Couple counseling focuses on interpersonal relationships, with problems related to the couple relationship becoming the central focus of treatment. Its use with couples involved in intimate partner violence (IPV) is controversial.
Why Couple Counseling?
Sustaining a couple relationship is a difficult endeavor because of the myriad adjustments that couples must make when beginning their life together. The realities of being in a couple relationship often conflict with the romanticism of fairy tales and movies. The first year is likely to be the most difficult year of the relationship as new couples adjust to being together. Even when couples come from similar backgrounds, the daily living habits they have developed in their family of origin may contribute to tension. They may have different expectations of the relationship and different values. These differences may be accentuated in cross-cultural couples. When the challenges of being in a relationship accumulate (in particular, when facing IPV), some couples seek professional help and consult a couple counselor.
Couple counseling is a type of short-term psychotherapy that focuses on interpersonal relationships, with problems related to the couple relationship becoming the central focus of treatment. There are many approaches to couple counseling, and its effectiveness varies as a function of the form of intervention.
Behavioral marital therapy, emotionally focused therapy, and integrative behavioral couple therapy have received the most research support. Cognitive-behavioral marital therapy, strategic therapy, and insight-oriented marital therapy are also somewhat effective, as are programs such as marital and premarital enrichment programs. Couple counseling has also been shown to be helpful in the treatment of mental health disorders co-occurring with relationship distress (for example, depression, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and substance abuse). Key to success in all of these approaches is interrupting cycles of negative emotion and rebuilding emotional connections.
The research is clear that not all couples do equally well in counseling. Most important, from the perspective of IPV, there is disagreement as to whether couple counseling is even appropriate for couples experiencing physical aggression.
Couple Counseling For Couples Experiencing IPV
One of the advantages of couple counseling for those experiencing IPV is that it may be possible for the counselor to get more accurate information about the violence when the couple presents together. When the partners are interviewed apart, the aggressor is likely to underrepresent the severity of the violence. Having both members of the couple in the counseling room at the same time also allows the two of them to get the same information at the same time about what is acceptable behavior, what constitutes violence, and how the counseling will proceed. Working together as a couple allows the individuals to postpone discussions about volatile or controversial issues until the next counseling session, thus decreasing the likelihood of escalating arguments at home. Proponents of couple counseling for those experiencing IPV contend that interrupting cycles of negative emotion and negative communication in counseling leads to a decrease in violence because it changes the patterns of interaction that lead to physical aggression in these couples. Because bidirectional violence is present in some of these couples, both partners can learn to control their use of physical aggression better when learning how to do this at the same time.
Arguments Against Couple Counseling
Opponents of couple counseling argue that it is never appropriate to work with a couple together once IPV has been identified until all evidence of physical aggression has been absent for some time (6 months to 1 year is the typical time frame stated). They give a number of reasons why it is inappropriate, ineffective, and, in some cases, dangerous to do couple counseling when IPV is present. The most important limitation to using couple counseling is that by its very nature it communicates that it is the system (the relationship) that is faulty, rather than the behaviors of the individual members that are problematic. What this subtly communicates is that both partners are responsible for the violence. However, there is a great deal of evidence that IPV is a disorder of the abuser and attributing responsibility to the victim could in fact exacerbate the cycle of violence. Abusers chronically blame others for the unfortunate things that happen to them. Attributing coresponsibility to the victim could be interpreted by the aggressor as confirming his or her basic belief that the victim is in fact wholly responsible for the violence. Moreover, since victims tend to blame themselves for the violence, attribution of coresponsibility could contribute to the victim’s belief system that it is indeed his or her fault.
Opponents of couple counseling cite research that it is not effective in stopping abusive behavior since the individual’s abusive behaviors are unrelated to the behaviors of the partner, whether the behaviors are conflict engaging, conflict lessening, or conflict avoidant. Thus, focusing on the problems in the relationship would not be effective in stopping abusive behavior. Focusing on relational issues in a couple when violence continues could instead increase the danger to the victim.
Opponents of couple counseling recommend instead that the aggressor be referred to a treatment group for abusers—perhaps one incorporating anger management in a psychotherapy group—until such a time as the violence has come under clear control. The victim may receive supportive counseling during this time either in individual counseling or in a group modality.
Common Beliefs About Couple Counseling
Proponents and opponents of couple counseling for those experiencing IPV agree that when the victim of physical aggression is afraid of the partner, when risk of lethality exists, or when one member of the couple wants to end the relationship, couple counseling is not appropriate. All also agree that it is appropriate and even desirable to do couple counseling to resolve underlying relational issues after the violence has ceased.
- Geffner, R., & Rosenbaum, A. (Eds.). (2002). Domestic violence offenders: Current interventions, research, and implications for policies and standards. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press.
- Harway, M., & Hansen, M. (2004). Spouse abuse: Assessing and treating battered women, batterers and their children (2nd ed.). Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
- Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Clements, K., & Farris, C. (2005).
- Working with couples who have experienced physical aggression. In M. Harway (Ed.), Handbook of couples therapy (pp. 289–312). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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