A therapeutic approach to domestic violence

Families Opinions - March 19th, 2004
David Tharp

by David Tharp

Recently, I was asked to give a talk about domestic vio­lence to a group of Japanese psychiatrists and mental health specialists who deal with this problem. The crux of the discussion was whether psy­chotherapy is useful in dealing with this critical issue.

Someone’s life or death may hinge on whether a couple seeks therapy for this problem or not, before it is too late. But, on the other hand, when and where do you draw the line in recognition that events have gone beyond the point of no return and therapy is no longer an option?

In Japan’s feudal period, there were Buddhist temples called “kakekomi-dera” where women could escape from vio­lent and abusive husbands. Tokeiji Temple in Kita-Kamakura is one such refuge. It’s a pleasant, relaxing temple, just the place to put unwanted husbands in the past tense. Women could offi­cially be recognized as divorced after living there for three years as nuns.

Times have not changed that much. Among the specialists who attended my talk were members of a Japanese prime ministerial committee who are studying present day domestic violence and ways to stop this endem­ic problem.

Domestic violence comes in all sizes and varieties. Violent women are also a grow­ing part of this population, and there is a need to protect male victims from them too. Violence isn’t simply physical. There is also emotional and mental violence, and in the hands of a manipula­tive operator, this can be as painful and can cause as much suffering as a fist in the face.

A classic example of this can be seen in the film “Gaslight” in which the husband (Charles Boyer) puts on a compassionate face for his wife (Ingrid Bergman), but he is slowly and deliberately driving her towards insanity with skillfully choreo­graphed lies and carefully arranged mental tricks. So, it is not just the physical side-effects of domestic violence; the mental side-effects can be just as damag­ing to the psyche and emotions.

In Britain, according to the last available yearly statistics (2001-2002), 120 women were killed by their spouses or boyfriends, and 30 men were also killed by their wives or girl­friends. This does not include the number of children killed either by their mother or father, or both parents.

A total of 685,000 incidents of domestic violence were reported to police during this year in the UK, but it is widely assumed this is just the tip of the iceberg, because many incidents go unreported. In Japan, the sta­tistics are virtually non-existent or unbelievable, because the police are almost never called to a domestic scene, except in extreme cases when neighbors simply cannot ignore the vio­lence any longer.

The problem is so critical in Britain, the government is con­sidering drastic, wide-ranging changes to present laws in order to close the loopholes that have allowed violent abusers to get away with their actions. Designated domestic violence units are being set up by the police throughout the country. Emergency housing is being planned or increased for victims, and a nationwide, 24-hour hot­line is available.

A victims’ commission is also looking more deeply at the violence against children and vulnerable older people, among gay couples, unmarried hetero­sexuals and people who have never lived with partners.

New legislation will include automatic “stay away” orders for violent offenders which, if breached, will mean immediate arrest – basically a stop-or-face-prison stance. A domestic vio­lence offenders register will also be established as part of the attempt to take control of the problem. Interestingly, none of the legislation I have seen makes any mention of counseling or therapy for offenders.

So, coming back to the gist of the talk I was asked to give, does psychotherapy work to stop domestic violence? The simple answer is that it depends. Psychotherapy always has a chance of working if an individ­ual or a couple want it to work.

A major obstacle I have seen repeatedly in my experience is that one partner may be willing to let bygones be bygones, but the other may not, either con­sciously or secretly. The latter usually because he or she feels coerced into doing therapy. This will scuttle or impair any attempt to regenerate a marriage or rela­tionship.

Another major barrier is when one partner feels he or she is losing control of the relation­ship if they have therapy. Control issues are driven by the need to have power over the other per­son for whatever reasons. A ther­apist worth his or her salt will expose this control pattern immediately. In this case, the controller must relinquish his or her mental or emotional attach­ment to always be the one in the power seat, or therapy isn’t even going to get out of the starting blocks.

However, perhaps the most difficult hurdle is whether one or both of the partners have a pre­disposing emotional or mental problem. In other words, they have brought this difficulty into the relationship, and it is wrecking every­thing in its path, including of course any attempt by a well-intentioned partner to overcome this prob­lem.

It may be that before couple therapy can work, first the men­tally troubled partner needs indi­vidual therapy and possibly med­ication to stabilize emotions, especially any violent behavior patterns. If the troubled partner is willing to do this and make an honest effort to save the relation­ship, and the victimized partner feels safe, couple psychotherapy may have a chance, because a good couple therapy program consists of precise and detailed training in how to renegotiate the whole context of the relation­ship, especially in eliminating violence as a tool or option.

This includes strategic inter­ventions for such issues as jeal­ousy, intractable arguments, resentments and the tendency to resort to mental, emotional or physical violence in order to get one’s own egotistic, inflexible way. But some people just can’t give up old ways and patterns, and they may inevitably fail to make progress in a therapeutic situation.

Nevertheless, if the attempt to change includes the commitment to seek love and atonement, and forsake violence as a “solution” in whatever form, there may be a chance for a couple to make a new life for themselves.

Realistically, it may require too much effort, and it might be better for each person to build a new, separate and possibly better life, especially if the negative “chemistry” between them cannot be changed, and it continues to precipitate various acts of emotional and physical violence.

As Buddha once said, if you are in a burning house, your first obligation is to get out of it. Acts of heroism are optional.

David Tharp is a British psychotherapist. His specialty area includes couple relationship and sexual therapy, group psychotherapy, intercultural therapy and therapeutic dance.