Couples Therapy in an Abusive Relationship
Ask the Ethicist
Question by Faith Prelli
I have a client (18yr female) who I have seen twice a week for 8 months who is currently in a relationship plagued with intimate partner violence. This has been dubbed “mutual combat” by several of my co-workers, but in exploration with her, it appears as though the severity of his violence, his physical strength, and his emotional control create a dynamic where she sometimes reacts with violence (i.e., pushing him so she can escape, scratching his arms when they are around her neck). She has asked to begin couples therapy with her partner, and he has agreed. I am familiar with some of the literature on couples therapy and intimate partner violence and have had some training in this area, but no one else at my location (a community mental health center) is trained in couples therapy and/or intimate partner violence. My agency is now discussing the possibility of me seeing them as a couple while continuing to see her. Are there guidelines or best practice recommendations about whether it would be appropriate for me to see them as a couple?
Response by Jeffrey Barnett
Thanks for this great question. I’m really glad you are asking it. Clearly you are sensitive to the issue of competence with regard to the knowledge and skills needed to provide couples therapy. As your question implies, being competent in individual psychotherapy doesn’t necessarily translate over to clinical work with couples. One must have the necessary education and training from course work, readings, CE activities, and supervised clinical experience before expanding our practice into a new area. I agree with you that you need to be aware of relevant practice standards and guidelines as well.
The situation you describe is also challenging because of the highly volatile nature of the relationship and the risks present for all involved (including yourself!). It will be important to be sure you have in place safeguards to protect yourself should anyone become aggressive or violent during a session. Having a colleague present or nearby during sessions, having a ‘panic button’ at your desk to quickly summon security if needed, positioning yourself near the door and not having clients seated between you and the door each may be important. Additionally, having a treatment contract/informed consent agreement that clearly specifies rules of conduct for the psychotherapy relationship is important as well. It should specify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, appropriate alternatives to use if one is angry, and responses or consequences that will occur should certain specified behaviors happen.
With regard to the competence issue and relevant standards I suggest you consult with colleagues who are experts in couples therapy and in clinical work with intimate/partner violence. APA’s Division of Family Psychology and the Couple and Family Psychology section of the American Board of Professional Psychology may be good resources. While you may not have a competent supervisor on site, consultation and supervision may be done across distances by use of televideo communications such as Skype or by telephone and by sending the supervisor tapes of sessions with appropriate consent of the clients.
You are wise to be concerned about practicing in a new area without first knowing relevant practice standards, obtaining needed education and training, and receiving ongoing consultation or supervision. Then, should you proceed with this case, be sure your expert colleagues provide suggestions on how to structure the treatment sessions and relationships to ensure the safety of all involved. I hope this is of help. Should you have additional questions or comments please let me know. I also hope others will share their thoughts on this important area of practice as well. Perhaps some colleagues who work with these types of couples can share their perspectives.
Cite This Article
Barnett, J. E. (2010, July). Ask the ethicist: Couples therapy in an abusive relationship. [Web article]. Retrieved from http://www.societyforpsychotherapy.org/ask-ethicist-couples-therapy-abusive-relationship