By Michelle Tafoya, Clinical Director
I had a client, who was doing great work in her individual counseling, comment on how great her counseling was and she feels better and sees her own progress. She went on to say that she knows that counseling can help her relationship with her offender. She felt her boyfriend was a good man at heart, understanding that his own past with domestic violence is what he struggled with. She believed that couples counseling would be what made them stronger and help them figure things out. She asked if she could invite him to our sessions and start couples counseling. Knowing she was not going to like my answer, I had to deny her request. It caused a short rift in our therapeutic relationship.
We get asked this question frequently? In order to answer this, a few ideas need to be defined first. For the sake of this conversation, we will define “healthy relationships” as a relationship free of domestic violence (verbal, emotional, psychological, and/or sexual abuse) and an “unhealthy relationship” as one that has domestic violence in it.
In order for domestic violence too occur, power dynamics must be unequal in a relationship. One person believes they have, and executes, power over the other person in the relationship.
Marriage/couples counseling starts with the premise that both people are in the relationship to work on and address issues equally. There is also an assumption that both people in the relationship are equal the power ratio is 1:1. This allows an atmosphere where both individuals can bring real issues and their feelings and beliefs to the table and learn to communicate through them together.
Domestic violence distorts the power dynamic between two people and provides an atmosphere where one dominates everything. With a lopsided power dynamic, true healthy communication, dialogue, and skills are impossible to gain and use because of the fear and risk of retaliation by one of the individuals.
The hurt and abuse in these relationships causes real pain and scars, psychological and physical; and it takes time, skills, support, trust and a place of non-judgement to work through them. A counseling office should be a place where a victim can go to and heal, completely.
Because the power dynamic is completely skewed in the direction of the offender or abuser, any place they go will carry this distortion, including a counseling office.
We believe that healing happens with the individual first and that goes for the victim and offender. The work must be done separately and only after progress is made, would the option for couples/marriage counseling be explored.
We must empower our victims/survivors to take their power back, have a hand in their healing and support them through this process.
We must also hold the abuser/offender accountable for their actions and behaviors towards the other person. Without accountability, change cannot happen.