Marital therapy can be dangerous for domestic abuse victims

Marital therapy, couples therapy and family therapy are improper treatment scenarios to effect therapeutic change around domestic abuse.

by Dr. Jeanne King — 

I longed for my children’s father, my ex-husband, to stop his violent outbursts toward our family. The psychologist/doctor/family peacemaker in me said, “We just need to find the ‘right’ person/method to help fix this problem,” as though he had some physical aliment. This may sound familiar to those of you who have been there. Altercation after altercation drove me to desperately seek referrals from my pediatrician and obstetrician.

It was suggested that we see an abuse therapist, who was actually a marriage/family therapist. My professional background was in biobehavioral medicine, so I was in foreign territory — and eventually found out we were in the wrong therapy for the outcome I desired.

Marital therapy, couples therapy and family therapy are improper treatment scenarios to effect therapeutic change around domestic abuse. The problem is that these interventions are based on a family system perspective in which the goal of the treatment is to maintain the homeostasis of the system.

With such a systemic approach, the goal is to distribute responsibility for the pathology across the entire system. However, spreading the responsibility for battering in relationships equally to all parties in the relationship reinforces the abuse dynamic. It explicitly and/or implicitly blames the victim for the perpetrator’s behavior, and fails to promote personal accountability for the battering behavior by the abusive partner.

While this may keep the couple and family together, it does not — and cannot — end the battering. To the contrary, it exacerbates battering. Some clinicians view this method of treatment in domestic violence cases not only as ineffective in stopping the battering, but also as dangerous for the victimized partner. That was certainly my experience. The altercations increased in frequency and in intensity — from bruises to welts, from fists to belts.

As a domestic violence survivor, my hope is that you seek appropriate intervention if battering ever enters into your domestic relationship. Many people, both healthcare and non-healthcare professionals, are unaware of the appropriate intervention for domestic abuse.

Look for a domestic abuse victim advocacy program or a batterer’s intervention program. These approaches treat battering similarly to the way addiction interventions treat substance abuse: that is, as the responsibility of the abuser. Until an intimate partner abuser is held accountable, domestic abuse continues over time, and is passed down throughout generations.

For information about domestic abuse seminars for healthcare organizations, visit


Dr. Jeanne King, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author and speaker who helps individuals and healthcare providers recognize and stop domestic abuse. or 888-782-0723.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 4, August/September 2006.

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