Any time a couple is having relationship problems, the go-to answer is usually “try couples counseling.” And for many couples, therapy is an excellent way to explore concerns, develop communication skills, and strengthen the relationship. However, if the relationship involves, or has ever involved, any kind of abuse or violence, the answer is not that straightforward.
The question of whether couples therapy is appropriate in situations where abuse and/or violence is a concern is an extremely controversial one. Yet for couples seeking help, a theoretic debate is not particularly helpful. Therefore, the specific circumstances of each couple must inform the decision of whether couples therapy is appropriate. It is up the therapist to carefully assess the relationship—and the individuals involved—and develop a unique and hopefully effective therapeutic plan.
Couples therapy is not appropriate if safety is a concern
The first responsibility of any therapist or counselor engaged in couples therapy is to ensure that both parties in the relationship are safe. If either individuals indicates that they are not safe, that they fear their well-being or the well-being of those close to them are in any type of danger, steps must be taken to address those concerns. And the therapist cannot simply rely on verbal hints; if an individual’s safety is so threatened, they may not be able to express their concerns, or may feel that doing so will heighten the threat against them. Thus, watching for unspoken indications, such as body language, is critical.
Couples counseling is never appropriate if either individual in the relationship does not feel safe. The basis of all couples therapy is open and honest communication. Unfortunately, if violence is present in the relationship, open communication is nearly always impossible, and could, in fact, lead to further violence. Thus, if there is any indication that violence is present and that safety is at all a concern, the therapist must address that issue first and foremost on an individual basis, not through couples counseling.
Thorough assessment is key before couples therapy can begin
If the safety of the individuals in the relationship is assured, the therapist should begin the process by conducting a thorough assessment of the individuals and the relationship to determine whether couples therapy is appropriate or whether other avenues of therapy—such as individual counselling or group therapy—may be more effective. The assessment should focus on issues such as the degree of violence and/or abuse present in the situation, the ability of one or both parties to accept responsibility for violent or abusive behavior, and whether the therapy will truly be addressing relationship issues or will have to focus on the patterns of abuse and/or violence. Conducting a thorough and accurate assessment may involve multiple meetings with both parties as well as with each party individually, and may require careful navigating around confidentiality issues in order to facilitate open communication.
A key element of the assessment must involve accurate definition of both abuse and violence. Because too many people associate “violence” only with hitting, for instance, they may dismiss the idea that their relationship is “violent”. However, violence or physical aggression can still be present even if no one has been beaten; pushing, shoving, grabbing, and physical intimidation are all acts of violence or aggression. Moreover, partner abuse can be present whether or not accompanied by actual violence. Partner abuse can mean the use of force, intimidation, or manipulation to control a partner, but it can—and more often does—involve verbal and psychological tactics which are often harder to recognize but also more damaging in the long term.
When is couples therapy appropriate?
If safety is assured and a thorough and expert assessment has been conducted, couples therapy may be appropriate if the therapist feels that the focus of the therapy can be on the dynamics of the relationship itself, not on coping with violent or abusive behavior. To meet this standard, the couple usually must meet a variety of conditions set out by the therapist, such as:
· There must be agreement about the type and degree of violence/abuse that has occurred
· The aggressor/abuser must recognize their behavior and accept responsibility for it
· Abusive and/or aggressive acts must be mild or non-existent; both partners must be willing to agree to a “contract” of no further abuse
· Both parties in the relationship must be sincere in their desire for treatment
· Both parties must be able to engage in open communication without manipulation
Couples therapy can only be effective if it is based on mutual respect and honest communication. It may be possible for a couple who has endured aggressive, violent, or abusive behaviors to address and move beyond those behaviors to engage in order to engage in a healthy and successful relationship. It is the role of the therapist to lay the groundwork up front to ensure that couples therapy is the appropriate and most effective method of coping with this difficult challenge.
For more information on the types of therapy that may help you or your child contact us today.
Collaborative Therapeutic Services (CTS) seeks to maximize clients’ options by offering a variety of services, hours, and service providers with diverse specializations. We offer evening & weekend appointments. Have questions? Contact Us Here or Call 813-951-7346. Located in Tampa, Florida.