In dealing with domestic violence, a therapist must have solid knowledge about the dynamics of domestic violence, particularly the type of violence (emotional, mental or sexual) and the specific risk factors as well as where the couple is in what is called “the cycle of violence”. In this cycle, which is common to domestic abuse, tensions build and then explode when the abuser (usually the husband) attacks the victim (usually the wife).
Power differences between batterer and victim, those “acquired” as well as those that are “inherent,” make domestic abuse very dangerous. The therapist must not blame the victim. Blaming finds expression on conceptualizations of relationship violence as being dynamic for which both partners are responsible. However, blaming could also take the form of failing to recognize abuse and instead classifying it as mutual combat.
Clinicians should know the local community resources available or lacking as well as both the general and local hardships involved in seeking legal aid. Above all, the therapist must keep in mind the physical safety of the victim and make periodic “safety check-ins” to assure the situation remains stable and safe for the victim.
Family violence — also called domestic violence, intimate partner violence, relationship violence or inter-personal violence — is a pattern of intentionally violent or controlling behavior used by a person against a family member (usually the intimate partner) to gain and maintain power and control over that person, during and/or after the relationship. The intimate partner may be a married or dating couple or joined in domestic partnership.
Intentionally violent or controlling behavior includes control over someone’s schedule, restricting telephone access, limiting or prohibiting car use, checking up on someone, prohibiting birth control, name calling and/or threatening family, friends, pets, and destroying property. Physical abuse includes hitting, punching, strangling. Other types of violent or controlling behavior include sexual abuse, economic or financial abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, stalking and isolation.
The violent or controlling behavior may not (and usually does not) end after the relationship is over. Leaving does not mean that the abuse is over. Women stay including fear, love, and lack of outside resources to support her/himself immigration status and cultural considerations, and religion.
People who abuse others do so in order to feel better about themselves, but no one deserves to be abused. And, no one, except the abuser is responsible for the abuse.
The abuser makes a choice to abuse someone. Domestic violence is a repeated choice that the abuser is responsible for. When one person is afraid of the other, a dynamic of power and control enters the relationship. Once that happens, there isn’t any going back. The relationship cannot be restored to the way it once was.
Intervention means finding the best interest for the victim amid the grave risk of domestic violence. And intervention calls into question the use of counseling or therapy in situations of domestic violence.
Therapists debate about the appropriateness of therapy and counseling with violent couples, be they straight, gay, or lesbian.
Clinicians working with violent couples struggle with a number of concerns because couples therapy reinforces the abuser’s efforts to “make up,” possibly making it harder for the victim to freely choose to stay or leave the relationship, even when her life is in danger.
Couples therapy may redefine one person’s choice to be violent as “a couple problem.” Careful decision-making regarding client safety outside of the therapy office becomes imperative. It prevents accurate monitoring of abuse potential, as the victim is likely to be afraid to report honestly if the potential is high, and it may cause more violence after therapy has stirred troublesome emotions and conversations or if the victim reports the abuser’s actions honestly. Moreover, couples therapy is demanding, as work with abusers stirs deep feelings and possible transference in therapists to punish batterers and protect victims.
The National Domestic Relations Hotline does not recommend that couples seek counseling together because abuse is not a relationship problem. Couples who are working through difficult relationship issues often find help in marriage counseling; however, if abuse is present in the relationship, counseling obscures the dynamics of the relationship.
Couples counseling implies that both partners contribute to the abusive behavior, when the choice to be abusive lies solely with the abusive partner. Focusing on communication or other relationship issues distracts from the abusive behavior, and counseling may actually reinforce it in some cases.
When abuse is present in the relationship, a therapist may not be aware that abuse is present and inadvertently encourage the abuse to continue or escalate.
For couples counseling to be successful, both partners must take responsibility for their actions and adjust their behavior. Abusers want power and control in the relationship and strive to maintain that imbalance, even if it means continuing unhealthy and hurtful behavior patterns. Many Hotline callers relate stories of trying and “failing” at couples counseling because of the abuser’s focus on manipulating the sessions to place blame and minimize the abuse. The abuser wants to win over the therapist to their side. When the therapist tries to hold the abusive partner accountable, he often refuses to attend further sessions and may even forbid their partner to see the “biased” therapist again. The abusive partner may even choose to escalate the abuse because he feels his power and control threatened.
In counseling or therapy, both partners must feel and be safe. A victim may not feel safe with their abuser present and could be hesitant to fully participate or speak honestly during counseling sessions. Alternatively, a victim may have a false sense of security during a session and reveal information they normally wouldn’t disclose. Then, back at home; the abusive partner could decide to retaliate with more abuse.
Abusive partners who want to change can turn to programs are often referred to as Battering Intervention and Prevention Programs (BIPPs). BIPPs focus on teaching accountability and non-violent responses. These programs can be effective, but only if an abusive partner is truly committed, as real change is a difficult process that can take months or years.
If someone is in an abusive relationship, or is an abusive partner who wants to change, the Hotline number is 1-800-799-7233 or chat online everyday from 7a.m.-2a.m. CST.