To fix abusive relationships, a counselor must have expertise

And we can’t know what went on at the marriage counseling session between Kimberly and Jeffrey Bedinger just before he shot and killed her 22-year-old son in Troy on July 8.

But we do know that the alleged Gibson tape mentioned a therapist and that the Bedingers had just seen a marriage counselor.

For experienced professionals who focus on abuse, both scenarios raise a red flag.

“Battered women should not be advised to participate in couples or marriage counseling,” says Patti Schwarztrauber, executive director of Artemis Center, Dayton’s domestic violence resource center since 1985. “While couples counseling can be beneficial in some relationships, it is not good for couples where there is violence. In fact, in many cases, couples’ counseling has increased the violence in the home.”

Schwarztrauber says there are a number of reasons couples counseling doesn’t work when abuse is involved.

“A victim who is being abused in a relationship is in a dangerous position in couple’s counseling,” she warns. “If she tells the counselor about the abuse, she is likely to suffer more abuse when she gets home. If she does not tell, nothing can be accomplished. If she remains quiet, she may appear uncooperative.”

Schwarztrauber says couples’ counseling also places the responsibility for change on both partners, but domestic violence is the sole responsibility of the abuser. Marital counseling also works best, she says, when both people are truthful.

“Individuals who are abusive to their partners minimize, deny and blame, and therefore are not truthful in counseling,” she says. “Couples resolve problems in counseling by talking about problems. His abuse is not the couple’s problem, it is his problem. He needs to work on it in a specialized program for abusers.”

Schwarztrauber also has a warning for those well-meaning counselors who suggest the victim is codependent.

“That only provides the batterer with additional ammunition and adds to the victim’s confusion and guilt,” she says.

Nancy Grigsby has worked in the domestic-violence movement since 1980 and is a co-founder of Artemis. She currently serves as economic empowerment director for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network in Columbus. The group trains other agencies around the state and lobbies for legislation that benefits victims of domestic violence.

Whenever Grigsby sees separation in a couple and a later homicide, she suspects domestic violence.

“Couples counseling in these situations is widely viewed as ineffective and potentially dangerous — for both the victim and even the therapist,” she says. She has personally heard from many battered women that they were further abused after disclosing in couples’ counseling sessions what was going on in their relationship.

“One survivor reported being beaten in the parking lot of the community mental health center where she had just been in a counseling session with her husband,” Grigsby says.

So what if a woman isn’t sure whether she and her partner might benefit from traditional marriage counseling or whether the situation constitutes abuse?

“If there is any sort of threatening or manipulative behavior, if there is any physical, psychological or financial abuse and if she is scared or intimidated in some way, then she is in an abusive relationship,” says Dona Pierce, probation officer and domestic violence program manager for Dayton Municipal Court.

Pierce says abusers are fixated on the victim.

“Because they are so focused on her, it is hard for them to identify and see their own controlling abusive behaviors.”

In these situations, she says, the man needs to enroll in a batterer’s program that uses a nationally recognized curriculum geared toward changing violent behavior. Group intervention, such as the six-month program Pierce conducts, has proven most successful.

“It takes a group dynamic for offenders to confront each other and see their manipulations, lies and games,” says Pierce, who estimates she has led more than 3,000 groups in the past 20 years. “They can help each other.”

The best programs, she believes, involve co-facilitators — a male and a female. “We model an egalitarian relationship,” she explains. “No one is the boss, no one is subservient. All batterers’ programs don’t do that but they should.”

Can abusers really change?

Pierce believes they can.

“My experience has been that people can be successful,” she says,” but they first have to admit they have the problem.”

Pierce says abuse is a learned, not inherited behavior. Abusers come to believe that their violent behavior toward a partner is acceptable.

“For somebody to change in a few months takes a lot of motivation,” she adds.

Pierce says it isn’t uncommon for the abuse to be leveled at someone close to the partner — an elderly parent, a child, a dog or cat. That’s what first came to mind, she said, when she heard about the Bedinger case.

Schwarztrauber says some people feel that once the violence has ended, couples counseling can be helpful.

“Unfortunately, even after the violence stops, it is not uncommon for other tactics of power and control to continue,” she explains. “So deciding when couples work may be effective or safe is tricky, even for the experts.”

Everyone agrees that any therapist or member of the clergy dealing with couples should try to find out from the get-go whether there is abuse in the relationship.

“Potentially every one who walks through the door could be an abuser!” insists Pierce. “Once any violence is disclosed, get him to a batterer’s program and get her victim services.”

Grigsby says abusers or survivors should seek counseling through an organization or practice that has expertise in this area.

“It is unusual for most counseling professionals, whether they be faith-based or clinical — counselors, social workers, psychologists — to have done any course work on family violence or even trauma,” she explains. “If these courses are available in divinity or clinical programs, they are usually electives. So, for victims, the safest route is to call someplace such as the Artemis Center or the YWCA.”

Though it’s commonly assumed that a troubled economy has led to more abuse in relationships, Pierce isn’t buying it.

“There are a lot of people who have lost their jobs or have stressful medical problems, but does everybody abuse their partner?” she asks. “Why is one person abusive and the other is not? I think it all comes down to choice and personal responsibility.”

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