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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Why is Couples Counseling Counter-Productive in Abusive Relationships?

Many people who find themselves married to an abuser tend to believe that marriage counseling is the solution.

A lot of these people believe that they have a relationship problem, such as communication or conflict resolution issues.  Everyone, including the counselor, fails to see that the problem with the relationship resides within the abuser.

The solution to the problem is the abuser’s to fix, and the partner’s job is to stop being responsible for the well-being of the relationship.

People who abuse others do not ever have healthy relationships. Usually, this is because abusive people lack empathy and have an inability to validate others’ feelings.

Suppose you are married to an abusive person and you suggest seeking couple’s therapy. You go to your first session and explain to the counselor that you “fight a lot,” or, “argue too much,” or some such scenario.  The counselor listens to both parties as each explains his/her side of the problem. Many detrimental effects can result:

  1. The therapist tends to assume that both parties are being honest. Abusers lie and manipulate therapists, counselors, pastors, etc. Think “Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde.” During sessions the abuser will act contrite, willing, open, and transparent. This is all about “impression management,” There is no real intent to change.
  2. Many counselors believe that the problem is relationship-caused, or involves a “systems” therapy approach. This means that the therapist believes that each part of the dyad is responsible for creating the relationship “dynamic.” With this as the presupposition, the counselor proceeds with treatment.
  3. If the victim of abuse were to tell the truth to the counselor in front of his/her partner, then on the way home from the session, the abusive partner may commence with “pay back.” This could be in the form of the silent treatment, sulking, seething rage, or even verbal or physical violence. This teaches the victim to keep his/her mouth shut during the next session, and continue to keep on the “mask” he/she wears everywhere else.
  4. Abusers use their partners as their frames of reference for their behaviors. An abuser will continue to reinforce this concept when undergoing couple’s counseling. This will not benefit either party.
  5. The type of therapy needed for characterological issues, such as abusive behavior, is vastly different than the therapy needed for neurotic pathologies, such as anxiety and depression. A therapist cannot utilize the two approaches needed for therapy in a couple’s session.
  6. The individuals need separate therapy in order for each party to focus on him/herself rather than on the relationship. When treating a couple, the counselor will miss the complete dichotomy of the problems involved. The abuser needs to learn how to stop abusing and the partner needs to learn how to stop being abused.
  7. Couples counseling is not a treatment for abuse any more than it is a treatment for an addiction. Suppose an addict went to couples therapy to stay sober from his or her drug of choice. Would that work? No. The addict needs to recover from his/her addiction first; individual issues, second; and relationship difficulties, last. Doing couples counseling apart from personal growth is pointless. In fact, once a person has dealt with his or her individual problems, there most likely will not be a need for couple’s therapy at all.

Therapists really are not supposed to pick sides or act as a judge. When abuse is involved in a relationship the counselor cannot sit, in good faith, and pretend to find this acceptable; nor can he/she provide empathy to the abuser. The abuser needs to be held accountable. The victim needs to experience empathy. How can a counselor assign empathy only to one person in the room?

Even by being willing to see a couple together in an abusive relationship, the abuser is given the unspoken message that the problem is not that serious and that it is, indeed, a relationship problem involving joint responsibility.

Many counselors tend to put all problems in the same category of urgency. For instance, one partner has a problem with criticizing her partner, while the other partner has a problem with disorganization. The counselor may falsely place both problems in the same level of damage to the relationship. And when dealing with manipulators, they will definitely capitalize on this process.

This is damaging; being unorganized is not a characterological problem, nor is it abusive to either party. It may be annoying to live with someone who is scatter-brained, or sloppy, or late, but if the behavior isn’t intentionally manipulative or coercive, then it should not carry the same weight as name-calling or silent treatments, or other hurtful behaviors.

The best treatment for abusers is group counseling, explicitly tailored to address controlling and damaging behaviors and attitudes. The most effective groups involve cognitive behavior therapy, accountability, and consequences.  Individual therapy can also be beneficial to an abuser, as long as the therapist addresses the proper issues. Once the individual problems have been addressed, then, maybe, couple’s counseling can be beneficial.

In my opinion, it is helpful to treat abusers the same way you treat addicts. You teach them how to work a “program of recovery;”  “recovery,” being abstinence from all hints of entitlement, selfishness, manipulation, and controlling behaviors – either covert or overt.

The partners of abusers are not completely off the hook, however. The partners need to understand that if they allow themselves to be abused, they will only normalize it and teach the abuser that they will, indeed, tolerate it. This conditions the abuser to continue on with no penalties.

If you are with someone who hurts you, you need to work your own “program of recovery,” and refrain yourself from participating in unhealthy relationships. The help you need will not be found in couple’s therapy.

Why is Couples Counseling Counter-Productive in Abusive Relationships?

APA Reference
Stines, S. (2017). Why is Couples Counseling Counter-Productive in Abusive Relationships?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from