In a nutshell, couples counseling doesn’t work when one partner is abusive because abuse is not a relationship-based problem and because couples counseling typically takes the tack that both partners are having some kind of communication fail and that both need to pledge to improving their relationship and working on their miscommunications. Abuse is not a miscommunication. It is an attempt to control another person through manipulation and some form of violence – emotional, physical, situational.
Because couples counseling focuses on what each person in the relationship needs to do to improve things, it may place the abused person in the position of being held accountable for their own victimization. Also, by the abusive partner seeing an outside party hold the abused partner accountable, this emboldens some abusers to become more abusive, as it reenforces the belief that the abused person is somehow deserving of control and/or abuse.
When a therapist is not aware that abuse is in the picture, they may inadvertently encourage abusive behaviors to continue. Many couples therapists do not become aware of abuse because they refuse to see couples patients individually or if they do see them individually, will not promise to withhold information (like a confession of being abused) from the other partner. Because of this, couples therapy may be just as – possibly even more – devastating to the abused partner than the original abuse.
Additionally, if the therapist does realize that one partner is abusive, this entirely shifts the focus of the sessions to the abuser, who needs specialized, individualized treatment in order to decrease (and ultimately eliminate) their abusive tendencies. As abusers often believe themselves to be victims of abuse and are also in a lot of pain (and thus not thinking clearer and/or potentially looking for a scapegoat) this shift in focus may appear to an abuser to be “proof” that the therapist believes the abuser to be responsible for ALL problems within the relationship. With that thought in mind, abusers may refuse future therapy, as s/he becomes convinced that therapists are “out to get him/her”.
Because abusers need specialized, individualized treatment in order to get better, it is typically important for relationships that have an abusive dynamic and ALSO have communication issues for the abuser to first get treatment that concentrates on breaking down abusive patterns. Once abusive patterns are disrupted, the couple can then see what their relationship looks like with abuse not present. In some cases, the communication issues may improve. In other cases, they may be present, but in a different form, once the abusive behaviors have been eliminated from the dynamic and both parties can take stock of how they behave/communicate when the threat of abuse is no longer hanging over them.
There were some dissenting opinions about this, and a few sources that said that couples therapy could be effective in abusive situations. However, I only found a link or two that supported the idea that couples therapy would work, and both of them mentioned that the abusive partner must be aware of the problem and must be on board with the abuse being the primary concern/first issue to work through in therapy. Given that Lora is back in “lalalalalalalala, no problems here!” land, I don’t see that happening.
I sent Jon the link to the first article that I cited. I asked him to read it and keep it in mind when he and Lora start couples therapy. I am worried that if the therapist does realize that Lora is abusive, shifting the therapy to more about holding her accountable and focusing on her problems is going to make her feel like she is being told everything is her fault, and then she’ll refuse to continue. I guess we’ll see, but none of this gives me a good feeling about the future.