Why We Don’t Recommend Couples Counseling for Abusive Relationships

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. Our advocates are here to support you and talk through your options.

Comment section

35 replies
  1. Hey Amy,

    You are absolutely right! Couples counseling often makes abusive situations worse for all the reasons you mentioned. In addition, couple’s counseling doesn’t address the underlying issues of power and control in the relationship. It assumes that both partners on an even playing field, even though that is not true. The thing is, couples counseling addresses relationship issues. But in there isn’t a relationship issue in an abusive situation, there is a power and control issue where the abuser wants to have power and control over their partner. It’s not something the victim can work on or fix because the victim isn’t the problem, the abuser is. And couples counseling cannot account for this.

    Thanks again for reaching out and if you are ever needing to talk to someone about what happened, don’t hesitate to call at 1 800 799 7233. We are completely confidential/anonymous and 24/7. We are here to support no matter where you are in the process of healing from an abusive relationship.

    All the best,
    Hotline Advocate MC

  2. I have to say that I agree with this one hundred percent. For me, if my abusive ex made it a point to enter couples counseling with me, it would have been another way to use gas lighting against me. A public way to give others the false impression that he cared about the horrifying dynamics that existed between us and nothing more.

    There would have been no way that I would have been able to speak openly about the horrible abuse I was enduring, because whether I said too much or not enough (so he point and say I wasn’t trying or didn’t care), it would have been used as another excuse for him to mete out punishment. If the whole point of going to counseling is to work through issues and learn how to function in a healthy relationship, it becomes a pointless endeavor. Also if the abuser truly wishes to change, it would not only be something at their suggestion, they would go to appointments for counseling on their own and with no fanfare. Due to their abusive nature, they also should not be in a relationship while they are going through counseling, because it takes away so much of the necessary and intimate focus on meaningful self-examination.

    Thank you for touching on this topic.


  3. I so agree 1000% and having had this experience..and how it only makes the abuser look better – and it is an outlet to gaslight just as Amy spoke of. Excellent Excellent Article!!
    Recovery Specialist- Mental Health

  4. this article implies that therapist’s may inadvertently support the abuse. but the whole focus on counseling– that both parties need to change, and “give” makes the therapist’s complicity a bit more than incidental. i went through this with an especially dangerous and manipulative family member who would manipulate every therapist into the inevitable session where we both had to be “willing to change” and willing to “look at our part” and “give a little”.

    i do believe that abusers can change, but they need to be in their own space to change, and victims need their own space too– and resources so we/they can leave, take care of themselves and not be dependent on the abusers.

    also, abusers aren’t always partners. they can be parents (in which case, society often forces kids to stay with abusive parents, to “save the family”, kids (where parents who are being abused are often blamed for the abusive behavior– which is more often the product of a society that allows for the abuse of women and can be the result of another abusive adult’s triangulation), employers, co-workers (where one is told one needs to learn to get along and work with difficult people), classmates, teachers, etc. abuse is systemic in our society. the mandate that women leave abusive partners contradicts the message we give other abuse victims, and in all these cases we deny the agency of the person being abused. battered women’s shelters are notorious for their rules, curfews, etc that remove all agency from people at a time when the goal should be to increase agency.

  5. Hi Emma,

    You are absolutely right. Abusers often manipulate the situation so that it seems like both parties are on an equal playing field. But that is not true in abusive relationships because they have more power and control in the relationship than the victim does. Change is absolutely possible but change is hard and until the abusive person sees that what they are doing as wrong and take responsibility, there is very little hope for change. Not to mention the fact that society often enables abuse to occur. Certainly anyone is capable of abuse. Here at the Hotline, we don’t tell our callers to do anything. They know their situation best and know the right course of action. What we do is explore options and resources so that whatever our caller decides, they have the support they need to do it. Nothing is perfect, of course, but we try to support our callers in the best way that we can.

    If you ever have further questions about intimate partner violence or would like to get connected to resources in your area, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 800-799-7233.

    All the best,
    Hotline Advocate MC

  6. I definitely agree with this! My N-ex and I tried counseling but since the counselor never let us have individual sessions, and since I didn’t trust him to not bring it up, I didn’t feel safe to divulge the degree of control involved. Also, my N-ex would minimize it and would only “act right” if someone was watching/he knew I’d report it to the counselor, etc. It HELPED somewhat but I don’t see it ever being able to make an unreasonable man reasonable. If a person doesn’t have a conscience, no one can instill that upon him/her.

  7. Oh my gosh. This explains a lot to me. While engaging in couple’s counseling, I always ended up walking away thinking, “Wow. Even the therapist thinks I’m crazy like he says I am. What does this mean?” Then at home, it seemed to give him more ammo in telling me how wrong I was about everything, especially the presence of abuse, since “our therapist even thinks you’re crazy.” Thank you for this information.

  8. Sarah,

    Thank you for reaching out to our blog community. I am so glad this post was able to provide that validation. I am sorry that he is able to manipulate the session, that is so frustrating. If you would like to talk this through, feel free to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1800-799-7233. Advocates are available 24/7 to provide guidance and support and may be able to help you locate support services in your area.

    Until then,

  9. Im dealing with this issue myself, right now. After, my partner’s last violent out rage, that left me with a black, blue, and swollen left side of my face, we were finally forced to face his demons. He moved into his dad’s house and myself and my special need daughter in with my grandparents. I told him he needed to seek help in order to save our relationship. He made an appointment with our family dr and was put on mood stabilizing meds. I sent him a list of therapist who I thought specialized in domestic abuse. After his visit he seemed im powered by what the dr. had told him. Telling me that I needed to stop placing all the blame on him, and address my own issues in our relationship. He even told me that the Dr. had dubbed me the “blamer” of our relationship. He explained to me that the Dr. had asked if I would be interested in attending a visit, but he told the Dr. that there was no way I would be able to handle the Dr. pointing out my own mistakes and problems. I am absolutely disappointed in this effort to save our relationship. I was expecting him to go to this “domestic violence specialist” with a new outlook on his actions. I only see him empowered by this session, reassured that I am the problem, the crazy one, the one who needs to change. I really do love him and see the good in him. I just dont know what to do at this point. Help?

  10. Tiffany,

    Thank you so much for sharing with our blog community. This sounds like such a stressful situation. Unfortunately, it’s what we often hear because this is a completely different dynamic that needs to be addressed and a therapist usually cannot address this different perspective. Abuse is something that happens because one person feels they deserve the power and control in the relationship and use a lot of different strategies to get it. That includes a lot of manipulation to make sure they are not seen as the abuser.

    It sounds like you approached this with so much understanding and creativity and it is not fair that he was able to turn this all around. That sounds so frustrating. Know that you can always give us a call, The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1800-799-7233. Advocates are available 24/7 to offer guidance and support, as well as talk about what other options may be available.

    Until then,

  11. I went through this as a teen when I was being abused by my parents. My dad was the ‘active’ abuser; my mother was the passive bobblehead who blamed me for ‘making Dad act out like that’ and if I would ‘just behave’, according to her, ‘Dad and I wouldn’t get so mad and hit you and yell at you’. I was getting it from both sides. Dad had a drinking problem; Mom was just an accomplice (and in retrospect, she may have also been taking her share of his garbage and we all know the saying about “that which rolls downhill”. Put another way: Someone comes home angry and kicks the dog, so the dog goes and bites the cat… then the cat gets stressed and sprays the wall . So the cat gets in trouble and is tossed outside for spraying… sorry for the strange analogy!)

    The counselor saw exactly what was going on and called both of my parents out on their behavior. But when we got home, I was the one who caught the stink from both of them. Eventually, it got so bad that I attempted suicide and ended up in the hospital’s mental health unit. But even that didn’t stop the abuse– one night my dad came up, drunk, and ran his head off at me, to the point where I made a serious attempt again in the hospital. That got him banned from future visits, which made Mom angry because she said that I bad mouthed him to the staff, and pulled a ‘drama move’ to get attention. But for some reason, she was not banned. When I was released home, nothing had changed, other than now they had a new weapon of ‘mental illness’ to use on me… I was ‘just crazy’, and they subtly mentioned it to anyone to whom I spoke of the abuses, in another effort to discredit me. I ended up marrying out at age 18, just to get away– and guess what? He was abusive and even tried to kill me when I was 8 months pregnant. I left, went to a safe house… only to have him stalk me and find where I was staying. One day he came in and started trouble. I got blamed for it, for supposedly telling him where the safe house was (a serious violation, and I didn’t tell him… he followed me without my being aware of it). I was kicked out, and had to go back to him because I had no place else to go. Of course, the abuse got worse and I called the police. They came out and he played ‘crazy’. Got taken to a mental health unit for observation, but was released after 72 hours. I was on the street, having lost my job when he came in one day and created a scene. Somehow, that was MY fault, too, even though there was a restraining order and I was the one who called the police as soon as I saw him walking up. He caused the scene before the cops got there. I was hiding in the back, nowhere near him, but because he was my ex, I was fired for his behavior. Short form… I ended up bouncing from shelter to shelter, while he had the ‘luxury’ of a stable home and a job despite the TRO and legal case against him. I ended up placing the baby for adoption as the safest option for him and for myself… if the jerk found me, he would have also found the baby, and I had a very bad gut feeling that he might have tried to hurt the child. Plus, I was still bouncing from shelter to shelter, no life for an infant! But again, to my parents, the abuse I was going through at the hands of my now-ex ‘had to be based on the FACT that I’m so difficult to deal with’. So, according to my dad, I made my bed so now I had to sleep in it. More sickness… one of the police officers who responded often to my calls for help had previously worked as a campus security officer at the college where my mother worked. She was friends with the officer and his wife (the wife was a co-worker of my mom), and she had filled their heads with all kinds of garbage, which they believed. It showed in the response, and the way I was treated by the police because Ofcr. Russell spread the garbage to his partners, without ever once talking with me in private to know the real story. So, the police treated me like garbage and thought I was bat-crazy based on Mom’s lies, and there was nothing I could do about it. The ONLY one who saw my folks for what they really were was that counselor– but as a minor, there were few options for me at the time. I pretty much had to stay in that toxic environment until I could legally leave, and then I saw marriage as a ticket out… desperation makes you do things, you know?

    Since then, I’ve ended up in a string of abusive relationships, and am now so financially broke that I can’t even find a job to save money to get out of the emotionally-abusive situation that I’m in now. Gas costs money. So do bus passes, and I don’t get help with any of that so it’s just me and my bike, and who will hire a 50+ year old who can’t even ride the bus?

    Oh well, it’s not that bad, because he doesn’t hit me like the rest of them did. I can handle words, and honestly I think he doesn’t hit me because I have since learned how to physically fight effectively, and how to shoot a gun so I suspect that he knows that I will kill anyone who puts me in fear of my life, and seriously injure anyone who lays a hand on me in a threatening way. Words, I can just ignore and go somewhere on my bike, away from him, and have the cleansing cry. No biggie; I’ve cried before, many times. I don’t care anymore… I really don’t. I’ve forgotten HOW to care, frankly. I just ‘harden the F up’ and go on.

  12. Hi Belle,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure it resonates with many people who have been through an abusive childhood and abusive relationships. Although not everyone who is abused as a child winds up in an abusive relationship, this is a story we hear often. No one should ever be abused, whether you are a child or an adult. The ones we love should be respected, protected and treated with kindness. That is what you deserved both as a child and as an adult. Even though you were blamed for all the abuse, it was never your fault. You’re not crazy. You were traumatized. It sounds like you wanted to live; you just didn’t want to live a life of abuse. That’s something we hear all the time from callers who talk about suicide. In fact, you did everything you were supposed to do and the system failed you. I’m so sorry you were never able to get the help that you needed and deserved. It must have been so scary to feel like you could never call the police or turn to others in authority without being questioned and disbelieved.

    You sound like an incredibly strong and caring person. It takes a lot of courage to place your child up for adoption. Being willing to make such a difficult decision and sacrifice makes you a much better parent than your parents could ever be. Dealing with abuse or trauma can wear you down and overwhelm you. It sounds like you’re doing your best to stay okay in the situation. If you ever need to talk about your relationship or what options you might have, please feel free to call us at 1-800-799-7233. We’re here 24/7, completely confidential and anonymous.

    Take care,
    Hotline Advocate VG

  13. Ha!!

    My ex — a Christian minister who pushed me into a suicide attempt and caused his 2 exes before me and his then 10 year old son to be suicidal — showed great compassion during our one therapy session. In the elevator on the way out he grinned and said, “How did you like my acting in there?” I still see her for meds only, but for a time he was still seeing her as well, and to this day I know she thinks it was all just about my depression. He has the church snowed. His exes and son know the truth but no one believes us. I understand how he could fool his parish, but a psychiatrist?? Yet it took me 3 more years to leave. What 20 years of gaslighting will do to you.

  14. Wowed . …..God is the only thing that I can definitely recommend that I know that I am blessed to have found the website . Thanks for sharing this is helpful to me in more ways than one. May God bless you all:)

  15. Hi Jessica,

    Thank you for your kind words. I am glad our blog posts were helpful for you. If you need additional support, please reach out and call us 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat online at http://www.thehotline.org everyday from 7am-2am (CST).

  16. Of course therapists don’t have a clue. I tried one counselor and he set me up for the beginning of the very physical abuse.

  17. Hi Maggie,

    Thank you for contributing to our blog community. It is really stressful and frustrating to not have a therapist offer the support that you need. Unfortunately not all counselors and therapists are trained in domestic abuse. You deserve to be able to trust that those you reach out to will help you and make the situation safer for you. There are counselors and support groups led by people trained in abuse if that is something you are interested in doing. Contacting us 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233 or on chat from 7am to 2am CST is a way to find out what resources are in your community.

    Take care,

    Hotline Advocate LC

  18. Wow! Finally I got a blog from where I be capable of truly get valuable data regarding my study and knowledge.

  19. Thank you for this article. The counseling my husband and I went through was fruitless. His recovery accountability partner is CLUELESS,which I don’t blame him. He has NO personal back ground in abuse, addiction, or codependency. Therefore, my husband has him fooled just like all the other pastors and accountability partners. After 3 yrs, our marriage counselor (who’s an expert in this field for 3yrs) is dropping him necause of his inappropriate behavior towards us both. But I’m now on counseling to learn about abusive baiting & behavior. I really recommend this for women and men victims. Even if we get away from an abusive partner, we have to change so as not to attract other abuse towards us in our personal and professional live

  20. THANK YOU for sharing! I’m 45 and I don’t want to ‘not care anymore. I’ve felt the ‘I don’t care anymore’ creep up on me and im trying to suppress it for my kids’ sake. I hope you care again someday, especially for yourself. My one child does not communicate with me much but I want to be healthy when he reaches out to me. It’s common and easy these days for children to seek out their parents. But really, I want to be happy someday, even if I have to be alone. Best wishes. Kristy

  21. I really want to thank you for helping all people in need of Help. I am doing better. Thanks to God Thanks to you and Thanks to my family and friends. Is ok to feel like you sad or you think is your fault, because you been in a relationship that you wanted to be happy!. Things happenb in Life . Sometimes you think is your husband problems Or your wifes attitude. Etc… You are created the same by God. And I am Working on my mistakes and is ok!. That is why I Love HOTLINE Domerstic violence Page. You are awesome. Do not hesitate to call them. They are really Honest and very strong and they will help you 24/7. Tony T.

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