Why We Don’t Recommend Couples Counseling for Abusive Relationships

couples-counselingTherapy can be very effective for some couples who are working through difficult relationship issues. However, if abuse is present in the relationship, we do not recommend that couples seek counseling together.

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 callers to the Hotline 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.

The primary reason we don’t recommend couples counseling is that 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.

Both partners should feel and be safe in order for therapy to be effective. 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.

A better option for abusive partners who want to change is a program designed specifically to address their abusive behaviors. These programs are often referred to as Battering Intervention and Prevention Programs (BIPPs), although what they are called can vary from state to state. 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 you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, or if you are an abusive partner who wants to change, please give us a call at 1-800-799-7233 or chat online everyday from 7am-2am CST. Our advocates are here to support you and talk through your options.

can abusers change

Is Change Possible In An Abuser?

People change.

That small, two-word sentence is actually a huge, significant statement that carries a lot of weight. We grow up learning about change — the inevitability of it, the uncertainty it can bring. We change — our opinions, personalities, careers, friends and much more.

Some changes feel like they happen overnight. Others are more conscious, and they have to be, like overcoming an addiction or correcting a personality flaw that’s harmful to ourselves or others.

If you’re the one wanting a loved one to change, it can feel impossible — but we hold onto the hope that they will change, because we desperately want them to, because we remember how they were different in the past (and if they changed for the worse, can’t they change for the better?)

Can an abusive partner really change?

While people do have the capacity to change, they need to deeply want to and be committed to all aspects of change in order to begin to do so — and even then, it’s a lot easier said than done.

In discussing why abusers abuse , it’s clear that a lot of the causal factors behind these behaviors are learned attitudes and feelings of entitlement and privilege — which can be extremely difficult to truly change. Because of this, there’s a very low percentage of abusers who truly do change their ways.

One part of changing may involve an abusive partner willingly attending a certified batterer intervention program that focuses on behavior, reflection and accountability. At the Hotline we don’t recommend couples counseling, anger management, substance abuse programs or mental health treatments for abusers to learn about and deal with their abusive patterns (although oftentimes these can helpfully supplement a batterer intervention program).

How can abusers change?

According to author Lundy Bancroft, the following are some changes in your partner that could indicate they’re making progress in their recovery:

  • Admitting fully to what they have done
  • Stopping excuses and blaming
  • Making amends
  • Accepting responsibility and recognizing that abuse is a choice
  • Identifying patterns of controlling behavior they use
  • Identifying the attitudes that drive their abuse
  • Accepting that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long processnot declaring themselves “cured”
  • Not demanding credit for improvements they’ve made
  • Not treating improvements as vouchers to be spent on occasional acts of abuse (ex. “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so it’s not a big deal)
  • Developing respectful, kind, supportive behaviors
  • Carrying their weight and sharing power
  • Changing how they respond to their partner’s (or former partner’s) anger and grievances
  • Changing how they act in heated conflicts
  • Accepting the consequences of their actions (including not feeling sorry for themselves about the consequences, and not blaming their partner or children for them)

Learn more about Lundy Bancroft here and check out some of his helpful books, including “Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.”

As Bancroft notes, truly overcoming abusiveness can be an ongoing, often lifelong process.

No one deserves abuse, and it’s never too late to seek help. While we hope abusive partners will change, it’s not always realistic to expect that they can and will. Focus on changes you can control to improve your own life, because you deserved to feel loved, happy and safe.

In the words of artist Andy Warhol, “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then… You can’t make them change if they don’t want to.”

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

DVAM Challenge 3: Test Your Knowledge of Domestic Violence

How much do you know about domestic violence? Take our quiz below as your DVAM challenge #3.

DVAM challenge #3: Answer true or false to the statements below and then continue reading on to see how you did.

1. Domestic violence is not a problem in your community.

2. Couples counseling is recommended by The Hotline for abusive relationships.

3. Sometimes the victim provokes their partner into abusing them.

4. Yelling, putting down or belittling someone isn’t ever considered abuse.

5. On average, more than 3 women are murdered by their partners every day.

6. If the abuse was getting too bad, the victim would just leave.

7. The most dangerous time for a victim is often when their partner first lashes out.

8. Everyone deserves respect in a relationship.

9. If children aren’t being abused and don’t witness the abuse, they aren’t affected.

10. The cost of domestic violence is extremely high to society.

What do you think? How many are true and how many are false? Here’s the key:

1. False. Domestic violence happens in every community. Unfortunately many cases go unreported.

2. False. The Hotline does NOT recommend couple’s counseling when there is abuse in the relationship. It can be very dangerous to the partner being abused. An abuser may use what is said in therapy later against their partner. Individual counseling may be helpful but couple’s counseling is not recommended. Read more here.

3. False. Regardless of their actions, no one deserves to be physically, verbally or sexually abused.

4. False. Domestic violence is the pattern of behavior than an abuser uses to gain and maintain power and control over their partner. It can be physical, verbal or sexual.

5. True. Each year, domestic violence results in an estimated 1,200 deaths and 2 million injuries among women. Furthermore, domestic violence results in nearly 600,000 injuries among men (CDC).

6. False. Many victims love their partners despite the abuse or feel as if they have no support system or resources outside of the relationship and so they feel as if they can’t leave. Furthermore, the period immediately after leaving an abusive relationship is extremely dangerous.

7. False. Domestic violence typically worsens over time. Leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim because their abusive partner feels like they are losing power and control. The abuser may escalate the abuse in order to regain that power and control.

8. True. Absolutely no one deserves to be abused and there is no excuse for being physically, verbally or sexually violent toward a partner.

9. False. Children are extremely perceptive. Even if they don’t see the abuse happening, they feel its effects.

10. True. Each year, domestic violence costs more than $5.8 billion dollars, with $4.1 billion of that amount being spent directly on medical and mental health services (NCADV).

How did you do? Interested in learning more about domestic violence? Check out our website for more information or give us a call at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

National Domestic Violence Hotline Blog

RHOBH Recap: Taylor’s Therapy & Why We Don’t Recommend It

Did you catch Monday’s episode of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills? Quick recap for those who missed it, we watched the Housewives going along with their lives — Lisa planning her daughter’s wedding, Adrienne fussing over her shoe line debut, and Kyle and Brandi going for manicures. The scene we found ourselves drawn to most, however, was Taylor and Russell’s very real therapy session.

It was hard to watch.

The therapist brought up the topics of Russell’s anger, his aggression and his desire to hurt Taylor when they’re arguing. The therapist didn’t specify in which way Russell hurts his wife, so we are not clear if the therapist is referring to physical, verbal/emotional abuse or other. Russell contributed that it wasn’t pretty when he was angry, a comment that seemed too casual for the topic at hand. Russell left the session early to attend a business meeting.

We bring up this scene to discuss what may surprise some of our readers.

We at the hotline do not encourage anyone in an abusive relationship to seek counseling with their partner. Abuse is not a relationship problem. While there can be benefits for couples who undergo couple’s therapy, there’s a great risk for any person who is being abused to attend therapy with their abusive partner.

Relationship counseling can help partners understand each other, resolve difficult problems, and even help the couple gain a different perspective on their situation. It cannot, however, fix the unequal power structure that is characteristic of an abusive relationship.

An abuser may use what is said in therapy later against their partner. Therapy can make a person feel vulnerable. If the abuser is embarrassed or angered by something said in therapy, he or she may make their partner suffer to gain back the sense of control. Therapy is often considered a “safe space” for people to talk. For an abused partner, that safety doesn’t necessarily extend to their home.

Couples often enter couple’s therapy to fix their relationship. Deciding whether or not the relationship is better is extremely hard for a couple if one is being abused. The abuser has all of the power and can no longer gauge if a relationship is getting better because he/she does not see what their partner sees. The abused partner often cannot even rate how bad or good the relationship is because the abuse has affected him/her. We saw this happen in the episode. Russell even tried to control the evaluation of therapy, declaring that he thought they were progressing. Taylor responded saying that while they were working on it, they weren’t quite to a good place just yet.

Another reason that couple’s therapy or counseling is not recommended is that the facilitator may not know about the abuse, which would make the entire process ineffective. The abuser may make their partner seem responsible for the problems, and if the therapist does not realize that abuse is present, her or she may believe the abuser.

If you or someone you know is considering entering therapy with an abusive partner, please have them call us at the hotline. We can talk to them, and give them a judgment-free sounding board for their hopes and concerns about the process.

Here’s an interview Taylor did on KTLA in which she says that the reality show may have even saved her life.

National Domestic Violence Hotline Blog

Why We’re Blogging About the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

For those of us at The Hotline who are Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fans, it’s difficult to watch this season. Housewife Taylor Armstrong has recently disclosed her experience of abuse and is also coping with the suicide of her allegedly abusive ex-husband. Entertainment Tonight has released gruesome photos of the black eye Taylor suffered and is discussing the incidents of abuse in greater detail.

Russell Armstrong’s death occurred after season two of the RHWOBH had finished filming. There has been a lot of controversy around the choice made by Bravo to continue airing the therapy sessions with Taylor in which she analyzed her relationship with Russell.

As this season airs, we are going to blog about the behaviors we see. We want to provide you a context for the human experiences we are all watching unfold as we tune in to each week’s episode. We hope to empower you, our readers, with knowledge that you can use if you find yourself in a similar situation to what you see on screen. What are ways to help a friend in Taylor’s situation? Is therapy recommended for abusive couples? How should you react if someone tells you that they are abused? These and other questions are areas we strive to answer by using the lens of this show to examine domestic violence.

As we write about what we see, we do not mean to exploit, objectify or judge the very real people who we are watching. We extend our saddest condolences to Russell Armstrong’s family and wish nothing but support for Taylor and her daughter as they grieve and begin their healing process.

According to online sources, 2.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the season premiere. The sheer amount of people watching the show, combined with the knowledge that one in four women has experienced abuse, helps us feel that this season could be an important learning moment for all of us.

In season one, Taylor, a domestic violence advocate herself, used her access to the cameras to positively promote a local Beverly Hills shelter, 1736 Family Crisis Center. Blogging about this season is a way for us to use a platform we have — this website — to discuss a topic that deserves our attention.

We hope you’ll join our conversation.