Couples Counseling and Drug and Alcohol Treatment
last updated February 1, 2006

Batterers' intervention programs are not the same as marriage or couples counseling. The focus of batterers' intervention programs is on ending the abuse while ensuring the victim's safety, not on keeping the relationship together or counseling the couple. Indeed, many practitioners involved with batterers' intervention programs believe that it can be "unethical and dangerous for mental health professionals to offer marriage counseling to couples when domestic violence has occurred" because if the abuse is ongoing, the victim may be too afraid to talk freely with a counselor for fear of retaliation from the perpetrator. From Michael Paymar, Violent No More Helping Men End Domestic Abuse 219 (2000). Paymar, the training coordinator for the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project and a leading expert on batterers' intervention programs, outlines the criteria that should be met before a couple is offered joint counseling:

  • The man has successfully completed a reputable domestic abuse program that focuses on changing sexist beliefs and attitudes about controlling women.
  • A practitioner is convinced that the battering—violence, coercion, threats, intimidation, and psychological abuse—has ceased.
  • The battered woman has worked with a victims' advocate and has developed a safety plan to get help if her partner becomes abusive.
  • The battered woman feels safe.
  • The practitioner has discussed the risks associated with marriage counseling privately with the woman, and feels relatively sure that abusive acts will not take place as the result of these sessions.

Some batterers' intervention programs have also mistakenly attempted to solve domestic abuse by using alcohol or drug treatment therapy as part of their program. Focusing on the perpetrator's possible drug or alcohol problem does not address the underlying causes of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a pattern of abuse used by one of the partners in an intimate relationship to maintain power and control over the other. Alcohol and drug abuse "do not cause non-violent persons to become violent." From Anne L. Ganley & Susan Schechter, Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Family Preservation Practitioners (1995). Many people who abuse alcohol or drugs never batter their partners and research has shown that batterers who have successfully completed alcohol treatment often continue to batter. These are separate problems requiring separate solutions:

The [second] problem with accepting alcohol and drug abuse as an excuse for violence is that society, friends, and family—and often the mental health community—may view alcohol or drugs as the primary problem. Many people assume that if a substance abuse problem is resolved, the abuse and violent behavior will end. This is a dangerous assumption for the partner of an abusive man. People who abuse alcohol or drugs and act violently have two problems—not one. They need to address both.

From Michael Paymar, Violent No More Helping Men End Domestic Abuse 219 (2000).