Is conjoint counselling ever appropriate in situations of woman abuse?

This FAQ builds on work done by others: a paper written by Julie Shaw and a published paper written by Sandra M. Stith and Eric E. McCollum.

There are different opinions about whether or not it is appropriate for a couple to engage in co-counselling, or conjoint counselling, when one partner is abusive to the other. Some feel it is never appropriate, while others believe it can work in certain situations.

Assessing risk

All research points to the need to understand the particular dynamics of a relationship before even considering the possibility of conjoint counselling. How long has the abuse been happening? How frequent is it? How severe? Is it emotional as well as physical?

Michael Johnson’s work on the typologies of abuse is a helpful starting point for this analysis, and must of the research on approaches to counselling refers to it. For more information, watch the video of him discussing his work or read the paper co-wrote by Johnson and Joan Kelly.

Certainly, where there is a general atmosphere of coercive control and where the woman is fearful of her partner/former partner, joint counselling is less likely to be appropriate.

Some research seems to indicate that joint counselling can lower the level of violence and risk as the partners learn conflict resolution skills as well as strategies for dealing with the abusive partner’s aggressiveness. However, a feminist analysis of violence against women rejects this analysis because it makes both partners responsible for the abusive behaviour of just one of them and it often does not require the abuser to be accountable for his behaviour or to take steps to change it.

Other research warns that levels of violence and risk may be raised by couple counselling because the abusive partner often feels threatened if his partner raises concerns about his behaviour and then takes those feelings out on her outside the counselling sessions.

There may be some logic to couples counselling if the woman is committed to remaining in the relationship. However, most therapists say that there should be separate counselling for both people before the couple has sessions together, and the abusive partner must take responsibility for his behaviour and make a commitment to addressing it. Under these circumstances, some therapists have had success working with couples together to help them reframe and rebuild their relationship.

Supporting your client

If a woman you are working with indicates she is thinking about entering into couple counselling with her abusive partner/former partner, you should have a supportive and non-judgmental conversation with her about it.

  • Find out if she wants to stay with her partner, as this may be the basis for her interest in couple counselling.
  • Is joint counselling her idea or her partner’s idea? Make sure she knows that she has no obligation to do this if it does not feel safe or comfortable for her.
  • Has he taken any personal responsibility for his abusive behaviour? Has he had any of his own counselling?
  • Does she think she will be able to talk openly about her concerns and issues with the therapist if her partner/former partner is in the room?

Once the woman has made her decision to do counselling with her partner, be supportive of this. Encourage her to look for a therapist who has violence against women training and experience.

Therapists with specialized VAW training will set up individual intake appointments with each person. They will have the skills to be direct about partner abuse in the counselling sessions. They may require each person to have individual as well as joint counselling.

Many will establish a code word with the woman ahead of time (a word the woman can use to let the therapist know that she is being triggered, feels unsafe or needs a break).

Skilled and knowledgeable therapists will be interventionist in the sessions when needed and will insist that the abuser be accountable for his behaviour.

Help the woman you are working with make a list of the key issues she wants to raise in the initial solo appointment as well as in the joint counselling sessions. Make sure she knows that she can opt out of the counselling any time it does not feel safe or productive. Remind her that her partner’s abuse is not her responsibility.

Safety planning

Perhaps most importantly, assist the woman with safety planning.

  • Does she need to set up individual counselling with another therapist in addition to the couple counselling?
  • How will she communicate with her partner/former partner outside counselling sessions as well as in them?
  • How will she get to and from counselling sessions safely?
  • How will she debrief after sessions?
  • How will she manage any attempts by her partner to intimidate her between counselling sessions?
  • How will she safely say “enough” if the counselling is not working for her?
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