Abuse is not a relationship problem! Couples counseling may imply 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 may actually reinforce it in some cases. Additionally, a therapist may not be aware that abuse is present and inadvertently encourage the abuse to continue or escalate. Domestic violence is a criminal behavior and the abusive partner must be held solely accountable.
For couples counseling to work, their needs to be safety and trust. 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.
The dynamics within domestic violence couples enhances the likelihood that the victim will be blamed for problems in the relationship. Abusers tend to blame others, make excuses, minimize severity of behavior/injury, and/or deny any of their abusive behavior. Victims tend to blame themselves, make excuses for the abuser, minimize severity of behavior/injury, and/or deny any abusive behavior by their partner. This sets up a situation where the victim is acknowledging all of her own faults (deserved or not) and protecting the abuser, while the abuser is also acknowledging the victim’s faults (blaming the victim) while denying wrongdoing. This often results in a focus on the victim as the identified “problem” in the relationship.
In order for couples counseling to be successful, both partners must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and make adjustments to their behavior. Abusive people want all of the power and control in the relationship and will focus on maintaining that imbalance, even if it means continuing unhealthy and hurtful behavior patterns. Many victims have related stories of trying and “failing” at couples counseling because of an abusive partner’s focus on manipulating the sessions to place blame, minimize the abuse, and attempt to win over the therapist to their side. If the therapist tries to hold the abusive partner accountable for these tactics, they will often refuse 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 they feel their power and control was threatened.