note: Not all therapists will advertise they treat victims of domestic violence. Cummin doesn’t. She doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact in case a survivor is still with an abuser and needs to get that abusive partner’s “permission.” This way, the survivor can say they’re seeing a therapist to help with another issue, unrelated to domestic violence.
“We also don’t advertise domestic violence as a specialty because we work with kids,” she says. “We would never get consent from the abusive parent to see their child.”
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