Marriage Counselling with Abusive Partner?
November 3, 2019 5:15 AM   Subscribe

I am told that couples counselling is not recommended for situations with an abusive partner. Why is this, and what is recommended instead?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Attempts by the non-abusive partner to change the dynamic of the couple, which ostensibly "works" for the abusive partner, can result in more abuse. Also, abusive partners typically don't fight fair or come to counseling in good faith, and may use "tactics" from counseling to exercise more abuse. It's also unusual for abusive partners to identify as abusive, which further stymies real change in the abuser. This article from the National Domestic Violence Hotline gives an overview of reasons.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:30 AM on November 3 [28 favorites]

Couples counselors tend to avoid picking sides, and to prioritize saving the relationship and brokering compromise. This is great when staying in the relationship is safe and healthy for everyone, and when everyone is at least partly responsible for the problems in it. But in an abusive relationship, the truth is often "A, you're 100% in the wrong here. B, you need to leave A immediately if they don't shape up" — and seeing a counselor who shies away from saying that doesn't do anyone any favors.

I've also seen friends' abusers use their participation in couples counseling as a shield. "No, you're wrong, I'm totally reasonable and totally interested in making this a healthier relationship. I go to couples counseling! I talk about my feelings and listen to yours and do the things the counselor suggests! Would I be doing that if I was abusive?" That ends up making it harder to for the victim to name what's going on as abuse, because the abuser is putting on a show of doing something we think of as reasonable, sincere, and healthy.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:48 AM on November 3 [14 favorites]

Because abusers don’t play fair.
posted by 41swans at 6:01 AM on November 3 [24 favorites]

Here’s the non-technical answer: because abuse isn’t about resolving a conflict. It’s about controlling and demeaning another person. It’s like asking a kid who is being bullied to “work things out.” It just doesn’t work.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:07 AM on November 3 [49 favorites]

They learn how to manipulate smarter and will act in bad faith, lying, omitting or slanting things to the counsellor and presenting as the reasonable and calm person while the abused partner who is telling the truth appears hostile in comparison.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:07 AM on November 3 [17 favorites]

I've experienced exactly what nebulawindphone is saying. I went to couples counseling with my abusive, mentally ill spouse who was currently engaged in ruining my career and traumatizing our children. It was absolutely the wrong move. The counselor was completely dedicated to finding something that each of us could work on in the relationship, and wanted to turn everything into some kind of "well, there's fault on both sides" thing. My wife only heard the part that confirmed to her that there was something badly wrong with me, and happily continued her rampage, occasionally pausing to say "even the counselor you picked thinks that you need to __________," filling in the blank with whatever insignificant failing justified her ongoing reign of terror.

Because of that tendency toward both-sides-ism, her behavior "so, you called his employers with a list of false accusations in an effort to get him fired" was made to seem at an equal level with my failings "on the other hand, you went to bed without finishing washing the dishes." It was a complete disaster from start to finish.

Maybe--I hope--there are counselors who don't do this, but it definitely did nothing to improve my situation. I'm not sure it actually got much worse, because we were pretty much at rock bottom as it was, but counseling was not the right place to deal with that. Divorce court was the right place.
posted by cute little Billy Henderson, age 4 at 6:11 AM on November 3 [31 favorites]

Along with what everyone else has said, abusers often hide their abuse. They don’t do it in public, no one outside the marriage typically know, they can be very charming. So they will show that side of the dynamic to the counselor and the counselor may not even realize it is an abusive situation.
posted by sillysally at 6:19 AM on November 3 [4 favorites]

In addition to what everyone else said, it's not unusual for abusers to groom counsellors so that the counsellor becomes part of the abuse without realising it.
posted by plonkee at 6:24 AM on November 3 [19 favorites]

Because anosognosia is A Thing with many abusers, and things can get incredibly distorted when the abuser has one or more undiagnosed personality disorders and simply can charm outsiders into thinking nothing is wrong whatsoever, leaving the abused person at the risk of a retaliatory attack once he or she is alone again with the abuser, even if the abused person was not even the one to initiate the couples counseling.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:25 AM on November 3 [5 favorites]

What is recommended instead is individual therapy (for each/either partner).

Note that most likely the end game is for the abused partner to leave. I do not know of any cases or anecdotes where abusive partners change sufficiently to save the relationship they are currently in. I have read of people who have previously been abusive getting help with underlying issues they have and then being able to sustain non-abusive relationships.
posted by plonkee at 6:29 AM on November 3 [11 favorites]

Here is a helpful site on abuse. Here is one on manipulation. You will find good information and help with how to protect yourself. Most counsellors simply don't have the experience to deal with people like your partner, who use everything they learn from counselling to hurt you more.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:56 AM on November 3 [3 favorites]

Other folks have already said why therapy isn't recommended, here's what's recommended instead: the non-abuser should leave if at all possible. Get out of the relationship and do not return. Maybe if the abuser seeks counseling on their own they may be capable of being in a non-abusive relationship someday. But they need to work on themselves if they can even understand that they are an abuser, which is unlikely.

The other party in the relationship should get out and not look back. They should likely also seek counseling to deal with the damage from the relationship and to better identify potential abusers in the future.
posted by jzb at 7:01 AM on November 3 [12 favorites]

I went through this and I second everything above. The counselor's priority is compromise and communication, meaning both people are acting in good faith and just not understanding one another, and both people need to change equally to meet in the middle. At one point my partner threatened me with a knife and then we 'worked through it' with the counselor, and came to the conclusion that I was equally at fault because I pushed them to it by making them miserable and I needed to treat them better. This was like 4 or 5 years into a 7 year relationship. My partner was very much in favor of counselling. Up to the last minute before I left the counselor was pushing me to stay in the relationship. Maybe I would have left earlier if I hadn't had a 'neutral' 3rd party telling me I should stay.
posted by 100kb at 7:07 AM on November 3 [16 favorites]

I went to seven different marriage counsellor with my (then) husband. Each one privately reached out to me to provide me with resources for leaving safely and discontinued our joint counselling. One extremely experienced social worker with CAMH did work with us for one year as she saw, like I did, that the root causes of my husband’s abuse/control was the severe abuse and control of him by his parents (basically, if all three of them saw me as the “black sheep”, he was safe from them attacking him - if he defended me their attacks on him, as their child, where breath-takingly vicious and drove him to breakdown/suicide idealation). However, the only reason she saw us so long and fought so hard for us was because early in our therapy she suggested we have a series of family mediations with his parents (who I had not spoken to for about five years at that point due to their abuse of me and my fear of them abusing our children). She stopped the first mediation with his parents and cancelled the rest. Later she apologized deeply to me, said the family mediation caused her to have attend therapy specifically on the topic of how she had been drawn into their abuse of me, said she had thought I was exaggerating (my husband’s constant complaint) until she actually spent time with them and observed the dynamics. (They had both been formally diagnosed with personality disorders as well as mental health issues decades prior). The therapist then put all her efforts for the next year into attempting to get my husband to understand how the dysfunctional dynamics of the relationship with his parents and his lack of insight into his own behaviour (which was “normal” to him due to his parent’s role-modelling) was going to end up with him destroying his relationship with not just me but his children. Unfortunately, she ended our sessions after a year of twice weekly contact due to the lack of progress on his side. She provided me with a safety plan to leave as she felt my in-laws would most likely try to destroy me, and warned me my safety was in immediate danger if I were to leave my husband.

A later counsellor I have used individually does still work with couples where abuse is identified, but we did have a long conversation where he said he needed to see that it was the abuser wanting to change within the first few sessions lest the counsellor be caught up in perpetrating the abuse (and he directly addresses how counselling can become part of the abuse in the first session). He told me that if progress starts being made that the abuser disagrees with, the abuser will then attempt to control the counsellor through filing vexiatious complaints against the counsellor through their accrediting body. Sometimes the victim participates in the complaint process as having the abuser focus on a “common enemy” relieves some of the pressure off of them. This is well-known among counsellors (according to him) and why many experienced counsellors will not see couples where abuse is identified.
posted by saucysault at 7:53 AM on November 3 [19 favorites]

12 Reasons Why Couples Counseling is Not Recommended When Domestic Violence is Present (Oregon Domestic Violence Council)

Why Couples Counseling is Not Recommended for Emotionally Abusive Relationships (Chicagoland Counseling)
This is mainly because abuse is not a relationship problem. The problem is in the beliefs and attitudes of the destructive partner. When abuse is treated as a marriage problem, a couple can end up spending numerous years in couples counseling, and make little to no progress at best. And most likely, the issues will worsen.
An alternative is individual counseling for the parties, although an abuser may feel threatened by the opportunity for a survivor to become supported and empowered in an environment that the abuser is not able to directly control. Other resources are listed at the MeFi Wiki ThereIsHelp page.
posted by katra at 9:35 AM on November 3 [6 favorites]

My experience was similar to saucysault’s. The one counselor I saw with an abusive ex recognized the dynamic (ex almost certainly had borderline personality disorder) and asked to work with me alone. In our case, it wouldn’t have mattered, because my ex wouldn’t have lasted in counseling if I recall, he marched out of the first session).
posted by Pax at 9:47 AM on November 3 [1 favorite]

I did one couples session with an abusive ex and I felt like I couldn't say what I really thought/felt because I knew he would use it against me later, he only agreed to go once I was set on leaving. He picked a really soft, nice female psychologist. I asked if I could speak with her separately and she said no not for couples therapy so I didn't feel safe continuing. He was completely different in front of other people and on the surface we looked like a typical stressed out tired couple with a young child, so the discussion centred around that and not what was really going on. Before that I suggested reading books about marriage with him and he latched onto the books saying things like "conflict/arguments are normal" - he stopped there and was satisfied that his treatment towards me when we were having a disagreement (being verbally and emotionally abusive) was "normal", so that didn't work either.

I went separately to another counsellor who told me if I wanted to make things work with him I would need to never really talk back or challenge him because he sounded like he had a personality disorder. She asked me frankly what I really wanted to do which was helpful because it helped me do that gut check in a safe place with a supportive person, and helped me realize I couldn't live like that and that the situation was as bad as it felt. Talking to close trusted friends about how unhappy I was and what was going on was helpful too.

My pathway out of the relationship was working on myself to make sure I wasn't just crazy and unhappy (so books and counselling, trying harder, walking on eggshells to keep the peace), trying to get him to work on himself, to have fairer fights, to be less stressed and see if things got better, and when that didn't work to get frustrated and make steps to leave, but it took me years.
posted by lafemma at 10:14 AM on November 3 [3 favorites]

In addition to the above, in an abusive relationship, change may result in (increased) violence. It's appalling but true that many therapists do not recognize abuse in couples counseling.
posted by theora55 at 11:10 AM on November 3 [7 favorites]

I echo everything everyone else is saying. My ex changed what seemed overnight. He became manipulative, started gaslighting me into thinking I was abusing him, told me my grief for our pregnancy losses wasn't real, and repeatedly told me I was a disappointment. I encouraged us to go counseling, where the counselor told him several times that I was not abusing him. I never once said in our counseling sessions that he was abusing me, mostly out of fear, as his behavior was escalating. He was ultimately diagnosed as a narcissist, which meant that counseling wasn't going to help because he believed he wasn't doing anything wrong. Even when our relationship imploded and I asked for us to see our counselor to handle how to move forward (separation, divorce, etc.), he still claimed he was the one being abused. He then broke into my house and threaten my mother because he felt he had the right to as a victim (he actually compared himself to a rape victim -- as a sexual abuse survivor this is infuriating and disgusting to me on so many levels). I see him post BS about needing content warnings as a joke in public forums. It makes me so angry because I need them now due to the PTSD I now live with.
So, yeah someone who is being abusive is not ready (and will probably never be ready) for counseling because most of the time they feel they don't need it since the problem is with the rest of the world and not with them.
posted by wasabifooting at 12:10 PM on November 3 [5 favorites]

Some couples counselors will work with couples experiencing what is known as "common couple violence." That is, pushing/shoving/slapping that is balanced between partners (both do it or only the woman in a heterosexual partnership), that does not result in injury, that happens when both partners are angry/fighting and the behavior represents a loss of control of own emotions rather than an effort to control the abused partner, and that does not escalate. This kind of bad behavior can be addressed in couples therapy, as distinct from clinical domestic violence, where one partner is endangered by the other, which isn't workable for couples therapy, obviously.

I tell you this on the off chance you or your partner have engaged in this "common couple violence" behavior and want to try couples therapy but are afraid you will be disqualified if you disclose it. Not all couples counselors will work with it but the more research-minded among them who are aware of this distinction may. So, please, if this is you, tell the truth to any couples therapist you're auditioning.
posted by shadygrove at 6:22 PM on November 3 [2 favorites]

An abuser believes that they could stop the abuse if their partner would just do exactly what they want. Couple's counseling is built on the idea that both partners need to change. Abusers can (and generally do) take this framework as further proof that the only way they can stop abusing is if their partner changes.

By design, couple's counseling reinforces the very idea underlying the abuse.
posted by lazuli at 3:51 PM on November 4

In my experience representing survivors of domestic violence, I wasn't familiar with the term "common couple violence," but I was aware of the concept of "mutual combat," the related challenge for law enforcement in identifying the "primary aggressor," (Gael Strack, San Diego Assistant City Attorney), and The Myth of Mutual Abuse (National Domestic Violence Hotline). I may not have become familiar with the exact term because from my perspective, a pattern of violence between the parties tends to show that a risk of further harm is more likely than not, which can be the essential proof needed to obtain a restraining order.

Patriarchal Terrorism or Common Couple Violence: Attorneys' Views of Prosecuting and Defending Woman Batterers (Erez & King, International Review of Victimology, 2000)
The study suggests that attorneys' accounts portray the woman-battering cases which reach the justice system as ‘common couple violence’ rather than ‘patriarchal terrorism’. Results indicate that the legal profession, charged with the prosecution and adjudication of domestic violence, resorts to gender stereotypes to excuse, minimize or tolerate violence against women.
Domestic Violence and the Criminal Justice System: An Overview (Edna Erez, OJIN, Vol. 7 - 2002 No 1: Jan 02)
The discourse of "mutual combat" (Dobash, Dobash & Wilson, 1992; Schwartz & Dekeseredy, 1993; Straus, 1993;) or "common couple violence" (Johnson, 1995) shifts the blame, or part of it, to the victim. Such discourse underestimates the impact of the battering on women and their children and ignores the dynamics of battering relationships in addressing a specific incident (Ferraro, 1989b). [...]

Conceptions of woman abuse as "family violence" and the myth of woman battering as "mutual combat" have compromised attempts to treat battering cases as crimes and protect women from violent men. Victim-blaming attitudes occasionally held by police, prosecutors, judges and other court staff in woman battering cases may distort the reality of domestic violence dynamics, play down the danger posed to women in abusive relationships and inhibit battered women from utilizing the system.
Portraying the violence as mutual is also described as a tactic of power and control in LGBTQ relationship violence by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Saying "it's just fighting" is part of the abusive dynamic included in the classic "Power and Control" wheel image.
posted by katra at 6:32 PM on November 4 [2 favorites]

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