Domestic violence is a pattern of power and control that one person exercises over another in a current or former relationship. Many tactics can be used, including economic, emotional, physical and sexual abuse; abuse of the children or pets; intimidation, threats, stalking, rule setting, monitoring, isolation, discrediting the victim, and obfuscation. Not all victims of domestic violence experience physical abuse, but most victims experience more than one of these tactics.
Domestic violence is present among all socioeconomic levels, races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures. It happens among heterosexuals and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. One in four women and one in nine men will experience severe physical violence from a partner in their lifetimes (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/).
Abusive behavior is a choice. It is not caused by a lack of anger management, difficulty communicating, stress, or substance abuse. These are excuses that abusive people use, and many of us believe, including the victim. In reality, domestic violence perpetrators use their anger to get what they want. Alcohol, other drugs or financial difficulty will not turn a non-abusive person into a violent one. The root of abusive behavior is the belief that it is acceptable to dominate one’s partner. Therefore, when couples or individuals seek help, and domestic violence is factor, we need to proceed with caution.
Domestic violence experts do not recommend individual counseling or substance abuse treatment as the primary interventions for domestic violence perpetrators, but they can be provided simultaneously when appropriate. The issues presented in individual counseling are based solely on what the client chooses to share. Perpetrators typically present information to the counselor that blames the victim and does not accurately portray their violent or controlling behavior. If the counselor suspects that the client is a perpetrator of domestic violence and makes attempts to hold the client accountable, it is likely that the client will terminate the counseling.
Couple counseling is not advisable because it is not proven to be effective in changing abusive behavior and poses safety risks to the one who has been victimized. In addition, the very premise of couple counseling is equal responsibility for the problems in the relationship. When domestic violence is a factor, the perpetrator is the one who needs to change, first and foremost. The victim has no control over the actions of the abuser.
Domestic violence victims often have a false sense of hope that couple counseling can improve the relationship. However, skilled abusers will often present a charming façade and convince the counselor that the victim is entirely to blame for the problems in the relationship. The victim is typically forced to lie about or minimize the abuse, blame themselves for all of the problems, or tell the truth and later experience consequences from the abuser. If the victim discloses personal feelings or experiences during the counseling session, the abusive partner can later use this information to manipulate or humiliate the victim. Sessions become one more arena for the perpetrator to dominate, discredit and abuse the victim.
It is best practice to screen for domestic violence with all individuals seeking couples therapy. At the initial intake, ask to speak to each partner privately. If you ask if domestic violence is a factor in their relationship, most people experiencing or perpetrating domestic violence will say no. Instead, ask about the different controlling tactics that might be used, as outlined in the Power and Control Wheel (http://safeplace.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Power-and-Control-Wheel.pdf).
Look at the context for any behavior. While one partner may admit to getting angry and throwing the other’s cell phone, it’s important to look at the reason. For instance, is the angry partner a victim, trying to prevent his or her abuser from calling someone with lies that would discredit them? Or is the angry partner a perpetrator throwing the cell phone to prevent the victim from calling for help? Is there a past history of assaults and controlling behaviors?
If you determine that it is likely that domestic violence is a factor in the relationship, do not confront the abuser with information you obtained from the victim, since this could put the victim in an unsafe situation. The safest practice is to meet with each individual privately to provide referrals for victim services and a batterer intervention group, respectively.
As a best practice, batterer intervention should be used as the primary intervention for domestic violence. The focus of these groups should be on power and control and accountability. Other topics can be discussed, such as substance abuse and responsible parenting, but the context of all discussions must remain within the framework of domestic violence.
The group dynamic creates a mechanism for individuals to confront each other on their minimizing, denial and blaming others. The groups are ongoing, so new members will join those who have already been in the group for a while. Domestic violence perpetrators may not readily admit their own mistakes, but they are often quick to call each other out.
Groups meeting Michigan standards should be at least 26 weeks, and some studies show that batterers groups do not even begin to break through the layers of denial until 36 weeks. Some individuals will only benefit from a full year of group, while some will complete a group and still remain in denial about their behavior regardless of the focus or duration of the group. Groups are not a treatment or cure, as battering is not a mental illness.
Once abusers begin to change their behavior, only the abusers’ partners can decide if the change is real. Group facilitators will readily admit they are not qualified to attest to whether or not a person has truly changed. Questions the victim can ask themselves include, is the perpetrator admitting they have been abusive, or are they continuing to blame the victim for the problems in the relationship? Is the abuser blaming the victim because they have to go to a batterer intervention group? Does the victim see the changes as being for the long-term, or do the changes seem to be a temporary “honeymoon phase” of apologies before another violent or controlling incident?
Before professionals consider couple counseling when there has been domestic violence, experts advise that the abusive partner complete at least 26 weeks of a batterer’s intervention group, although 52 weeks would maximize the potential that the abusive partner is ready for couple therapy.
Victims may benefit from individual counseling and/or a support group with a professional who understands domestic violence, as well as advocacy from a domestic violence agency. Victims are not in relationships with perpetrators of domestic violence because they provoked it, are crazy, sadistic, or make poor choices when it comes to relationships. Remember that abusers are skilled manipulators who typically begin relationships by presenting a charming and loving façade. Abusers typically wait to show their dominant, controlling, and violent sides after they create a situation of dependency for the victim, which is why many perpetrators move quickly in relationships. Abusers frequently talk their victims into getting married, moving in together, or having a child early on in the relationship.
Goals of counseling for victims can include shifting the onus of responsibility from themselves to the perpetrators, helping them to identify batterer tactics; forgiving themselves for being in an abusive relationship; appropriately channeling anger from being abused; and helping clients to determine what a healthy relationship means to them. Advocacy can assist the client with whatever needs he/she may have, including safety planning or assistance with housing, legal, medical or financial issues.
To find batterer intervention groups that meet Michigan standards in your area, visit www.biscmi.org. For more information on victim service organizations in your area, visit www.mcedsv.org. In addition, both BISC-MI (Batterer Intervention Services Coalition of Michigan) and the MCEDSV (Michigan Coalition to End Domestic Violence) offer training opportunities for anyone wanting to learn more about these issues.
Erica, Holly, and Alyssa work for MSU Safe Place, the domestic violence and stalking program on the campus of Michigan State University. MSU Safe Place serves MSU students, staff, faculty, their partners and members of the greater Lansing community. They can be reached at (517) 355-1100 or at email@example.com. For more information about MSU Safe Place, visit safeplace.msu.edu..
Erica is also the Chair of the NASW-Michigan Physical and Sexual Violoence and Women's Issues Work Group, which meets the second Thursday of each month.