For couples experiencing relationship issues that they can’t seem to solve on their own, seeking marital counseling is often the expected next step to take. However, while couple’s counseling has been proven to do great, transformative work among many, it is not the solution to every relational problem. Here’s what you need to consider when choosing the type of therapeutic support your abusive relationship may need:
Understanding the goals, purpose and types of counseling you need can help you choose the best course of action to take and prevent putting you and your partner in a therapeutic setting that is unhelpful at least, and traumatic and harmful at worst.
To start this conversation, it’s crucial for you to know that marital counseling usually cannot work for a couple with ongoing abuse of any kind. In his book “Why Does He Do That,” author and abuse-expert Lundy Bancroft surmised the problem this way: “Attempting to address abuse through couple’s therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way; it just gets even harder to undo than it was before.”
Not all Licensed Professional Counselors are trained to address abuse in couple’s counseling. What makes matters even worse is that often therapists don’t know that they are not adequately trained in best practices. Attempting to counsel a couple with an abusive dynamic from an uninformed stance can be traumatic for the victim as well as give more power to the abuser. Victims are often led to believe that they are part of the problem or that their abuser is not the only one to blame for the abuse. In typical situations where a couple is seeking counseling, both partners do usually have some role in the ongoing issues. But this is never true in a relationship where abuse is present. The abuse must be confronted and thoroughly resolved before couple’s counseling can be an appropriate option.
A few pitfalls that can occur during couple’s counseling while abuse is present in the relationship:
- In an effort to align with the abuser, the therapist takes time to critique ways the victim may be responding to the abuse. Abuse is traumatizing and responses are often involuntary, therefore the focus needs to remain 100% on the abuser’s faulty beliefs and thinking as well as the specific harmful behaviors that are playing out so that the victim can experience validation.
- The victim often needs help to hold stronger boundaries that the abuser rejects escalating abusive dynamics and trauma. Focusing on the victim’s errors only during any counseling session gives power to the abuser to ignore their own behaviors while shifting blame onto the victim. When the couple is present, the therapist should communicate the need for boundary-setting and demonstrate to the victim what stronger boundaries look like, as well as communicating a healthy expectation that the abuser should respect the boundaries being set, but oftentimes this does not take place.
- It’s not unusual that victims have a hard time describing the complicated nature and specifics of covert emotional abuse. This can lead to the therapist not fully understanding the nature of the abuse that is taking place nor the need for intervention which adds further trauma to the victim.
- Victims may also be afraid to fully disclose what is happening within the relationship for fear of retaliation when they get home. They may only feel safe to lightly touch on the abuse in order to see how the abuser will respond.
- Couple’s therapy can take a long time and can cause the victim to experience increased trauma. Victims become weary which only makes trauma more difficult to endure.
- The abuser learns therapeutic terminology which is then used to pathologize the victim.
These are some of the reasons it is often not advisable for couples who are experiencing abuse to undergo couple’s therapy until they each have been in individual therapy and their therapists believe the couple is ready for couple’s therapy.
If abuse is not part of the relationship, there are some good reasons to seek couple’s counseling that can lead to very healthy outcomes. Among these reasons are problems with physical or emotional intimacy, conflict resolution and communication styles, broken trust, needing a safe space to tell your partner something important, or you both feel that something is missing in the relationship but aren’t sure what or how to fix it. If you and your partner are both committed to making the marriage work and are experiencing any of these issues, seeking an expert’s advice is often best sooner rather than later. Without expert help or objective guidance, the problems can grow in intensity until they feel too numerous or overwhelming to work through, despite your commitment to one another.
If you and your spouse are at a place where you know that you want couple’s counseling, it’s important to be aware of the different types of therapy that are out there and what to be aware of as you seek a therapist who will be right for each of you.
Good therapists counsel from a variety of modalities. Some may use only one. When a therapist informs you that they use only one modality it can be a red flag that they are not well equipped. Common modalities used in martial counseling include Emotional Focus Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Imago Relationship Therapy, The Gottman Method, and Narrative Therapy. One reason why it’s not appropriate for couples to engage in therapies using these modalities when abuse is present in the relationship is because several of them require that you be vulnerable with your partner. Abusers often exploit the vulnerabilities of the victim, privately or publicly, at a later date which is highly traumatic and an unconscionable breach of confidentiality. It would be wise for you and your partner to do some research on the different types of therapy to see which approach you would find the most useful. This can also help you to narrow down which therapist you seek out.
In addition to finding modalities that you might prefer, it’s important to seek a therapist who specializes in marital counseling. Marital therapy is distinctively different from individual therapy, requiring unique expertise. An experienced couple’s counselor will likely hold a few certifications in training covering different couple’s issues, whether that be training in Emotional Focus Therapy, sex therapy, etc. If you are a couple that has had abuse within your marriage, make sure any couple’s therapist you choose is educated and experienced in domestic violence and abuse.
Another aspect to consider is whether you would like a faith-based counselor and if it is important to you and your partner for your therapist to work with you from a faith-based framework. For many couples, marriage carries spiritual implications, and they may not fit well with a counselor who does not agree with their core beliefs.
Finally, once you and your partner have considered all of these elements and found a therapist to meet with, it’s vital that you choose to invest in a counselor with whom you connect. We encourage you to trust your gut instincts when it comes to therapy. If something seems “off” in the initial session or you don’t feel that your therapist is addressing core patterns in a timely fashion to match for your situation, there is no shame in stopping therapy and seeking help elsewhere. Pay attention to your gut. Good therapists understand that not every counselor is a match for every couple. There is no obligation to continue sessions if you don’t feel comfortable.
Marriage often comes with its difficulties but it can also be an incredibly rewarding partnership and should be a source of fulfillment, not pain. If you and your partner are searching for ways to strengthen your bond and work through relationship problems, couple’s counseling may be one of the best decisions you can make. On the other hand, you may already know this to be true but your partner isn’t ready for couple’s counseling or is totally against the idea. Should you find yourself in this not uncommon situation, you can still visit a couple’s therapist on your own. Many marriage experts recommend taking this course of action if one of the spouses doesn’t want to go, as it can still be beneficial for the individual who wants help.
In the footnotes, we provide in-depth resources with more information on this subject. In this and next week’s blog, we will address various facets of good couple’s counseling for when it becomes the appropriate resource for your relationship
We encourage you to examine the resources below to help you determine if couple’s counseling is a good path for you.
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Often couples or families come into counseling because things are just not working in the relationship. Sometimes, especially in a family, one person is identified as “the problem” when the underlying issue may be the way you are relating to each other.