Family Therapy and Family Violence Essay

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Family therapy is a unique mental health discipline whose primary focus is to improve relationship problems, as well as offer relationally based treatment for mental health concerns. In short, its primary orientation to individual, couple, family, and organizational concerns is systemic, or one that focuses on the nature and quality of relationships in which problems reside. Therefore, the core assumption that problems cannot exist outside the context of relationship facilitates working with more than one person in a family, relationship, or community and references this logic when formulating interventions. Rules, roles, and boundaries are key concepts informing family therapists’ ways of thinking about relational concerns, and communication, adaptability, cohesion, and flexibility are key markers of relational health. Given these unique aspects, in the field of family and interpersonal violence, family therapy has met with mixed outcomes as it has progressed through three “moments” in reference to family violence.

First Moment

In the first moment, as an emergent field at the time that family violence was being named and acknowledged, family therapy engaged the issue from a purely systemic perspective and emphasized relational mutuality, dysfunctional family roles, and poor communication patterns. In the case of childhood sexual abuse, a systemic perspective focused on the unconscious maintenance of the family’s emotional and relational equilibrium (even though it was unhealthy) through behavioral contributions of the perpetrator, child, nonoffending parent, and siblings. Similarly, sustaining relational stability motivated battered women’s decisions to continue relationships with abusive partners. Treatment focused on conjoint sessions attended by all members of the immediate family in the case of childhood sexual abuse, and attendance by husband and wife in couple therapy. Further victimization of abused and battered family members was implicit in this intervention structure in that the presence of the perpetrator encouraged further denial of the abuse. Critics, primarily feminists, challenged this descriptive, yet neutralized, systemic ideology and structure as unacknowledged support of institutionalized patriarchy, overt victim blaming, and dangerous to women and children.

Second Moment

As a result of feminists’ challenges in the 1980s, the second moment of family therapy’s conceptualization and treatment of family violence evidenced a more informed position on the institutionalized oppression of women and mental health’s role in endorsing its continued acceptance. Feminist-informed family therapists questioned unacknowledged endorsements of prescribed male and female roles in the family (male—intellectual, decision maker, breadwinner; female—emotional, mothering, nurturer) that contributed to violent and abusive behavior. Family therapists reexamined longstanding beliefs about mother blaming, male superiority, emotionally unavailable men and needy women, secrets, boundaries, and accountability. Similar types of feminist critiques occurred in other mental health disciplines, and therapeutic interventions shifted away from privileging male voices over female voices. For family therapy, this shift was marked by clinical models overtly assessing culpability, and emphasizing physical and emotional safety for victims. Pragmatically, this shift signaled a move from conjoint family or couples therapy to extended individual and group work for perpetrators, victims, and other family members. Placing an abused child or battered woman in clinical situations where he or she could be revictimized or coerced was understood as unethical. For example, conjoint therapy for couples with ongoing or past violence was such a sensitive topic that many family therapists were uncomfortable discussing it and referred violent couples.

Third Moment

Currently, the third moment of family therapy’s attempt to deal with family violence has indicated a more balanced position that incorporates moments one and two. In the cases of child physical and sexual abuse, the field continues to take strong positions on accountability and safety. Therefore, assessing for abuse and inappropriate boundaries between immediate and extended family members occurs early in treatment. Interestingly, though, once family therapists have facilitated the process of acknowledging and addressing abuse, they are also the key mental health professionals involved in family reunification, a process of helping the family to rebuild itself in ways that encourage communication, safety, accountability, and development of appropriate social supports.

The work of John Gottman and Neil Jacobson, Michael Johnson, and Sandra Stith, Karen Rosen, Eric McCollum, and Cynthia Thomsen has been instrumental in convincing family therapists that the therapeutic constellation is a less critical factor in intervening in intimate partner violence than the type of batterer involved. Research by Gottman and Jacobson and by Johnson has called for mental health providers to consider the distinct profiles of male batterers and their implications for intervention. Specifically, men who become verbally and behaviorally more aggressive and physiologically less excitable in violent episodes are considered inappropriate candidates for conjoint therapy. In addition, men who use violence as their primary relational strategy with both men and women are also considered high risk. Stith, Rosen, McCollum, and Thomsen, following this logic, found that men who used violence episodically to control specific situations with their partners could engage in couples therapy to rebuild their relationships and reduce violence.

The third moment of family therapy’s interface with family violence has also evidenced the impact of postmodern/poststructuralistic philosophy. Generally, postmodernism emphasizes the value of understanding life as socially constructed realities rather than objective, immutable realities. As such, the mutability of victims’ and perpetrators’ histories and futures with violence becomes the context for creating change and providing hope. Dialogic, or language-focused therapies, such as narrative therapy and collaborative language systems, provide alternate relationally focused clinical approaches to abuse-focused therapies and traditional batterers programs. Three examples, one dealing with childhood physical and sexual abuse and two with intimate partner violence, follow.

Just therapy, a systemic clinical model steeped in narrative therapy and social justice ideas, originated from the work of a multicultural clinical staff in New Zealand. The model utilizes a holistic approach that partners therapy and social services, with respect for community context and ways of knowing, to work with child abuse. In addition to bringing community, therapeutic, and social service resources to the safety and protection of children, and accountability of perpetrators, it also uniquely deals with macro-level issues, such as the effects of public policy on negative outcomes of child protection and family reunification.

Similarly, Rhea Almeida and Tracy Durkin have also integrated couples therapy with community supports to address intimate partner violence in low-income communities. Their work has successfully focused on establishing accountability and support for abusive men through the involvement of community mentors and increased social support. Abused women also are encouraged to gain support and empowerment within the traditions of their community. On a more individual and familial level, Alan Jenkins and Tod Augusta-Scott employ an “invitations to responsibility” model to acknowledge batterers’ duality around desiring intimate relationships and yet utilizing control and abuse as primary behaviors within them. This model differs from the historical psychoeducational/ confrontational model of batterers treatment in that it combines elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy, solution-oriented therapy, and client-directed therapy with accountability. Its intent is to remove opportunities for defensiveness about abusive behavior that impede responsibility taking.


  1. Almeida, R. V., & Durkin, T. (1999). The cultural context model: Therapy for couples with domestic violence. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 25, 313–324.
  2. Augusta-Scott, T., & Dankwort, J. (2002). Partner abuse intervention: Lessons from education and narrative therapy approaches. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17, 783–805.
  3. Jacobson, N., & Gottman, J. (1998). When men batter women: New insights into ending abusive relationships. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Jenkins, A. (1990). Invitations to responsibility: The therapeutic engagement of men who are violent and abusive. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre.
  5. Stith, S. M., Rosen, K. H., McCollum, E. E., & Thomsen, C. J. (2004). Treating intimate partner violence within intact couple relationships: Outcome of a multi-couple versus individual couple therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30, 305–318.

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