With the increase in visibility for Marriage and Family Therapists in the media with shows such as “Couples Therapy”, “Go On”, and “Necessary Roughness”, many individuals, couples and families are utilizing this avenue to resolve issues within their own lives and relationships. While this is a wonderful venue to deal with issues from the simple gripes of everyday living to the complexities of trauma, it is not always a viable venue, especially for couples. In the case of a relationship that is characterized by domestic violence, this is something that is extremely important to understand and consider before stepping into the office of a therapist and paying for something that will not work and could potentially make the situation worse.
Oftentimes, we hear that most marital issues are due to either a lack of communication, or a failure to communicate in an effective manner. For a situation such as this, couples therapy is a wonderful tool to help bridge the gaps that have grown. The relationship is otherwise healthy, both parties in the relationship would like to fix the issues and move forward with perhaps a greater understanding of the things that need to be done to keep the relationship viable. Most importantly, both parties want to be participating in the therapy. To most of us, this seems perfectly logical.
However, domestic violence is not logical and there are almost always serious structural issues within the relationship that disallow most therapeutic interventions from working. Domestic abuse is characterized by a completely unequal balance of power. The abuser will hold most, or all of it, and the victim none, or very little. It is about CONTROL. Abusers feel that they must have control over their victims, it is not an “anger” issue, a substance abuse issue, or a communications issue. There is a need to control and dominate other individuals, either it is how they were taught (in an entitled fashion) or there is something within the abuser’s mind that they feel that it is necessary to dominate another to raise their own self-image. It is on this issue that we see the problems arise when couples try to “fix” the abuse through counseling.
In most states, in order to be licensed to provide therapy to others, only a limited number of instructional hours about Domestic Violence are required to be completed prior to licensure. In California, where I live, it is 40 hours. That’s it. Classes are available that can be taken during the completion of degrees, or additional seminars, but many therapists don’t take advantage of the available resources to boost their knowledge base, especially if there are no Continuing Education Credits available. So, when a couple comes in and does not openly acknowledge abuse (which is rare to have that acknowledgement), there is a high likelihood that the therapist would posit that both parties in the relationship are responsible for the breakdowns which are occurring and task both of the parties to “work harder” and try to work together as a team. This could not be further from the truth where abuse is concerned. In instances of abuse, there is absolutely no shared blame. The blame for the abuse lies solely with the abuser and in many, if not most, cases, the abuser will absolutely and categorically refuse to take responsibility for their actions and see no need to change their behavior and won’t carry through with this, even though the victim will try with absolutely every last ounce of strength to do so.
In my experience as a peer counselor, and in my training, I have heard many stories from many victims and survivors about things that were said during joint therapy sessions, or happened during or after such sessions. In order to get any benefit out of counseling, both parties have to want to be where they are. Many abusers agree to counseling as a condition for the relationship staying intact, but don’t see that their behavior is at fault, or attend to try and convince the therapist that the victim “needs to be fixed” or “is crazy”, the victim doesn’t “act right”. I’ve even heard of stories where abusers will agree to attend, but adamantly refuse to be party to the process and sit silently, not contributing anything. More often than not, after a session or two, the abusers don’t see the point of continuing and will stop attending, and will then encourage, often forcibly, the victim to discontinue therapy as well by attempting to convince the victim that the therapist is “putting ideas into their heads” or “doesn’t know anything”. Another version of this is that abusers will often insist that the therapist is “taking sides” with the victim, and is biased against the abuser. I heard once that an abuser, a male, once told his female victim that the female therapist was a man-hating lesbian because she seemed to side with the victim instead of him.
Therapy, as it is designed, is a place where a party or parties can go to speak with a neutral third person about things that are happening in their lives and work through these things with assistance from the therapist in the form of psychoeducation, referral to other resources, recommended readings, and the like. In the case of abuse, even in as little as one session, the abuser can pick up information that almost always is turned around on the victim and escalates the situation. I have likened it in the past to the victim handing the abuser bullets for a gun. There are many, many cases where victims have openly and honestly spoken of their fears, the issues they see in the relationship, and specific incidences which have been shaming, violent, or otherwise damaging and had those very issues thrown back at them by the abusers as soon as they are out of the office in the forms of violent beatings, attempted (or successful) motor vehicle collisions – I know of a situation where the abuser insisted on driving home after a session with the therapist and tried to ram the car into a phone pole on the passenger side in order to kill the victim – or wait until they are behind the locked doors of the house and further “punish” the victims through increased abuse, pushing further into the cycle of violence. Then, to make the situation worse for the victim, if they return together to the next session and the victim has the courage to speak up, the abuser will almost always flatly deny they behaved in such a manner and turn the blame back on the victim, or simply say that the victim is lying to make the abuser “look bad”.
It is this potential for escalated abuse and physical harm that if domestic abuse is either suspected or known that couples therapy is contraindicated and individual therapy should be recommended and should be conducted by someone who is either specifically trained to handle domestic abuse situations, or someone who has extensive knowledge and expertise handling such cases. Group therapy sessions can also be recommended, and often are most cost-effective and provide the added benefit to the victim of knowing that they are not alone in their battles and are not the only ones experiencing what they are going through.
One note in regards to pastoral counseling in cases of domestic abuse: While many segments of society are acknowledging that abuse does occur and is an issue that requires specialized assistance, there are still issues in dealing with this particularly touchy issue within the confines of the church. Again, incidences run across the spectrum, much like with “traditional” secular counseling, and there are many pastors, priests, rabbis, and elders who understand that abuse isn’t right. Sadly, there are still members of the clergy who do not understand how damaging abuse is and will place all of the blame for the abuse onto the victim and further shame these individuals for “not living up to their duties”, or not following Biblical teachings and outright fail to acknowledge that abuse even exists.