Terry and Amber’s marriage had been struggling. Their fights seemed to get worse, and then one of those arguments escalated into Terry striking Amber. Things between them became even chillier after that incident. Terry wanted their marriage to work, so he suggested they go to counseling. Amber refused, saying that now that domestic violence was part of their relationship dynamic, couples counseling was not advised according to research she did on the Internet. In fact, she’d called a counselor who confirmed that advice.

Terry was really frustrated with his wife’s refusal to go to counseling together. He felt like she may as well have been saying, “All of our problems are because of you.” He knew he contributed to their relationship issues, and he knew he shouldn’t have hit her. But he also knew Amber was not perfect and at least some of their issues were her fault. Why was joint marriage counseling now off the table? Why did everyone universally agree that he should go to counseling by himself?

Couples counseling is not recommended in situations where violence has happened.

My answers to Terry weren’t exactly what he wanted to hear. I agreed with the advice from the websites and counselor—couples counseling is not recommended in situations where violence has happened. At the same time, I was able to give him some perspective and encouragement that made that bitter pill easier to swallow.

Why couples counseling is not advised with domestic abuse

First, we talked about why Amber and others on the receiving end of violence are discouraged from entering couples counseling. Counseling often stirs up issues and wounds that, until healed, are not going to feel very good. The reality is that, too often, a person who has not fully worked through his or her healing from the counseling process will take that hurt out on their partner at home. In other words, it’s often not safe for the victim to be part of the process. Terry might not have responded that way, but he did understand why advice has to err on side of caution.

Another often-sited reason is that couples counseling relies on both partners speaking freely and honestly about how they are experiencing the relationship. Terry hitting Amber damaged her sense of safety, and therefore would likely get in the way of her being able to share freely. At first, Terry was reluctant to believe that Amber would hold anything back. I challenged him a bit: “Think about how open and honest you would be sitting there complaining about a guy who was 50% bigger than you and who had already hit you.” He then understood his wife’s position better.

Start with domestic violence counseling first

I don’t know Amber, but I was pretty sure Terry was right that she’s not perfect and probably did contribute to their relationship issues. How I knew that is because Amber is human and no human is perfect. Therefore she, like all of us, contributes something to whatever relationship problems they or we might have.

I was pretty sure Amber contributed to their relationship issues. However, he created a whole new issue.

I did, however, have more bad news for Terry. Unfortunately, when he hit her, he created a whole new issue: domestic abuse. His violent action severely damaged Amber’s sense of safety and equality—essential ingredients for a healthy relationship. Until this bigger, super-ceding issue is taken off of the table, the relationship issues were not going to have a chance to be addressed.

If she was having an affair, and that affair had not ended, would he feel comfortable going to couples counseling, I asked. Similarly, if one party is addicted to drugs or alcohol, doesn’t it make sense that the larger issue has to be addressed first before there can be progress on any relationship issues? My questions helped him accept why he had to clean up his part first.

His going to counseling, even if she didn’t go, was not an admission that he was to blame for all of their relationship problems. In fact, one could say it was evidence he was working hard to do his part to make things better. Perhaps that would inspire Amber to do the same on her own.

The silver lining: restoring a relationship after domestic violence stops

After Terry had been going to counseling by himself for a while, he began to discover the upside to this separate counseling strategy. First, he learned that he could make the relationship better regardless of her changing at all. His ability to interact and especially have conflict with Amber without ever again getting violent slowly helped restore her sense of trust and safety, which in turn helped their relationship.

Second, because he was the only one in the session, he felt he could be more open and honest about his thoughts, feelings, and experiences without worrying what his wife was going to think of him or how she might use that information against him later in an argument. He made more progress because he was not sharing the time with Amber.

Sometimes, Terry still wanted to blame his wife or minimize his contribution to their problems, he told me. His counselor was pretty good about making him focus on himself, however. Eventually, he made the wise decision to do the work simply because he wants to become the best possible version of himself. Instead of trying to fix Amber’s faults, he tried to learn how he could respond better to her imperfections. After all, it was Amber’s job to fix Amber, his counselor would remind him.

Trust and forgiveness are returning, but the process is slow.

Terry and Amber’s marriage today is still not completely out of the woods. The issues they had before are better but not gone. Trust and forgiveness are returning, but the process is slow. They both acknowledge they’re never going to have a perfect relationship, which puts them exactly where all of us are. Terry is committed, however, to never letting his reactions reach a level where he becomes violent. That’s something he can control and he knows that it will give them the best chance of restoring their union.

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