Counselling Dilemma: An Aggressive Partner
Kaya and Mark have been in a relationship for a little over a year now and are attending couples counselling. Halfway through the session, the therapist asks for more information about the fights they are having. Kaya reports that Mark recently pushed her into a wall, and that he sometimes viciously pulls things like her phone, the TV remote amongst others out of her hand. Mark admits to this, and responds by accusing Kaya of pushing him once, which Kaya says was in self-defence. When Kaya first met Mark he was extremely charming and always kind to her, if at times a little possessive and jealous (which at the time she found flattering). Now he seems to have become this whole other person. Kaya tried to leave him at one point, however he followed her to her friend’s house and nearly broke down the door demanding she come home, which she did. Kaya wants to leave but hasn’t, as Mark threatens to kill himself when she has attempted to leave.
As the therapist in this scenario, what would you do?
I would be very mindful of any red flags that might be mentioned such as previous incidents of violence, depression, substance abuse in Mark, etc. Generally couples counselling is not appropriate when violence is present in a relationship. As a counsellor I would check in with Mark to pick up clues as to whether he fully understands the unacceptable nature of his behaviour. However as a counsellor it is important to be aware that the safety of the session promotes open communication, but such communication can be dangerous in a violent relationship and jeopardise Kaya to more violence.
Another thing that I would consider doing is to get them to revisit the initial agreement that couples therapy is commonly based on (i.e. shared respect for one another and shared responsibility for the relationship outcome and process). Either way conducting a risk assessment of the situation is VERY important. From my experience, commonly in DV situations until the violent partner seeks professional help for their abusive behaviour and until Kay is able to identify why she may be tolerating such ill-treatment, their sessions together might do more harm than good. The couple would more than need to be referred to other relevant services and/or receive counselling separately.
Safety is the most important factor here. As Kaya has disclosed that there is domestic violence in the relationship it would be unethical to counsel the couple because it could prove to be unsafe for Kaya. She may feel safe to say things in the counselling session which Mark could later hold against her and could lash out. Furthermore, Mark may feel that the counsellor is not on his side (if she were female) or expect the counsellor to understand him (if he were a male). There are a variety of factors that need to be worked on before attempting to work on the relationship. Underlying issues would need to be discerned, including whether there is alcohol and/or substance abuse by either Kaya or Mark. Both would also need to be given psycho-education about anger management and DV.
I would refer this couple to individual counselling for each of them (and also possibly group therapy) and advise that they return to couples counselling in future if they feel the need to do so.
To begin with I would remind the clients of the limits of confidentiality and discuss with them that I am legally obliged to report the physical abuse as I need to protect my client. I would then have a discussion with both regarding the possible outcomes of this action and how it would affect them both. I would also talk about the indicators of physical and emotional abuse and how what they have told me, comes under the definition for both. I would brainstorm with them some possible solutions to resolve their issues in relation to their unhealthy communication patterns and some future goals for Mark to address his anger issues and for Kaya to address her ability to communicate how Mark’s actions make her feel. Finally I would ask them what immediate action they would both take to ensure their physical safety between now and the next session.