In January, in a small rural Utah town, a father murdered his wife and their five children, as well as his mother-in-law, before taking his own life. It was an extreme example of how fragile life can be when domestic violence has been unleashed.

Police and human service records indicate that domestic violence had been a poorly kept secret in their lives for some time and that the wife, Tausha Haight, had sought advice from police, counselors and clergy, among others, had filed for divorce and then had gotten a protective order.

Buried in the investigative documents the Deseret News obtained through a public records request is a single curious line referring to what a counseling specialist told her: “He advised that it would be best that these issues be addressed in individual counseling and not marriage counseling.”

Experts who truly believe in couples counseling to bolster communication and resolve issues between partners say there’s one situation where couples counseling is a bad idea.

In households where one partner is physically and emotionally abusing the other, couples counseling is at best ineffective. It has great potential to be dangerous.

“I am generally a fan of therapy, which can be really useful for survivors and people in certain situations, but definitely not couples therapy if there’s abuse in the relationship,” said Monica J. Casper, special assistant to the president on gender-based violence at San Diego State University, where she teaches sociology and heads the Blue-Ribbon Task Force on Gender-Based Violence.

Couples therapy requires both parties to be at the table sharing things about their lives and their relationship. “Unfortunately, in an abusive situation, that can provide ammunition for an abuser that can be used against the abused,” she said.

That’s among the biggest fears, said Martha Burkett Fallis, a licensed clinical social worker who provides therapy in Salt Lake City and serves on the board of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “Things might come up that could be used as a catalyst for abuse.”

“It may also give the battered partner false hope that things will improve, so they may endure the abuse longer,” said Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist and relationship coach with a practice in Boulder, Colorado.

Casper worries about that, too, adding couples therapy can help trap someone in the relationship. “Often therapists require couples to commit to a certain period of time, which might keep the abused in the situation longer than they need to be in that situation,” she said.

The experts interviewed for this story all pointed out that women are more apt to be abused than men, but it can go either way.

What therapy is

Therapists have to assess which couples can safely be seen together. Many instead need to be referred “for individual work or batter intervention services,” as noted in the book “Couples Therapy for Domestic Violence: Finding Safe Solutions.

Therapy is often about working on yourself — your psychology, personal history, PTSD, anxiety, depression, whatever an individual might struggle with, said Casper, who thinks the best therapists understand a person’s context, including where and with whom someone lives, their relationships, culture, society and more.

While abusers can benefit from introspection, she said, it’s not likely to happen in couples therapy, where shame, anger and other dynamics may be stronger.

Women in therapy often address issues that occur in a network with other people. “Some therapists don’t do a good job of that,” Casper said. “They almost think about the individual psychology separate from a broader context or situation.”

Couples therapy is often “three in the room: you, your partner and your relationship.” If there’s abuse, it’s hard to keep the relationship part intact, she told Deseret News.

In abusive relationships, the person who’s being abused is going to couch things differently than if they felt free to talk openly. So not only is couples therapy then not as effective, but it’s risky. “The person being abused is going to worry about what will happen when they step out of the therapist’s office. ... They get good at hiding things in different settings,” said Casper.

“Counseling is very dependent on being able to be honest and forthcoming with emotions and with things that have happened. If you need to keep silent so you don’t get in trouble, the counselor is working with one arm tied behind their back,” Burkett Fallis said.

Conversely, “if a victim has been hesitant to push back,” having a counselor there might help her — or him — feel more empowered, she said. That could be dangerous, too.

“She might say, ‘I don’t like when you do this.’ Well, the counselor is there for one hour, but the victim goes home with the offender all the other hours in the week. And it can be intensely shaming for someone who’s used violence to have that aired in front of a counselor,” Burkett Fallis said, noting abusers tend to be poor at regulating their emotions.

If the victim is honest in therapy, what is said could be used against her “either by the abuser or the therapist, if the therapist believes the abuser,” said Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, founder and managing partner of The Cronin Law Firm in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She added, “Victims tend to blame themselves and justify why their partner is abusing them. Counseling may make this worse if the abuser speaks in such a way the therapist believes their stories.”

Burkett Fallis said people often go to counselors to talk about how to leave the relationship. “They will wait and feel unsafe in their relationships and say we need to go to couples counseling. And one of their goals in counseling is to have this third party help them tell the other person, ‘I want to get divorced.’ They are asking for safety from this third party.”

She said if abuse has not been disclosed and if the therapist isn’t trained to recognize domestic violence, the therapist might instead suggest, “Let’s work on this.” And the airing of whatever “this” is can decrease the therapy’s effectiveness and increase its danger.

She noted, too, that a counselor who is not well trained to deal with intimate partner violence might seem to OK abuse. Say an abuser said something like, “She spilled soda all over my desk.” A response as innocuous as, “I can see where that annoyed you,” could be interpreted as tacit agreement that “punishment” was needed.

She calls that “inadvertent collusion” with the abuser, who often does not detail the full story, leaving out information: After she spilled the drink, I locked her in the bathroom for three hours. If that does come out, and the therapist says that’s not OK, the shame cycle may rev up.

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Therapists also have to walk a fine line when discussing how some people replicate trauma cycles in their lives — people who’ve been abused may abuse if they can, she said, and they can also be abused again. “It’s not bad to look through those things, but a skillful therapist is required, someone who understands the dynamics of power,” Casper said.

Abuse comes in many forms, Cronin said. “Whether a victim has suffered emotional, physical, sexual, financial, or psychological abuse, it may be difficult to discern even by the most well-trained counselor. Abusers oftentimes appear at their best during these sessions, only to use whatever was said by the counselor or the victim against them in private. There is never a ‘safe’ space for the victim,” she said by email.

“Oftentimes, too, the perception of therapy is that all attendees want to work on the relationship when in reality, an abuser rarely thinks he or she is the problem,” Cronin said. 

Small town, big city

Casper has lived in big cities and small towns. And she said in the latter, a lot of things happen that no one talks about. “And a lot of abusers are also good at keeping secrets; they can be incredibly charming in public.”

But even in big cities, people look away.

Most people won’t say anything: “It’s a personal matter,” seems to be the perception.

That happens among the most loving, caring adults, Casper added. There’s also concern about making a situation worse in someone else’s unhealthy family.

She thinks folks are less likely to seek professional help in small towns, where they might be more prone to going to their clergy. If knowledge of abuse comes through confession, it’s less likely to be reported.

Lots of issues that arise have little to do with the size of the community, including what Burkett Fallis calls “replication of unequal power rules.” Individuals may interpret the tenets of their faith to give them the right to physically “discipline” a partner. Such people are found in any faith. “There’s some misinterpretation of scripture or laws in society and you have someone who uses it to justify abuse. ... That can look like all kinds of things.”

Clergy should be aware that domestic violence has a different dynamic when it comes to counseling, experts told Deseret News.

“Bringing someone into your office to talk about how the relationship is going — maybe talking about violence, maybe not — there’s the risk of colluding with someone who is using power of some kind over their partner” without realizing it, Burkett Fallis warned.

Helping and hurting

Advice to not seek couples counseling doesn’t diminish the need to get help.

For those in abusive relationships, therapy should be both survivor-informed and trauma-informed, said Casper. She said people respond to trauma in a lot of different ways, and someone who has PTSD can be very competent about managing their circumstances so they appear to have no trauma.

Trauma-informed care includes getting people not just to a place where they can talk about it, but also about the way in which it has influenced their life. “We all struggle through traumatic experiences,” said Casper, who said good therapy needs context. Trauma that stems from sexual assault has an individual context, while trauma from being in a refugee camp is both personal and collective.

Casper said many women stay in abusive relationships if there are children — as long as the children have not also been abused. They might say they’d leave if the children become targets.

She points out that some in abusive relationships feel like they need to stay and they want to make it work. They may share kids or have economic limitations or religious or philosophical reasons for why they feel they can’t leave.

Even in relationships with abuse, couples may be ready to change and want to stay together. Parallel counseling — separate therapy for each — is recommended. For one thing, it’s easier to challenge harmful notions one-on-one, Burkett Fallis said. Eventually, they may be able to merge the therapy safely.

Safety comes first. In her practice, Burkett Fallis said people calling to schedule couples counseling sometimes get mad when they’re turned down during screening. They’re not being turned down for therapy — it’s the together that’s problematic and unsafe.

Even absent abuse, therapists recommend that couples travel to marriage therapy separately. Otherwise, the session is sometimes followed by the other therapy session in the car on the way home, Casper said.

Cronin notes that not all experts agree that abusers can be reformed. “There are several types of personality disorders and they each have their own set of diagnostic criteria,” she said. “Many experts opine that personality disorders cannot be cured, but many believe they can be treated, depending on the severity of the underlying disorder.”