Domestic Violence Therapy:
When Marital Therapy Helps and When It Hurts

Dr. King

by Dr. Jeanne King, Ph.D.

There is a lot of confusion over whether marital/couples therapy will help couples in abusive relationships.

You may have heard that marital therapy is not the proper modality for domestic abuse. Even stronger, you may realize that marital therapy is actually contra-indicated in the treatment of intimate partner abuse.

Then, you may also realize that some couples who deal with abusive control issues in their relationship can learn to develop new skills to facilitate their use of non-violent and non-abusive behavioral responses with their intimate partner.

With this apparent contradictory information, one remains confused as to whether marital therapy works or does not work. Does marital therapy help or hurt in the treatment of domestic violence?

When Marital Therapy Can Help

Marital therapy can help couples in which there is interactional relationship violence. That is when the abusive control dynamics go both ways between the parties.

At one time, one of the people uses power and control tactics, and on other occasions the other party employs the same tactics of abusive control. These dynamics continue within the relationship with the partners merely alternating roles of perpetrator and victim.

For the marital/couples therapy to work as an effective intervention with these couples, it must have both a psychotherapeutic component and a domestic violence corrections component.

When Marital Therapy Can Make It Worse

Alternatively, if the couple is dealing with classic “intimate partner violence,” marital therapy will not work to remedy their dysfunctional relationship.

That is, if the abusive control dynamics go in one direction, and one direction only, as in the case of intimate partner violence, then marital therapy is not indicated...and will not alleviate the abuse dynamics.

If there is one abuser and one victim and both parties consistently operate from their respective position, marital therapy can serve as a platform to exacerbate the battering dynamic...posing greater risk for the victimized partner.

If you have tried marital therapy and notice that the abuse in your home escalates after your therapy sessions, then you are best to find an alternative solution to remedy the abuse in your relationship. Chances are you and your spouse are better suited for a treatment intervention that addresses battering and victimization separately—individually.

A Closer Look at Marital Therapy with Abusive Relationships

If it is the case that your couples therapy appears to give your battering partner a stronger edge in maintaining his/her abusive control, recognize why this is so and you will be best guided to the proper intervention for your relationship.

Marital therapy is based on a systems approach. The goal of the therapy is to maintain the homeostasis of the system. Each party in the relationship is part of the system, and the responsibility for marital discord and dysfunctional interaction is spread across the system.

The problem with this approach, when treating classic unidirectional intimate partner abuse, is that it demands that the victim assume partial responsibility for the battering behavior. Moreover, it gives the perpetrator permission not to become accountable for his/her use of power and control tactics in the relationship. The net result strengthens the abuse dynamic, rather than interrupting the cycle of abuse.

In the case of interactional relationship violence in which the use of power and control tactics goes in both directions, couples can come to see the impact of their mutual behavior on one another. Under these circumstances, marital therapy gives a voice to both parties and can be a platform to facilitate change within the relationship.

What Therapy is Right for Your Abusive Relationship

If you are in an abusive relationship, take a hard and fast look at the dynamics that you live. Ask yourself these two very important questions: Are there one or two victims? Are there one or two abusers (“control freaks”) in your relationship? …Your answers to these questions will guide you to the proper course of treatment for domestic abuse.

For information about effective domestic violence therapy for classic intimate partner abuse, visit and obtain Instant Access to Free Survivor Success eInsights. Dr. Jeanne King, Ph.D. helps people recognize, end and heal from domestic abuse. Copyright 2010 Jeanne King, Ph.D. - Domestic Violence Prevention and Intervention

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Dr. Jeanne King is a licensed psychologist and domestic abuse consultant. Feel free to contact us if you need help with physical and/or emotional pain, stress-related illnesses, or relationship abuse issues at home or in court. Contact Us to reach Dr. King.