During a couples therapy session and unexpectedly, Sue gets up and hits her partner Rob in the face. How should we, as couples therapists respond?
Many couples therapists state categorically “I don’t work with domestic violence”. The usual justification given is that if there were some degree of intimidation in the therapy room or spouses are fearful of speaking in front of their partner, that would make therapy impossible. The mind boggles: if these couples so clearly need help, who should provide it if not couples therapists ? Given that some 40% of people at one point in their relationship experience a degree of violence (Smith 2012) the blanket statement of my colleagues is even more difficult to justify. There may also be other relationships, such as same-sex ones, or relationships where one or two partners define as ‘trans’. Both types of relationships typically experience a high degree of distress and lack of environmental support. As a consequence of this I would expect a higher degree of violent behaviour. There may be different cultural constructs which impact on the way couples express distress or disagreement. Couples may also be affected by intergenerational patterns or trauma-based communication styles which are accompanied by actual violence or threats thereof. And what does violence mean in intimate relationships?
Many couples have not learnt to communicate well. Relationship problems are often related to an inability to appreciate conflict or when conflict arises – as sure as hell it will – there is usually a lack of conflict resolution skills. Few of us are familiar with appreciative styles of communication and certainly were not taught these as a pre-requisite for a relationship. There may be name calling, threats to leave, there may be withholding of sex, threats to have affairs, passive aggressive behaviours, addictions – none of these are conventionally defined as domestic violence and yet all could be characterised by a degree of hostility in relationships. There may also be emotional control or infantilisation (my husband has “aspergers”) and financial control.
So… what isn’t domestic violence?
Intimate relationship terrorism is not domestic violence and indeed may be beyond what couples therapy can deal with.
We are talking about a pattern of consistent violent coercive control in which one partner uses a variety of violent and non-violent tactics to try to exert control over their partner – the vast majority occur in heterosexual relationships and are perpetrated by conservatively gendered men. This behaviour includes coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, economic control, abuse of partners.
This “relationship terrorism” can be seen as more problematic for couples therapy, as it is difficult to gauge the motivation of someone who engages in these manipulative behaviours, to know whether they are really open and willing to change. It is also an important consideration that they might take revenge on their partner at home for things said in the therapy room. This is perhaps, a different context from partners who are occasionally “triggered” into outbursts and seem to clearly regret their behaviour. These considerations as well as the ability of the other partner to participate fully in therapy and not be intimidated, have to be taken into consideration by couples therapists. Perhaps the worst outcome is for couples therapy to inadvertently worsen the situation by appearing to collude with an abuser. After all, our typical approach to couples is to take an even-handed attitude in the room which could be seen as colluding with abuse. An example of this: “What does Jerry do that sets off your feelings of anger?”
The alternative to working with these issues in couples therapy is usually for different therapists to work with the couple on an individual basis, with a view to them having couples therapy once the violence has stopped. However, how do we decide how long to give this – 3 months after things are calmer, a year? These questions are not easily answered.