The term “abuse” does not define a single behavior but a spectrum of harmful behaviors directed at another person. When abuse occurs within the context of a relationship, it is often described as “domestic abuse.”
When we think of domestic abuse in relationships, we often think of battering. Domestic abuse can also take the form of verbal abuse, sexual abuse or emotional unavailability. Contrary to popular belief, abusive behavior isn’t just something that happens to someone else. Domestic abuse has been documented across all racial, ethnic, educational, and socioeconomic boundaries.
The hardest but most important thing to know about abusive behaviors of any type is that abuse occurs in an escalating cycle. It is not a “one and done” type of behavior. There are periods of intense acting out followed by periods of remorse and calmer behavior.
Over time, however, the cycle repeats and the intensity of the abuse tends to increase as well. Abuse is a learned behavior and each reoccurrence left unaddressed tends to reinforce the behavior. Abusive behavior does not get better on its own. No amount of begging, pleading, apologizing or tears changes it.
So what does all of this mean for marriage counseling? In general, it means that if there is an ongoing issue of domestic abuse, marriage counseling is not advised. In fact, if physical violence has occurred, most therapists will not see a couple for therapy. Why? The effectiveness of counseling depends on open communication and each partner being able to listen and share honestly and safely. This type of communication can place the recipient of the abuse at risk for more abuse.
Not being able to engage in traditional couples counseling doesn’t mean that help isn’t available. It means that the therapist will probably recommend individual therapy for both partners. Working with a therapist trained in domestic abuse treatment, the abusive partner can work to resolve the issues underlying that behavior and learn safer ways of responding. The recipient of the abusive behavior can work on developing a safety plan as well as learning ways to focus on strengths and overcoming negative self-image.
Only when each partner is able to come to therapy in a safe, honest and respectful way can couples therapy be effective. This process may involve more than one therapist and/or a specialized domestic violence treatment program.
Every therapist, every treatment program and every couple is different. What is right for you depends on your situation. Being honest with your therapist is the best way to help them guide you to the right type of treatment for your situation.