It is imperative that therapists be educated about the dynamics of interpersonal violence in order to provide competent treatment to batterers and their victims.
In general, couples counseling is an ineffective means of treatment, at best, for this population, and in fact, may cause more harm than good.
Couples counseling tends to be counter-productive in an abusive relationship for many reasons. One is that this type of therapy assumes the concept of mutuality in the relationship and that the problems are based on a systemic problem between the two parties.
Couples counseling helps people with conflict resolution, communication problems, childhood issues brought to the relationship and struggles with intimacy.
In an abusive relationship, mutual goals cannot be attained because the abusive member is not interested in equality.
Couples counseling sends the message to both the batterer (batterer can be physical, emotional, and/or psychological in nature) and his partner that the problem is mutual and that somehow the partner is responsible (at least in part) for the abuser’s behaviors.
This type of “provocation causing the abuse” was a common theory in the 1960s and 70s for couples counseling practices. Terms like, “she pushed my buttons” get credibility and both the perpetrator and the victim believe she is somehow culpable for instigating the abuse.
Both members of the partnership are taught to focus on their feelings when in couples counseling. This approach is counterproductive in an abusive relationship because the abuser spends too much time already focusing on his feelings and not enough time focusing on other people’s feelings (particularly his partner’s).
Different Approach Needed
What needs to be done in the abusive relationship is very different from the systemic approach or psychodynamic approach to therapy.
The abuser needs to learn how to stop focusing on his feelings, and must instead focus on his behaviors, attitudes and beliefs. He must learn how to not focus on his feelings, but rather to focus on changing his damaging thoughts because it is his belief system that leads to his damaging actions (or omissions).
It is important for therapists to understand that abuse is not caused by bad relationship dynamics. The partner cannot ever change an abuser’s behavior by changing herself.
In fact, this type of counseling encourages the abuser’s faulty thinking that, “if she stops doing the things that upset me and takes better care of my needs, then I will become a better partner.”
This type of counseling intervention will never work; and, if it did, how healthy is this pattern, where one partner is responsible for the other’s poor behavior? The abused partner ends up feeling even further invalidated and powerless because now the abusive partner has used the counselor as another weapon in his arsenal to attack – “remember, the counselor told you to…”
Couples counseling can be detrimental to the emotional health of the victim in a variety of other ways as well. For instance, compromises are often made in couples counseling between the two parties. This leads to the assumption that the victim’s behaviors and the abuser’s behaviors are morally equivalent with respect to damage caused in the relationship.
Dangers to Victim
In effect, the abuser can use the therapist as a coercive means of controlling his partner by “compromising” with her. “If she agrees to stop seeing her family so much, then I’ll agree to stop ___________________” (yelling, giving the silent treatment, other emotionally coercive action he uses to control her).
Not only has the abuser used the therapist to further control his partner, the partner experiences complete cognitive dissonance, once again, after compromising away her rights in order to not be hurt, as if these two contributions to the relationship are equally destructive (her family visits and his abuse).
With respect to the topic of conflict resolution, many therapists try to help couples learn how to resolve conflicts. They use cognitive behavioral and psycho-education approaches to teach the couples new ways of interacting. What they fail to realize, is that in an abusive relationship, this approach completely misses the problem.
The problem is not that the couple has a conflict resolution issue; the problem is that the abuser caused the conflict in the first place. The conflict was caused because an abusive partner communicates abusively, by displaying abusive attitudes and acting out on abusive beliefs, such as attitudes of entitlement, superiority, condescension, or joking at his partner’s expense.
He may display behaviors of projection, defensiveness, verbal attacks, gas-lighting, pouting, the silent treatment and a myriad of other damaging modes of communication.
The bottom line is, his behavior damages any hope for a healthy interpersonal interaction; resulting in an irresolvable conflict. The root cause is the abuse, not the conflict. This same mindset applies to “communication” problem resolution as well.
Another situation that can occur in couples counseling is that the more the victim claims she is being abused, and states that the primary problem is that her partner is abusive, a therapist not familiar with the dynamics of abuse, may start to question the victim, assuming that she is not taking ownership of her side of the problems in the relationship.
This can cause the therapist and the abuser to form an alliance of sorts, serving as a united front as they both focus attention on the victim’s problems, thus resulting in further trauma for the victim. Once again, the therapy sessions themselves and the therapist become further means of manipulation for an abuser.
One of the most serious repercussions of couples counseling is that if the victim starts to believe she is safe enough to share the truth about what is happening in the relationship, she may open up and be quite frank with the therapist while her partner is present.
This situation could prove to be very dangerous for the victim, however, because the abuser may retaliate later when no one else is around. The purpose of this abuse is to control the victim, ensuring that she never “betray” him in the therapist’s office again.
Note: This same advice also applies to the narcissistic or psychopathic spouse as well. Therapists need to be aware of the types of emotional manipulation that is involved with those client’s (or their spouses) with characterological issues.
The best known treatment for abusers is within the context of a group, with other abusers, where the focus is on promoting personal responsibility and accountability. There are four basic requirements for changing an abuser: (1) consequences; (2) accountability; (3) confrontation; and (4) education.
Abusers are difficult to treat and require long term accountability with others before any real change can occur. Many abuser programs require their members to have at least nine months of non-abusive behavior after joining an abuser recovery group, prior to entering couples counseling.
Bancroft, L. (2002). Why Does He do That? New York: NY. The Berkley Publishing Group.
Adams, D., Cayouette, S. (2002). Emerge: A Group Education Model for Abusers. Programs for Men Who Batter: Intervention and Prevention Strategies in a Diverse Society. New York: NY. Civic Research, Inc.
Rohrbaugh, (2006). Domestic Violence in Same-Gender Relationships. Same-Gender Domestic Violence Family Court Review. 44(2), 1531-2445.
Santa Clara County Probation Department. (2012). Standards for Batterers Programs and Certification Retrieved from https://www.sccgov.org/sites/owp/dvc/Documents/
Written by: Sharie Stines, PsyD
(Sharie’s Bio: Sharie Stines, MBA, PsyD is a “recovery expert” specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma, and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma, and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at New Directions Counseling Center in La Mirada, California. Her therapeutic approach is based on attachment theory, neuropsychology, and schema/modal methods. She places a strong emphasis on reality-based and resiliency interventions as well.)
Domestic violence photo available from Shutterstock