Many Well-Meaning Therapists Don't Understand:
It's Unethical To Do Couples Counseling When There's Abuse



The Gottman Institute instructs therapists that half of the couples who come to see them have experienced violence, even if they never mention it. And they say that therapy can do more harm than good.

"As a therapist, I find the question of how to assess violence a tricky one. Research suggests that 50% of couples seeking therapy have experienced violence in their relationship, whether they are telling you or not. In some cases, when there’s violence in the relationship, therapy can do more harm than good."


The pro-marriage conservative think-tank, The Institute for Family Studies, found that 1-in-4 highly religious couples in the U.S. has experienced interpersonal violence.


So why do so many therapists fail to recognize the abuse? Why do they often make the situation worse?


In the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, one chapter points out that well-intended therapists inadvertently help the abuser—and coerce the victim—while doing couples therapy. Therapists see themselves as helpers and healers, as this article says. They don't intend to hurt anyone, and they certainly would never want to see themselves as enablers of coercion and control. But they are, often unwittingly, because they don't ferret out undisclosed abuse. Where there is abuse, couples therapy is not recommended. Individual therapy is recommended.


Part of the problem is that abuse victims don't know they are being abused. In cases of physical abuse, they know they've been hit or shoved, and they can tell by their spouse's face or by the way they move that some episode is about to happen, but they may blame themselves for "setting him/her off." In the case of emotional abuse, they don't know because they've endured it so long; a pattern of belittling, criticism, or indifference seems normal. That's why it's important to have a therapist who is able to identify abuse by its symptoms and characteristics without having to be told directly by the client, "I am being abused."


In addition to the textbook Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, many other experts, including the Gottman Institute and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, suggest it is unethical, perhaps even illegal, to do this kind of marriage therapy if there is IPV ("intimate partner violence," aka spousal abuse).

As you read the story of Ann and Jeff (in the "Unwitting Coercion" paragraph below), notice the conclusion:

"...the therapist may have unwittingly supported Jeff's coercion and abetted his abuse."

Sadly, we see pastoral counselors, marriage intensives, and marriage retreats do this all the time. In cases where there is abuse, the individuals need to seek their own counselor and meet without their partner.

The good news is that there are some ethical pastoral counselors (see these stories) and unfortunately some poorly trained ones.

ethics couples therapy IPV

Couples therapy, marriage therapy, and marriage intensives

are NOT recommended when there is marital abuse

Here are links to experts

1) Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy: this chapter

2) National Domestic Violence Hotline says they don't recommend it:

3) Gottman Institute says it's unethical to do couples therapy when there's been abuse: "When battery is present, couples therapy is inappropriate. Identify and provide appropriate referrals for your client(s). Battery is evidence of what Dr. Gottman calls Characterological Violence, where one partner clearly demonstrates controlling and dominating behavior. In this case, refer to a treatment center, hotline, shelter, specialist, or the police. If you suspect battery is present but one or both partners are denying it, refer. If you’re not sure, refer. It’s irresponsible, unethical, and likely even illegal for you to begin couples therapy when Characterological Violence is present."
4) Leslie Vernick, MCSW, see her comments below.

Are you are an individual who is wondering if marriage counseling (couples counseling) is right for you? 

Therapist and bestselling author Leslie Vernick says this:

If you can't be totally, 100% honest with what's going on at home, without a price to pay, don't go to marriage counseling.


In joint counseling, a counselor likes to hear both husband and wife's perspectives on how they see the problem or what's wrong with their marriage.

For example, Carol knew that she couldn't speak honestly or tell her counselor what was really happening at home, because if she did, she knew she would be in for a terrifying car drive home, or worse. Once she courageously spoke up and told her counselor, that's not true, when her husband told a bold face lie, hoping her counselor would believe her and inquire more, but her husband quickly contradicted her story and the counselor concluded their session by saying something like this, "Well, you both have very different version of reality, so I'm not sure who to believe."


Carol knew right then and there she'd never be able to speak honestly, nor did she have the confidence that she'd even be heard if she did. So if there has ever been any history of physical abuse, whether it's a clear imbalance of power and control, or your husband attempts to control the session and the counselor, with his version of truth and you're afraid to speak up, or speaking up just results in greater confusion, or huge blow ups at home, marriage counseling won't be helpful for you. You will waste your valuable time and money. When there's no safety, marriage counseling is counter indicated and even dangerous.


Do You Need Support?  I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it. Allies and people helpers are also welcome. Just click the link and ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS.




Start Here


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High Conflict Divorce and Parenting


Recommended Reading List and Free Resources for Christians and Other People of Faith


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