Why Couple Counseling is not recommended for domestic abuse

Twelve Reasons Why Couple’s Counsel is not Recommended when Domestic Violence is Present is an article (pdf) from the ARMS website.  We think our readers might like it as a resource. Giving the article to pastors and counselors may help them understand why couple’s counseling (and I would add marriage intensives) is not advisable in marriages where there are allegations of abuse (and remember, abuse does not have to contain any acts of physical violence to merit the term ‘abuse’).

I (Barb) have run the article past a very good Christian counselor I know in Australia (Mike Skewes), and here is his response:

I have read that article and agree it is a very definitive list of reasons why couple’s counseling is not helpful for the victim. I believe that 100% of violence is the perpetrators responsibility; I also agree that the violence needs to stop before relationships counseling can begin, or continue. I would actually go further and suggest that the behavior not only needs to stop but that the perpetrator must become aware of his/her triggers and have brought about significant change.

23 thoughts on “Why Couple Counseling is not recommended for domestic abuse”

  1. Wow – every one of those points hits the nail on the head. As I’ve stated in past responses, a well-meaning but wishy-washy couples counselor did many of these things to me. I should have been aware that something was amiss when I realized that (1) he picked the counselor, (2) he spoke to her at long lengths over the phone before I even met her, and (3) she even told me later, “He came to me with all these problems about you, but now I realize you don’t have these problems…I think he has some Borderline traits.”

    It took our couples counselor over a year to get to #3 (and when she finally addressed the truth with him, he and his personal counselor bizarrely stated back, “She’s got her on her side now…we’re not going to let that happen to us!”). Meanwhile, I was dragged through some pretty horrendous emotional/verbal/spiritual abuse while trying desperately to maintain my health (autoimmune disorder) and appease his rages/anger because counseling gave me the mistaken hope that he could change…or I could change it. Couples counseling gave me the idea that if I just kept trying to appease his distorted reality and help him feel “secure,” we could live happily ever after. At one point, the counselor even said to me, “You just need to trust that he’s trying to give you a good life. You can quit your job, you can relax, and you can get some relief with your horrible illness…just sit with me and imagine what that will look like” (she believed my Protestant work ethic was in the way of this perfect relationship…not that I was scared out of my mind I was going to marry an abusive man).

    Interestingly, I once asked the couples counselor, “Do you think it would be o.k. to try to film one of his rage episodes so he can understand why I get so frightened and upset after? I want him to understand why they make me distant for a couple days…and why it’s hard to suddenly be affectionate and trusting after being yelled at.” This was a huge problem in the relationship because he interpreted my sadness and quietness the next day as being hateful instead of seeing a confused woman who was trying to put her spirit back together after being shattered. She told me, “I don’t think that’s ethical.” When I went to the practical, godly counselor who helped me end the abusive relationship, the first thing he said when I talked about the scary rages was, “Did you ever try to film him?” I told him that the last counselor advised against this. He said in astonishment, “Why?! He needs to see what he is doing!” You see which counselor was interested in getting to the truth, and which counselor was just smoothing the path for abuse to continue. This is what a good counselor will do (Eph. 5): “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.”

    1. This constant advice that if we would just be more xyz then that would change our partner should render a counselor unqualified to counsel. That advice is SO BAD.

      I just recently read The Judas Syndrome [Affiliate link] by George Simon and he says there is only one thing that changes a person like that: coming to the end of themselves. He says he won’t even do one on one counseling until that kind of person comes to the end of themselves and truly sees that they need help, even if they ask for it before that point.

      I saw this with my own ex. I really don’t know how much has changed or how healthy she is these days, but I do know that a lot of things she “couldn’t” do before the divorce she now can. Everything I did to try and help her did nothing until the divorce. Letting her experience the consequences of her choices was the best thing to happen to her, and my constant attempts at compassion only got in the way of that.

      I think the problem is that we believe this idea that mercy and compassion are attractive, but we are not talking about a normal person here who reacts the way normal people do. A person with a sense of entitlement will see mercy and compassion as traits to be used, not gifts to be received and thankful for. And that makes it not real mercy and compassion.

  2. I read the list with interest and agree with every one. As a clinical counselor, I’ve found that many of my colleagues are “charmed” by the narcissistic batterer (both male & female therapists) and end up placing more blame & responsibility on the offended. The offended feels betrayed, once again, and leaves the sessions even more devastated that when she arrived. Marital counseling is NEVER an option when working with a narcissist. A classic narcissist will continue to blame everyone else but himself, see himself as the victim and rationalize everything “provable” (including videos) away using his own brand of logic. I would advise against Otter’s therapist’s suggestion of using the video/tape recording idea unless it is to be used solely for the use of getting support from the Court in getting a restraining/civil protection order when the couple is apart. Otherwise “everything that is illuminated becomes a light” will be like pouring gas on a flame. Yes, it will be exposed to the light but there could be a dangerous explosion first, and the woman and her children could be terribly harmed.

    1. I just wanted to add that yes – filming in a physically violent situation would not be safe (I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea). My good counselor suggested this at the beginning of the session when I was describing that my fiance was not physically violent. He changed his mind after I told him more, and then he recommended that I not return. He explained that when a man is hitting walls, pinning down, restraining me from leaving the room/house (which I tried when he was enraged), standing over me, holding me and shouting in my face – that was physical violence. I was really shocked because I did not realize I was being physically abused until he defined this. I was still under the delusion that had been repeated by previous counselors that my fiance was experiencing “PTSD” and “abandonment” from childhood abuse and that I just had to help him through this with love and patience. The good counselor (who had served many years on a domestic abuse council) explained that this kind of behavior almost always escalates to more extreme violence after marriage.

      I think the celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s story is such a fantastic example of how an abuser will deny any evidence. After the photographer spent 29 minutes photographing Nigella’s husband abusing her, he simply made statements like, “It was a playful tiff.” A few days after that, he said the picture of his choke hold on Nigella was not real…he was “wiping her nose.” What really got me was that he said: “We were sitting outside a restaurant…and I held Nigella’s neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasize my point. There was no grip.” I can’t tell you how many times my fiance said things like, “I don’t feel heard” or “I had to make her listen.” You’re right in that no matter what evidence a victim shows, the abuser will just respin it in their head and to everyone else…lying to themselves and to the world. They seem so charming, genuine, and sincere…who could question them?

      I really like Jeff S.’s comment about “coming to the end of themselves.” There is absolutely nothing we can do to get them there, but we can let them go and pray that God will intervene in their lives and help open their eyes to the truth.

    2. I recorded episodes, but not to prove anything to him. I wanted to prove to me that the things I heard were said, that I was not overreacting or being dramatic. The recordings were revealed to him after we separated and he did blame shift about them and said that the recordings don’t show how I made faces and provoked him. The counselor we saw together and separately told me that X would always say things like that, that witnesses, recordings, anything would be dismissed in some way and X will never ever get it. Even so, I have the recordings and I am glad I do. I can’t live like that and the recordings help me remember what it was like.

  3. I can identify with the problem of the abuser’s narcissism. He twists everything to his advantage or spins everything as being against him as if he is the victim. He is easily able to convince his siblings, others, and even the children in his own home that he is the one suffering!

    1. just like Cain:

      Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Genesis 4:13-14)

  4. I haven’t read all of the responses, so I hope I’m not being redundant.

    Of course, the referenced list is correct (although it’s a stunner to me that “couples” counseling ever even occurs between a felon and his target).

    What I do disagree with is the notion that oppressors are, generally speaking, narcissists. If anything, they don’t possess enough of a sense of self to even approach the disorder.

    1. Actually, I think the opposite. The Bible teaches that no one ever hated his own flesh, but loves it and nourishes it, so I don’t think the problem is self-esteem or that they don’t love themselves enough. I believe that abusers love themselves so much, that they cannot see there is anyone else living in the world with them.

  5. Somebody has used the expression “coming to the end of yourself” with my husband because he frequently tells me that he has in fact come to the end of himself and that’s why this time will be different from the hundreds of times before.

    1. There is definitely a difference between saying it and doing it.

      I am watching “The Emperor’s New Groove” with my son- it’s a typical tale of a self serving narcissist who repents in the end and becomes transformed into a good person. The difference in this movie is that when the hero tries to “love” the narcissist into changing, the narcissist just plays into his hand and uses him.

      The only thing that finally transforms the narcissist is when he is broken and alone AND HE ACCEPTS HIS FATE. He knows that what has happened to him is just. They even bring this out by having him whine to the audience, and then tell himself to quite it because he deserved what he got.

      I think about all of the “at the end of myself speeches” I heard, and there was always some subtle inference that somehow it wasn’t her fault or her choices. That I should understand and move on.

      I think part of being at the end of yourself is recognizing that you deserve to be there and accept the consequences. The broken person is no longer at war, nor is he or she fighting for understanding. The broken person takes responsibility, and that has to be demonstrated, not just spoken.

      1. I don’t want to become so skeptical that I can’t see the sincerity if it’s ever real. I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life waiting and hoping.

      2. I understand that completely.

        When I was going through my divorce I prayed every night that if she changed that I wouldn’t miss it. For a long time I really struggled with the idea that she might finally change, that it might be real this time, and I wouldn’t believe her.

        I eventually developed a test in my own mind- I would not consider trusting anything she said until I saw two things:

        1. That I would see genuine interest in spending quality time with our son.
        2. That she would take concrete steps toward making herself safe for us to be around- that is, that she would take responsibility and ownership over the pain she caused so as to not cause it in the future. Whether that was going to meetings or something else, there had to be intentional steps that showed she was going to take the reigns.

        Having a very clear idea of these things made it a lot easier for me to not get taken in when she claimed to have finally turned herself around. I also learned that if I just let her talk, eventually she would get around to explaining why it wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t be blamed, and if I just understood more then I wouldn’t feel the pain.

      3. Anne, I think that if there is true sincerity, you will recognise it as genuine by the consistency of the person’s actions and the way they take full responsibility for their behavior and how it affects others.

        When dealing with abusers, the most common scenario is that the abuser will put on phoney repentance and feigned sincerity in order to win the victim back into his noose. In order to be wise in such situations, I believe the abused person and her supporters need to adopt an attitude of guardedness and suspicion, virtually asking themselves, ‘How is this fellow trying to manipulate and deceive me now?” If an abuser has exercised a pattern of coercive control, and then (against the odds) truly changes his stripes and becomes sincere, he ought to recognise that his victim’s guardedness and suspicion is totally understandable given the history between them. A sincerely repentant person will know that the guardedness of the partner is not ethically or rationally wrong, given the history. Moreover, a sincerely repentant person will be humble enough to keep conducting himself with sincere goodwill, even if other people do not initially believe he has changed. So the abuse survivor can be skeptical and watch guardedly for genuine change in conduct (not just words) that is consistent over time. The longer the abuse has gone on, the longer I believe we are wise to keep up our guard, and keep watching. . .

        I hope that I’ve not run off topic from what you wrote, Anne.

      4. No you didn’t run off topic from what I wrote at all. What you and Jeff wrote makes a lot of sense and it is logical enough I can wrap my brain around it. I do have a couple things I do feel I need to see. I had never thought about the fact if he really understood what he’d done he would be able to be patient with my hesitations and cautiousness.

  6. I had a client, physically abused at least four times, whose church demanded that she sit down with her abuser for marital counseling. She refused to meet with him in that setting, with my support and encouragement. She had already been painfully aware that she was seen as contributing to the situation, so she had no confidence that marital counseling would help. Neither did I. These 12 reasons are spot on.

  7. Leslie Vernick, well known Christian counselor and author, has written a comment on her blog saying that she thinks that couple counseling is not advisable in domestic abuse cases. You can verify her comment [Internet Archive link] [You will now need to scroll down about half-way down through the comments section to read the comment of Leslie Vernick’s that Barb quotes. Editors.] at her blog, but I’m reproducing it here for our readers:

    What happens in couples counseling is often the one who is more powerful, intimidates the less powerful one (usually the wife) so that she cannot be totally honest and then the counselor isn’t getting a true picture of the marriage.
    Or, the wife is so desperate for help and eager to improve, the counselor focuses his/her attention on “helping her be a better wife” which reinforces the husband’s entitlement issues and blindness to his own sins. Then she is always the reason he’s losing his temper or lying or cheating or abusing or ignoring. If only she were the perfect wife, the fantasy wife (see my video on When Trying Harder Becomes Destructive on my home page) than he’d be a wonderful husband.

    The fallacy with that kind of thinking is that no person can measure up and therefore it will always be her fault in some way for him being abusive. Therefore it is her who needs to change, not him.

  8. I just stumbled onto this web site-and it has been a God send. I’m currently in marriage counseling with my abusive husband, and this is the second counselor he has been able to “snow”. I tried clicking on the link above, but it directed me to Leslie Vernicks site (someone else I feel has been a life line for me) Can someone show me the correct link to get to the article about “Twelve Reasons Why Couple’s Counseling is Not Recommended “. I’m not sure what was ment by the ARMS web site, so not sure hot to find it. (Also..do these apply to domestic abuse as well, or violence only? ) thank you and god Bless.

    1. Anonymous,
      Welcome to our little community! So glad you stumbled here.

      I fixed the link to the PDF article so it will now take you directly to the article. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Also I added a link to the ARMS (Abuse Recovery Ministry Services) website for convenience.

      To answer your question “do these apply to domestic abuse as well?”, the answer is Yes! and Yes!. These apply to all types of domestic abuse and violence. We also have a “couples counseling” TAG that will give more information on the dangers of couples’ counseling in abusive relationships. See the top menu bar under TAGS.


  9. I hope this doesn’t come across as a silly question..but I’d really appreciate thoughts / suggestions on how to dis-entangle from couples counseling? I have no problem letting the counselor know why…I do not think they believe me and they have shown no experience with counseling in this area.

    But I know withdrawing from counseling is going to give my husband ammo for later, b/c I am the one that wants to stop going. any thoughts on how to word it / handle this? Part of me wants to just tell him,” they don’t believe me about what is going on, so they can’t help us” but not sure that’s the best approach…or maybe it is? Advice?

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