The role of person-centred therapy in empowering domestically abused women

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 2393


This phenomenological study inquired into the role person-centred therapy plays in empowering domestically abused women. It attempted to shed light on the meaning of power and empowerment in therapy and psychological effects of domestic abuse on women. Women (n=15) who had been in person-centred therapy for six months and had experienced domestic abuse and their therapists (n=15) were interviewed before and after the therapy using an open-ended interview and the interviews were analysed using the Giorgi (Giorgi, 1985) method. Predicted results suggest that person-centred therapy mostly succeeds in empowering women to take control of their lives and to gain insight and self-awareness.


“You are more likely to be physically assaulted, beaten and killed in your own home at the hands of a loved one than anyplace else, or by anyone else in our society.” (Gelles & Strauss, 1989, p18).

Domestic abuse is usually defined as the use of physical force by one partner in an intimate relationship against the other. It can also encompass psychological abuse such as intimidation, threats, humiliation and intense criticism. For many women, the psychological abuse is more harmful than the physical abuse. It tends to erode the woman’s sense of self-worth. (Crawford & Unger, 1996, p543).

Repeated abuse by an intimate partner subjects women to an inexhaustible list of physical effects, from acute and life threatening to chronic and debilitating. Beyond the physical scars, intimate partner violence has a profound effect on women’s sense of self-worth, placing abused women at high risk for depression, chemical abuse, and suicide (Campbell, 2002; Kernic, Wolf, & Holt, 2000).

Many abused women may seek therapy for issues related to the violence in their lives, such as depression and anxiety. The therapist can unintentionally become a figure of authority in the abused woman’s life by helping her improve her life. Empowerment, then, becomes an essential ethic in working with abused women. Advocates of person-centred therapy assume that the woman is the best authority on what works for her. They also emphasise that an abused woman needs to regain power and control over her life by making independent choices and decisions. (Lewis, 2003, p353)

Feminist critique states that therapy has generally let women down. Some say that therapists focus on the personal and individual and in the process, fail to address the power issues in the life of the women inadvertently reinforce hierarchy. (McLellan, 1999, p325)

Defining power

Jeanne Marecek and Diane Kravetz (1998) interviewed therapists on their view of power in relation to women. The following are some responses when asked to define power;

“Well, I guess empower. I guess that’s what I’d say. It enhances. Well I guess it can be positive or negative. To me a positive way of experiencing power, viewing power, is one of empowering. It’s viewing someone’s strengths, sort of looking at their resources, what they have inside, and their own expertise.”

“…a woman wielding masculine power can be as screwed up as a man would be…The difference is in the connectedness and depth. The next step…is women’s reaching for a deepening, a kind of spirituality and a wisdom.” (Marecek & Kravetx, 1998 In Seu & Heenan, p22)

Most respondents spoke of a negative and positive power. Power that implicates others is dangerous while positive power is one which remains unseen and is ‘deep’. Phrases like ‘feelings of empowerment’ and ‘becoming empowered’ seemed to point to a mental state equivalent to self-confidence, improved self-esteem or self-knowledge. Many respondents when asked stated that therapy ‘empowers’ women by helping them in finding the inner power they already possess. For instance, one respondent said;

“We work a lot about her getting connected with her power source and her centre, following her own knowing.” (Marecek & Kravetx, 1998 In Seu & Heenan, p22)

Carl Rogers states that every individual has the capacity to be a fully functioning person if the power of the person is given recognition.

Varying definitions of empowerment

Young (1994) suggests that there is a tension in definitions of empowerment. Opie (1998) argues that empowerment is rooted simultaneously in the individual and psychological as well as in the social. Miller and Stiver (1997) state that power is basically the capacity to produce a change. “Recognition of power differences and the attempt to minimize them within the context of relationships leads to being empowered and empowering others” (West, 2005, p. 103). Kabeer (1999) defines power in terms of the ability to make a choice and to be disempowered is to be denied choice. Empowerment entails a process of change and a deeper sense of awareness about one self. Feminist authors suggest that by definition empowerment in therapy implies that the client is powerless. (Bowen, Bahrick & Enns, 1991, p227)

Within a therapeutic context, empowerment implies that an individual in the treatment therapy feels accepted as a human being and an individual, rather than an object of medical intervention. Thus, in this study empowerment refers to independence and the ability to control one’s situation and acquire greater awareness and understanding of self. Externally, empowerment refers to a change in power relations within the environment.

Can person-centred therapy be empowering?

Strategies for empowering clients included offering respect, unconditional approval and acceptance, self-disclosures by the therapist and letting clients direct the process of therapy. One therapist avoided the use of the term therapist and client in order to alleviate hierarchy in the relationship. (Marecek & Kravetx, 1998 In Seu & Heenan, p24) Worrell and Remer (2003) believe that treating clients as authorities on their experience helps in honouring their experience. A respect for client also keeps a balance between total emphasis on the client’s responsibility and recognises the social factors affecting her. (Chaplin, 1989 In Seu & Heenan, p148)

Procter (2002) states that the client-centred aim is to use power-with. The core conditions of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy set forth by Carl Rogers encourage women to develop power from inside them in order to attain improved self-awareness and to take control.

Person-centred therapy can be hierarchicalthrough its belief in individual self-directedness from a lower to a higher place. Goals such as self-actualisation, which are generalised to be the aim of all humans, further promote this view. It is believed that there is not enough appreciation of the effects of gender, class, race and other differences on individual’s ability to self-actualise. Waterhouse (1993) questioned the role of person-centred therapy in rape crisis counselling and concluded that this form of therapy has ‘failed to address the specific problems that women face in their search for personhood and agency’. (Waterhouse, 1993, p57)

Rogers views that there exists an inner, authentic true self and that we all have an actualising tendency present in us to reach our full potential. Therapy then becomes a matter of helping clients to make choices in accordance to their wants and needs of that self-free from external influences. “Self-determination and personal growth appear not as universal human attributes but as privileges granted to some. Violence and victimisation – both threatened and actual – constrain women’s freedom in fundamental ways.” (Bruna Seu & Heenan, 1998, p14).

Rationale for present study

The rationale for the present study is to fill the gap in the present literature as there are not enough studies done on whether person-centred therapy is able to empower domestically abused women. The current exploratory study is undertaken to inquire into the process of therapy from both a person-centred therapist’s and a domestically abused woman’s view and whether this type of therapy is effective in regaining control for the client, promoting better self-worth and self-awareness. The reason for this study is the lack of many therapies, barring the feminist therapies, to appreciate and closely examine the role of power and its importance for domestically abused women. The study will attempt to examine this within the framework of Carl Rogers’ view of personal power.



The researcher investigated the effectiveness of person-centred therapy in empowering domestically abused women. The data collected consists of open-ended interviews conducted prior to and after six months of person-centred therapy from both therapists and clients. The interviews were taped and then transcribed by the researcher. The methodology used for the current study is qualitative and the data is analysed using the Giorgi method (Giorgi, 1985).


The participants were chosen from five different community counselling centres in East London who had come voluntarily to seek therapy. There were fifteen client participants and fifteen therapists who provided therapy to these clients once weekly over a period of six months. Ten of the therapists were female and five of them were male. They were all caucasian British and were UKCP accredited and trained in person-centred therapy. The women participants had suffered domestic abuse but were now not living with the abuser. There were three Pakistani women, five African and seven were white British. Their ages ranged from 27 to 48 with a mean age of 35.


Researcher interviewed the participants individually in a thirty minute session both before beginning therapy and after six months of being in therapy. A form giving permission to use the material for research was signed by each participant and their consent was granted. The researcher asked the clients to speak about their feelings of empowerment both before and after six months of therapy. The therapists were asked how they felt they had empowered the clients. After the initial question, the interviewer did not participate in the conversation and let the participant take charge of the interview. The sessions were recorded on tape.

The researcher then transcribed each interview and read through the text in order to get a sense of the whole and to understand the language of the describer. The text was then divided into meaning units. These meaning units were discriminated with a psychological perspective. The participant’s language remains unchanged in the first instance. These are then transformed into what the researcher felt were psychologically relevant through reflection and imaginative variation. This was then done for each meaning unit. The meaning units were then integrated into one consistent whole.

Predicted Results

It is predicted that certain themes will emerge from the analysis of the data and these will probably encompass the greater self awareness and insight from the client’s perspective and a deeper understanding from the therapist’s view.


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