It's Possible for Couples to Move Past Domestic Violence

May 1, 2013

In light of the recent aggravated assault charges involving Ray Rice and his wife Janay, I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post that discusses the complex dynamics that exist in abusive relationships.  As a reader, you might be thinking "complex dynamics"?  Why doesn't she just leave him?  After working with victims of domestic violence for six years in my practice, I can tell you it is far from that simple.  The damage that abuse takes on a person and on a relationship many times requires therapy services for trauma-related symptoms for the victim(s).  Not only to heal the mistrust that builds as a result of existing in a relationship where abuse is present, but for the victim to begin to trust themselves again.

It would appear social media is jumping at the chance to victim blame Janay and ask "Why did you stay?"  In my opinion, this is not the question we should be asking.  This only perpetuates victim blaming speech and continues to fuel shame.  What we need to be asking ourselves is "How does this behavior (and yes, abusive behavior is a choice on the part of the abuser) continues to be allowed in our homes, our work lives, and amongst our families?"

Is there hope for individuals who are in a domestic violence situation and are wanting to stay together?  I say it depends.  It depends on the willingness of the abuser to accept that they are abusive, accept their own responsibility, and seek therapy services for the power and control they have asserted over their partner and/or child/ren.  If the abuser is unwilling to see their part in the abuse, there is little hope for change.  That being said, there are a set of criteria used to assess the dangerousness of the abusive partner in which it would be counter-productive to begin working on healing the relationship.  In these cases, it is much more pertinent for the victim to leave the relationship and seek safety elsewhere, as the abuse may escalate and lead to further violence.

Being a mental health therapist myself, I will not do couples counseling when there is physical abuse present in the relationship dynamic.  Instead, I will often work with the victim in individual counseling and refer the abusive partner to the Women's Center for Advancement (WCA) for the Non-Violence Program. This program is 36 weeks in duration and offers education for the abusers involved in the program.  In working with the victims, I focus on the errors in how the abusive partner thinks versus how they feel because it is their partners attitudes that are the problem.

The reality is bad relationships don't cause domestic violence.  Domestic violence causes bad relationships.  Before proceeding with couples work in abusive relationships, l want to ascertain there is a level of physical and emotional safety within the relationship.  This is important because the victim needs to be able to be assertive and vulnerable enough with their partner to really work on the power and control dynamics.  The following are some questions I ask to assess the process of change: Has the abuser admitted to the abuse they have put their partner through?  Have they demonstrated true empathy, made amends, are actively developing new coping skills, and accepting consequences for their choices?  It takes more than the abuser just giving up abusive behaviors attitudes, or quitting substance use to help heal the trust that has been violated.

If you are reading this article and questioning if you are involved in an abusive relationship, there is help out there.  Leaving an abusive relationship is not an event; it is very much a process and it often takes a victim six to eight times to leave their abuser.  The victim often blames themselves more than we realize, so for them to ask for help is a huge step forward.  Local resources include The Women's Center for Advancement is one resource to seek out, as well as the Domestic Violence Council.  Another option is to educate yourself about abuse (safely of course).  Lundy Bancroft is an excellent author ("Why Does He Do That?") and he actively works with abusive men, as well as tours the United States speaking on the topic of abusive relationships.  Patricia Evans writes on verbal abuse ("The Verbally Abusive Relationship") and the many insidious ways verbal and emotional abuse find its way into our own self-talk and how we relate with each other.

Be very cautious when seeking out a couples therapist.  Call and talk with a few therapists over the phone and see what their approach is in working with clients where abuse is present.  If the therapist is willing to work with you and your partner together immediately, the counseling atmosphere can become one more place where the abuse is perpetuated and your own feelings invalidated, which only leads to further shame and confusion.  This kind of environment will not be conducive to healing for either party.  It may very will leave the abuser feeling even more righteous and the victim even less willing to ask for help in the future.  Isolation is needed to keep abuse in place.  The moment you begin to speak out and ask for help you interrupt the cycle.

As a whole, our society must stop believing the victim can solve the problem (i.e., leaving the abuser or questioning why they stayed).  It's not about the "why."  It's about how we can begin to better understand the ways in which to help those impacted by abuse and encourage them to seek help.

If you are needing help in Douglas County, please call the WCA's 24/7 crisis hotline at (402) 345-7273 or en Espanol at (402) 672-7118.  If you are needing assistance in Sarpy County, please contact the Heartland Family Service 24/7 crisis hotline at (800) 523-3666.  If you are in Pottawattamie County and needing assistance, please contact the 24/7 crisis hotline at (712) 328-0266.  You may also speak to an advocate at the WCA by walk-in or by calling (402) 345-6555.  The Domestic Violence Council may be contacted by calling (402) 210-2195. 

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