It is natural for pastors and counsellors unfamiliar with the true nature of spouse abuse to assume that because a couple is married, meeting with them together makes sense.
But the National Domestic Violence Hotline states that
… in order for couples counselling to be successful, both partners must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and make adjustments to their behaviour. Abusive people want all of the power and control in the relationship and will focus on maintaining that imbalance, even if it means continuing unhealthy and hurtful behaviour patterns. . . . an abusive partner’s focus on manipulating the sessions to place blame, minimize the abuse, and attempt to win over the therapist to their side. If the therapist tries to hold the abusive partner accountable for these tactics, they will often refuse to attend further sessions and may even forbid their partner to see the “biased” therapist again. . . escalate the abuse because they feel their power and control was threatened. . .1
Abuse is not a “relationship” problem
Couples counselling may imply that both partners contribute to the abusive behaviour, when the choice to be abusive lies solely with the abusive partner. Focusing on communication or other relationship issues distracts from the abusive behaviour, and may actually reinforce it . . . encourage the abuse to escalate . . . A victim may not feel safe with their abuser present and could be hesitant to fully participate or speak honestly during counselling sessions. Alternatively, a victim may have a false sense of security . . . and reveal information they normally wouldn’t disclose. Then, back at home, the abusive partner could decide to retaliate with more abuse.
A better option for abusive partners who want to change is a program designed specifically to address their abusive behaviors. These programs are often referred to as Battering Intervention and Prevention Programs (BIPPs), . . . focus on teaching accountability and non-violent responses. These programs can be effective, but only if an abusive partner is truly committed, as real change is a difficult process that can take months or years. 1
The wife is afraid to speak
Being an expert deceiver and manipulator, the abuser knows exactly what to say and do to get the pastor and church family “on his side.”2 So if the wife speaks up, the abuser will either discredit her testimony, lie or put on a show by asking forgiveness, so glad that he was caught.
Clinical psychologist Anna Salter says the abuser knows that
Church people—always looking to see the best in people, to welcome converts, to save sinful souls—are “easy to fool.”6
It should be a warning flag when one person attempts to control the session with his version of truth, but neglects to invite his spouse to share her feelings.
She will shut down and go back to trying harder to be a better wife. Nothing will change in their marriage.3
“Common threads that run through abuse stories: authoritarian settings where rule-following and obedience reign supreme; counselling techniques that emphasise victims’ own culpability; male leaders with few checks on their power; and . . . a perversion of the Bible to justify all three”4
The wife takes responsibility
Usually the wife does want a better marriage. That’s why she begs her husband to go to counselling in the first place. Once there, the husband agrees he wants a better marriage too, but from his perspective the problem is always his wife.
So, the counsellor starts working with the wife who is able to see her sin, hoping that will encourage her husband to do the same. But in destructive marriages that doesn’t happen and much harm is done.
1 – It gives her false hope that if only she tries harder, she somehow can change her husband and he’ll stop treating her sinfully and begin to love her as she longs to be loved.
2 – The abuser gets the impression that the counsellor agrees with him that his wife needs to be fixed. It also supports his belief that he’s entitled to a fantasy wife who never upsets him, disappoints him or fails to meet his needs and that’s what God expects of her too.
3 – It allows him to excuse and justify his sinful responses.4
The husband attends reluctantly
The abuser is there usually because he was pressured by his spouse, by a pastor or by painful consequences. He goes not with the idea of working on anything about himself, but to blame his spouse, and get the pastor/counsellor to see what a great guy he is and how wrong or crazy his wife is. He’s there to observe what his wife is telling the counsellor, clarify any “untruths” she says about him and to make sure she gets the help she needs to become the woman he wants.
The counsellor knows he can’t officially counsel him because the husband has not invited him to. So without taking sides, the counsellor is taking sides and empowers the bully to believe his actions are not that bad and his wife is making a big deal out of nothing.4
Counselling in a self-centred marriage should not be marriage counselling. . . . (pastors) confuse marital enrichment (refining a marriage within the bounds of “healthy” to become increasingly enjoyable) with marital restoration (focused attention at changing a problem that is a threat to the marriage). . . To believe that refining situational variables is going to cease the self-centredness is like giving money to an alcoholic believing it will help them get sober by alleviating financial pressure.
Counselling the abuser and the abused are posts to look for in the future.
Note: throughout this Marital Abuse series, I am using Australian spelling, not American.
2 Again, as in previous posts, I use “he” simply because 85%+ of abusers are male. There is no question the abuser can be the wife.
3 writer on Leslie Vernick’s blog – leslievernick.com
6 in her book Predators: Paedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders