My Experience with Marriage Counseling

Last week I shared a blog from Kellie Jo Holly’s website Verbal Abuse Journals entitled “I Tried Marriage Counseling”. In my blog I talked about the fact that though many abuse victims are told to go to couples counseling with their abusers, many people don’t realize that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Many practitioners disapprove of—and at least twenty state standards and guidelines expressly prohibit—couples counseling for batterers.”*

Why do at least twenty state standards prohibit couples counseling for batterers?

As Patricia Riddle Gaddis says in her book Battered But Not Broken, Help for Abused Wives and Their Church Families, “…battering is a control issue and not a communication issue, and couples counseling poses a major threat to the abuser’s control over the relationship…This not only makes the marital counseling process ineffective; it also places <the victim’s> life at risk.”**

Based on my personal experience, I agree. Here is my story:

I had been married to my verbally abusive husband for 19 years. As with most abusive relationships, it got progressively worse over time. In my case, the abuse escalated very slowly, but the previous 3 years had been really bad. In the previous month, he had begun to be physically abusive as well, hitting me, holding me down during arguments, and threatening my life. In desperation, I finally went to one of the pastors at our church and told him what was happening. My husband was furious that I did this, and never forgave me. The Pastor recommended that we go see a Christian marriage counselor.

My husband, (I’ll call him “Mark”), agreed – as long as it was someone he chose. Mark went to the sessions alone a few times, to “see if he could stand to be married to me any longer”. Of course, Mark did not tell the counselor all the abusive things he was doing. When I finally asked to meet alone with the counselor, he was very surprised at the things I told him. After the counselor outlined steps for me to take to create a safety plan, he suggested my husband and I meet with him together.

My experience with joint counseling confirms that it is dangerous to allow couples to be counseled together when there is domestic violence in the relationship.  Tweet This

Meeting the counselor together with my husband did not help things at all. In fact, it made things much worse:  During one counseling session, I said that my childhood was pretty good. My husband became enraged! This was because he had been telling the counselor that I was just misunderstanding his actions based on how “bad” my childhood was. Our counselor suggested I tell my husband which actions he was doing that hurt me. This gave my husband even more ammunition to hurt me with. For example, when I told him that it hurt me when he didn’t speak to me, he spoke to me even less, and began pretending I physically did not exist in our home. He would ask our children to pass him items at the dinner table that were sitting in front of me, as if I were actually not there.

After just a few weeks, the counselor realized that meeting as a couple was not working, so he began seeing each of us individually. This was also not helpful, because the counselor would tell my husband things that I had told him in confidence.

After about 6 months of meeting with the counselor both together and separately, the counselor told my husband and me that he felt he was not able to help us, and he suggested we find another counselor! I was shocked and angry. At the end of the session, I asked to speak to the counselor alone and he told me why he was recommending this. He said that my husband had spent the last 6 private sessions yelling at him. Apparently, Mark was furious that the counselor refused to tell me that I had been “wrong” for going to the church for help.

As Kellie Jo Holly says in her blog, “Until the abuser seeks personal change, don’t waste your emotional energy, time or money on marriage counseling.” My ex-husband and I wasted 6 months of our time, money and energy on marriage counseling. I only received two things in return:

  • more abuse from my husband, and
  • a lot of disillusionment hoping for help from something that had no chance of success.

If a person has no desire to change their behavior, there is absolutely no point in going to counseling with them. Tweet This

As Allen Corben shared on the National Coalition of Domestic Violence Facebook page, September 9, 2012, “Stay away from couples counseling. Couples counseling:

  1. provides the abuser with more information, and this often results in more effective forms of control, if not more things for the abuser to be angry about;
  2. provides the abused party false hope (“we are getting counseling, after all. Things should be getting better”)…

Deal with the partner you have, not the partner you wish you had, or the partner that shows up in public, legal or therapeutic settings. Deal with the partner you actually have, and not the partner a therapist, judge, or clergy-member, says you have.”

This is good advice. You know your abuser better than any one else. S/he can put on a mask outside the home, and pretend to be someone s/he isn’t. S/he may be a very good actor in front of others, but YOU know the truth.

In summary, going to couples counseling with an abuser is a bad idea. Tweet This

It will be a waste of your time, money and energy. It will give you false hope, and may even put your life in danger.

Ephesians 5:15-16 says,

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

Truly, days living with an abuser can be described as evil days. Do your best to be wise when looking for the help you need. For ideas of places to go for help, check out my Get Help page.

God bless you.


*K. Healey, C. O’Sullivan, & C. Smith, Batterer Intervention: Program Approaches and Criminal Justice Strategies. (Washington, DC:US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, February 1998).

**Patricia Riddle Gaddis, Battered but Not Broken, Help for Abused Wives and Their Church Families (Valley Forge, PA:Judson Press, 1996) 50.


This Post Has 4 Comments

    • No Tina,

      You were not crazy. I have talked with many abuse victims about this, and in 100% of the cases, going to counseling with their abuser made them feel worse, and usually made the relationship even less safe. Bless you, Caroline

  1. Tina says:

    I have been attending the same church for more than 17 years and he tried to get everyone there against me also. Attending less than a year just to stir things up there for me. Is it normal that now certain things trigger me there?? I get anxiety. I have been questioned repeatedly. I have been diagnosed with ptsd depression and anxiety.

  2. Wow, what a sad story! Just awful that he could come for less than a year and make your 17 years mean little. Yes, it is normal that you might feel triggered there. You might like to share my Dv guide for Churches with the leadership there. Often, people don’t understand DV and they act in ignorance. Also, you could change to another church if you feel that would help. I hope you are getting some counseling by someone who specializes in Dv.

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