In this brief guide, I will discuss an approach to domestic violence/abuse in couple relationships: The Safety Plan.
A majority of counselling/therapy models use variations on an approach known as “non-directive”, meaning that the therapist does not impose solutions nor instructions on how the client is to approach resolving their problems. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) incorporates a number of directions (“complete this form for discussing next week”) but whilst CBT is a somewhat manualised approach, experienced CBT therapists also incorporate an essential essence of a non-directive approach: inviting the client to contribute a majority to their own problem-resolution.
A Systemic/Psychodynamic approach to a couple’s relationship counselling is no-different in this respect. The therapist focusses on the couple’s relationship and the behaviour between them, rather than focussing on the problems of two separate people. However, a systemic/psychodynamic approach to domestic abuse must switch mode from a non-directive/facilitative model of therapy to a more directive approach.
The Safety Plan – an Approach to Interrupting Domestic Abuse.
Pre-requirements for this approach:-
- Both partners must be safe (or be able to become safe). If one partner is in danger (physical attack) then this approach may not suitable. The couple will need to be helped to understand for themselves if this approach is for them. The process of a couple therapist assisting a partner into police protection from domestic violence is beyond the scope of this discussion.
- Both partners in the relationship must be in agreement that the abuse is to stop. A couple bringing different agendas into couple counselling will find this approach nearly impossible to practice.
- A core belief for this process is that the abuse occurs between the couple – this is not one partner being responsible for the abuse (and the other being responsible for receiving it) therefore it must be the abusive partner that has to be treated; both partners are treated simultaneously in the relationship.
Step 1) The couple counsellor discusses with the couple how the abuse begins (for this example, let us assume that the abuse the couple experiences begins with the couple arguing):-
Therapist: “Who first notices that an argument is beginning?”
The couple are helped to discuss this. There is no assumption that one partner will notice the process is beginning before the other.
If the partners agree that one partner notices before the other then the therapist will start with that partner. If the couple cannot agree, or both partners find that it can be one or the other partner who notices the argument is beginning, then the therapist will talk to the hypothetical “first” partner.
The couple are invited to agree upon a safety word. This word must be instantly recognisable by both partners when it is spoken.
Step 2) Interrupting the argument – the beginning of the Safety Plan.
Therapist (to the “first” partner identified above): “I want you to take responsibility for this step: when you notice that an argument is beginning I want you to use the safety word that both of you have agreed upon. When you say this safety word whatever you are both doing must stop and you must leave the room. You can leave the house, you can get into the car, you can go anywhere but you must leave your partner’s presence.”
Therapist (to the other partner): “I want you to take responsibility for the next step: when you hear the safety word you are going to ensure that you do not stop your partner from leaving the room. Whatever it takes you to manage this, you’re going to allow yourself to let your partner leave.”
Therapist (to both partners): “When you are in this separation process, you are to stay apart for as long as it takes for both of you to calm down. How long this takes depends on you both. How you negotiate if it’s OK to come back together depends on you both (and we can talk about that more too).”
Step 3) Coming back and having a conversation.
Therapist (to both partners): “When you both decide that it is safe for you both to come back together, do so and begin a conversation about what was happening just before the safety word was spoken. Some things to converse about might include:-
- What was happening for you just before the safety word?
- What did you notice was happening for your partner just before the safety word?
- How do you think that combining these experiences was leading towards the argument (and, later, towards domestic abuse).
- What could both of you do differently individually, for your partner, and as a couple to make the Safety Plan redundant?”
“… you might not get very far with the conversation to start with, and we can discuss that more in session here.
“If one of you notices that the conversation is leading towards an argument again, say the safety word and start the process again.”
Step 4) Using Couple Counselling Sessions to support the process.
It’s not unusual for a couple to find the Safety Plan is difficult to “get right” to begin with. After all, as some level the couple have been used to the process that leads to domestic abuse – sometimes for years – and to perturb that system will be difficult, particularly as the violent approach has become somewhat second-nature.
So, couple counselling will provide a place where the plan, the experiences of the plan, the perceived “failures” of the plan can be discussed and worked through.
Creativity is encouraged – creativity is a useful antidote to responses such as “but I can think of how I will leave the house” (for example) where both partners are encouraged by the therapist to think of their own approach to working through each “but I can’t” issue.
The couple therapist must also take a proactive position asking about the process each session (for example, some therapists do not start sessions, instead waiting patiently for the client to find the subject they want to begin with). The therapist takes responsibility for helping the couple manage and keep managing the process to change the abusive system already in place.
In summary: Domestic Abuse & the Safety Plan.
A systemic/psychodynamic approach to couple counselling can help the couple address matters of domestic abuse. The systemic approach is to help the couple perturb their conflicts by learning about the couple’s relationship-behavioural systems (when he does A, she respond with B, that sends him into C, and she with D…).
The safety plan incorporates the systemic approach – but in a more directive way, giving the couple a framework in which they can instantly stop their system that leads to abuse, learn about their system (the later conversation in safety – also in the counselling session), and put in places different behaviours that can stop the system in its tracks.
Not all couple counsellors choose to work with couples who are in a violent/abusive relationship – if you’re thinking of engaging with a couple counsellor, check with the counsellor that they will work with the relationship first.
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