As emotionally focused therapists, working on helping couples build a secure attachment, we have to decide rather it is a healthy pursuit for couples to process this level of abuse or trauma in the same room as their partners.
Processing abuse in a relationship can be complex. As emotionally focused therapists, working on helping couples build a secure attachment, we have to decide rather it is a healthy pursuit for couples to process this level of abuse or trauma in the same room as their partners. First and foremost, we must look at the type of abuse that is occurring in the relationship; are both partners engaged in a manner that leads to heightened and escalated moments? (Situational couple violence) or is there some level of violence that comes from a sense of control, power, or gender differences? (Intimate terrorism). These are the two types of violence that Dr. Sue Johnson differentiates in early research (Johnson & Leone, 2005; Kelly & Johnson, 2008).
Couples therapy can become unethical when individuals, where one partner is abusing another (intimate terrorism), are asked to create positive changes on either end (in the same room). When looking at situational violence, where there is bi-directional conflict (both partners) escalating in the ‘heat of the moment’, there is often some form of underlying disconnect that leads to partners hurting one another (Johnson & Leone, 2005; Kelly & Johnson, 2008).
In terms of building safety in a therapeutic alliance, your therapist has to determine the type and severity of violence in the relationship, as well as take into account these factors:
The therapist’s own experience and sense of trust working with violence in relationships
Both individuals desire to work on developing more security, and ability to repair
The therapist’s capacity to establish safety in the context of therapy (partners feel safe deepening in the room together) (Greene, Bogo, 2002).
Repairing after abuse and neglect will require couples understand the underlying experiences that are hinted at in moments of disconnect. We look deep beneath the surface of reactions in the ‘heat of the moment’. Partners who find themselves escalated, “screaming at each other’s throats,” “throwing their hands in the air,” “saying hateful remarks to one another,” and so forth, will begin to address the deeper fears, anxieties, and pains that lead to a need to protect themselves in a disconnect.
Working in conjoint therapy with your partner is possible when both partners are open to understanding the disconnect, and when the therapist has an idea that there isn’t an intention to maintain control or dominate the other individual (Oka & Whiting, 2011). Consistent trust and “checking in” is key – as therapists, it is our intention to understand the messages you’re not only receiving from your partner, but also from us as therapists.
In moments of escalation between partners, it’s easy to feel a sense of release because we’ve “let our partner have it.” Even with this sudden release, partners will find themselves still struggling to feel safe, or find it harder taking the risk to be vulnerable with their partner. When we take those patterns of situational violence and look at the stronger messages and underlying experiences in the moment, we help partners guide themselves into a more vulnerable and safe interaction with their loved one.
As it is in relationships, communication and connection is also key in building the bond with your couple therapist.
Greene, K., & Bogo, M. (2002). The different faces of intimate violence: Implications for assessment and treatment. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28, 455–466.
Johnson, M. P., & Leone, J. M. (2005). The differential effects of intimate terrorism and situational couple violence: Findings from the national violence against women survey. Journal of Family Issues, 26, 322–349.
Oka, M., & Whiting, J. B. (2011). Contemporary MFT theories and intimate partner violence: A review of systemic treatments. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10(1), 34–52.