If you and your partner want to pursue couples therapy, that’s commendable! There is so much hope and help available in therapy. What if you’re dealing with intimate partner abuse or violence (IPV)? Therapy for domestic violence requires a trauma-informed approach.
You may be asking: Can therapy for domestic violence really help? Can couples therapy make things worse?
If domestic violence (DV) or abuse exists in your relationship – whether through experience or the fear of it — safety must take priority. Safety and stabilization — physically, emotionally and sexually — is the foundation of trauma-Informed therapy. We need safety in therapy – and in any relationship – to move forward.
The path to safety in therapy might not be the one you think. Safety must always come first, and here’s what that means for your therapy journey.
What is considered violence in a relationship?
There’s a great deal of information about domestic or interpersonal violence. Still, it’s not always easy to see. Interpersonal abuse, violence, family violence and intimate partner violence are just a few terms. No matter what you call it, I want you to be able to recognize violence in a relationship.
I want you to know — not all interpersonal violence is a punch in the face. Not all violence leaves visible bruises.
Violence in relationships happens physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually.
Violence in a relationship can be one or more of these:
- Physical violence: Any type of physical contact that can be scary — throwing things, hitting things, punching a wall, pushing, shoving, holding a person back, pulling them down — just to name a few.
- Emotional or verbal violence: Threatening, name-calling, disrespectful language, gaslighting — any interaction that is frightening, including behavior that leaves one person not knowing what the other person is going to do.
- Sexual violence: Any unwanted sexual touching or activity. (See: When is it sex, and when is it abuse or assault?)
Anything that is threatening to safety — intentionally or unintentionally — is violence.
Violence can be perpetrated by women or by men. It can happen in heterosexual, homosexual, or asexual relationships. It can be intentional or unintentional. It may lead to feelings of shame and apologies, but it is still violence.
Violence is never okay — and it doesn’t make a person bad.
You might be surprised that our path to safety isn’t to reject the person who uses violence.
Violence in relationships is not a sign of badness of a person, although violence is never ok or acceptable! Violence is usually a sign of dysregulation — someone who’s struggling to cope with their pain, desperately longing to be seen or be heard.
Some who use violent behavior as their coping or survival strategy do so because they think that threatening or needing to be powerful is a normal way to be heard.
As trauma-informed therapists, we know that violence is NEVER an acceptable way to make your voice heard in a relationship. Unfortunately some believe violence is their only choice – it appears to be the best they can do based on their history and coping abilities.
If a person is violent, it is likely that nobody taught them how to emotionally regulate. Maybe they’re recreating some version of what they grew up with. Maybe they believe the only way to be heard is to use threats, shame or violence. A person may even choose violence to demand someone meet valid emotional needs like love. This does not excuse violence in any form.
People of any gender can be perpetrators of violence, or suffer violence in a relationship.
Men who grew up in a situation where they learned it’s not safe or acceptable to emote, who were expected to follow the (very detrimental) “man rules,” may have learned to use violence or threats to cope with their emotions. However, men are not the only perpetrators of violence!
When someone’s emotions range outside their window of tolerance — when their emotions are too much to handle (like system overload), when they don’t know what to do – that person might resort to violence in one form or another.
Violence is more common in the relationships of trauma survivors.
Trauma survivors sometimes find themselves in abusive/violent relationships because of what they grew up with or have been used to. To survive, some people had to develop a tremendous capacity to tolerate fear, chaos and poor treatment. For such trauma survivors, learning about healthy boundaries is an important awareness to build in therapy.
Just the idea that people can have boundaries to protect themselves may seem foreign or unacceptable to trauma survivors. The struggle to implement those limits can be even harder. The idea for trauma survivors, of using their voice to uphold boundaries to protect and care for themselves, can feel insurmountable. Accordingly, partners with a trauma history don’t always command respect, compassion or calmness in their relationships. They may have trouble regulating their own emotions, so they are more willing to accept a partner who has trouble regulating theirs.
Partners usually come together in relationships as a match around the same level of emotional health and ability to regulate in a healthy way. That match can even be the exact opposite level from the scale of a healthy balance. It’s like two sides of a coin. Often there are two trauma survivors in a relationship who each contribute their own form of dysregulation that creates an unsafe environment. It’s the unsafe choices of violence or tolerance each person makes when overwhelmed that often keeps the relationship from having a chance the way it is.
As therapists, we see two people who are trying to cope in the best ways they know how. We also know that relationships require partners to learn to maintain a foundation of safety to move forward and heal.
You deserve and NEED safety in your therapy. That’s why trauma-informed therapy for domestic violence is about safety.
Therapy is supposed to be your safest space. However, what someone says in the session – even with both partners present with a therapist in that moment — can sometimes become a flashpoint for violence at home later. Triggers occur. This negates everything that therapy needs to be — SAFE.
If an individual uses violence as a survival mechanism, we know that this person hasn’t yet learned how to cope safely with uncomfortable emotions. Without safe self-regulating skills, therapy can activate emotions that can very likely trigger a past traumatic experience, a sense of threat to survival, and therefore, overwhelm a person’s ability to stay present. When triggered that person may act in a violent way in their relationship, exacerbating the danger. This is why we cannot do therapy effectively unless there is also safety. Safety must occur inside and outside of the therapy office.
This is how we ensure safety in couples therapy when treating partner abuse
As trauma-informed therapists, we do not provide couples therapy for those with active violence in their relationships. We take a different path that honors our commitment to safety and offers the best approaches to healing.
We work on safety and stabilization first.
Safety and stabilization is the first step in trauma-informed care – with individuals and couples. The goal of this stage is for both partners to develop healthy coping skills and learn how to deal with emotions in healthier ways, so they can live within their window of tolerance together— helping them during the next stages of therapy.
When people are dysregulated, they don’t have healthy coping skills to help them hold emotions and manage their behavior well (re-regulate). They live in a state of dysregulation – you might call them triggered, overwhelmed, or acting out. In a state of dysregulation (hyper- or hypo-arousal), a person cannot truly show up, be present and make change. So therapy cannot work until that person is able to think and feel at the same time.
Safety and stabilization has to be achieved. If violence is present, safety and stabilization must happen for each individual first — through individual therapy — before therapy as a couple.
Once each partner can hold and manage their thoughts and emotions safely, the couple can embark on couples therapy. Couples therapy works to make progress in furthering stage 1 together, and then moving onto stages 2 and 3 — safely! (See: How to repair love with trauma-informed couples therapy.)
Signs your relationship is safe for couples therapy together
Before starting therapy as a couple, you each need to be safe enough in your relationship to ask for what you need without triggering violence – ALWAYS. In a safe relationship you can – without experiencing abuse –
- Say “no”
- Set boundaries
- Accept your partner’s “no” even if you don’t like it
- Respect your partner’s boundaries, even if you don’t like them
There must be no emotional, physical or sexual abuse — no violence of any kind.
Nonviolent couples, who may argue or fight without violence, can often work through stage 1 together.
When there is violence in your relationship and you want to work things out
It’s wonderful that you and your partner want to do the work.
As trauma-informed therapists, it is our job to hold boundaries to keep you safe.
For couples where violence is present in any form, the first stage of therapy (safety and stabilization) must be done individually first. At Brickel and Associates, our therapists are trauma-informed and will work with you or your partner as individuals (or collaborate with other providers) to work toward the goal of couples therapy, once you both have the ability to be safe and regulate.
Please note: Unfortunately, trauma-informed has become a buzzword and therapists sometimes use it even if they aren’t trauma-informed, which can be dangerous. Here’s what to look for when seeking a trauma-informed therapist.
You deserve to feel safe in a relationship
You deserve safety in your therapy. You deserve safety in your relationship. And you deserve to have a therapist who can confidently help you do the work without being afraid that dysregulation could lead to violence.
As a trauma-informed therapist, I believe partners who want to rid their relationship of violence and build a safe, healthy and great relationship can succeed. It’s essential that everyone involved honor these boundaries:
- Violence is never acceptable!
- Safety must always exist – it’s a basic human right that is deserved by all, including trauma survivors.
- When a partnership includes violence and both want it to stop and make the relationship healthy, it’s likely both partners are trauma survivors, not bad people.
- Any gender may fit the role of abuser or abused.
- The abuser deserves therapy, as well as the victim.
- Work in therapy together as partners does not happen unless and until the relationship is safe and stable.
A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.
Resources for Safety
The National Domestic Violence Hotline https://www.thehotline.org/
Local to Alexandria, VA: The Domestic Violence Program – https://www.alexandriava.gov/DomesticViolence
Local to Fairfax County, VA: Domestic Violence Action Center (DVAC) https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/familyservices/domestic-sexual-violence/domestic-violence-action-center
Local to Arlington, VA – https://www.doorwaysva.org/get-help/domestic-violence-resources/
Brickel and Associates –https://brickelandassociates.com/resources/
- How to Heal Trauma By Understanding Your Attachment Style
- Why We Practice Trauma-Informed Therapy
- 3 Concepts to Help Trauma Survivors Move Forward Into Healthier Relationships
- Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships
- How to Repair Love with Trauma-Informed Couples Therapy