Over the past year the solutions-focused team at the Clermont Unit has received four referrals for work with couples who met the requirements of the safety protocol outlined by Andy Cook in a previous issue of Community Care (“Necessary risks”). What follows is a brief review of the work with one of these couples and the key points from a follow-up meeting with the couple seven months after the work finished.
The work undertaken at the Clermont Unit with couples seeking to rebuild relationships after domestic violence draws on strengths that the participants may have become disconnected from in their relationships.
Joan Lachkar’s work has been important in helping therapists and clients understand the complexity of intimate relationships from a psychoanalytic perspective.(1) Bill O’Hanlon’s work over several decades has been a model of how to “think complexity” and also to work in ways that are founded on hope and possibility.(2),(3)
John and Mary* participated in seven sessions of couple work with us over a four-month period. John had previously completed the 36-week Living Without Violence Programme and had made considerable progress. He had achieved positive change in respect of his violence and his controlling behaviour. These changes were identified by the group workers and also reported by his partner Mary.
Over the same period, Mary was being seen individually in the solutions-focused team to help her think about her future and whether this would be with or without John. Mary has two small children from a previous relationship, and their safety was a priority for both her and the professionals involved with the family.
At the end of the programme, John and Mary decided that they wanted to continue their relationship and believed couple work would be necessary if they were going to have a future. They were confident that safety had been increased and fear reduced between them, but they wanted more than this.
John and Mary were initially extremely anxious in sessions and required a lot of “holding” and containing in the early stages. The key themes which emerged in sessions were those of intimacy (including sexual intimacy) and communication and how John’s violence had impacted on these critical facets of their relationship.
In one session it became clear that John wished to enjoy the relaxed intimacy that he believed had existed prior to his violent behaviour. While acknowledging responsibility for his violent actions, it was only when he was challenged by the workers that he was able to reflect on the many ways his actions had seriously undermined the capacity for intimacy between himself and Mary, especially physical proximity for her.
Mary began to voice this in detail and with clear examples, and only then was John able to understand and accept Mary’s anxieties about future intimacy. Once the couple had reached this position, they were able to negotiate a shared understanding of what their intimate relations might look like which would be both safe and satisfying for each of them. They agreed that such a “safe position” was a starting point that they hoped could be built upon as trust developed. The couple decided when to end the work on the basis of their own assessment of progress and we concurred. It was left open for them to access future sessions if required.
In the follow-up visit seven months later, John and Mary emphasised that the couple work had been very helpful, adding that their respective individual work prior to the couple work had been essential in preparing them to take maximum advantage of the joint work. Mary was clear that our knowledge and experience of working with domestic violence alongside what we knew of the details of John’s violence to her meant that she could participate in the joint work in a way that felt safe and supported.
She said that the couple work had begun at the optimum time, as John, having just finished the Living Without Violence Programme, was more attuned to his own emotions and better able to manage them. So the prospect of talking about difficult areas was less threatening for her. John and Mary agreed that outstanding areas of difficulty remained between them even after their respective individual work which they needed to discuss as a couple. They were clear that they would not have been able to manage this without the couple work which we facilitated.
John agreed that the timing of the couple work was important and built on the momentum of his work with the Living Without Violence Programme. He described the latter as “One of the best things I ever did in my life”. He believed that due to the couple work, he was now able to see Mary’s opinions on how he generally conducted himself and his life as constructive rather than seeing them as “attacks”, which had been the case in the past. The quality of the more open communication he had experienced in the couple sessions had inspired in John a commitment to continue his efforts in this area.
The couple agreed that, at times, the work with us had been painful but they were adamant that their relationship was now on a firmer footing, and safer, because of it. They were open with us that since the last session, seven months previously, they had argued and there had been times when they had considered contacting us again. However, there had been no further incidents of violence and John and Mary believed that the couple work had enhanced their capacity to resolve problems together without underlying and unspoken tensions.
The work with John and Mary, including their insightful feedback, has been invaluable in helping us to understand how best to intervene with couples wanting to build relationships in the aftermath of domestic violence. The key themes of intimacy and communication that emerged in our work with this couple, and the specific ways in which these are compromised by domestic violence, are also to the fore in our current work with other couples.
The Living Without Violence Programme for men addresses the central and critical issue of male violence in intimate relationships with women.
However, the programme alone will not necessarily help couples like John and Mary to achieve their full potential as partners. This is a controversial area to work in, and one that has challenged us professionally and personally in all manner of ways. But it is also extremely rewarding and we believe it makes a lasting contribution to the safety and quality of life of couples and their children.
As a word of caution, we would only advocate this approach where colleagues have the kind of professional support mechanisms and access to expert knowledge that we have been so fortunate to enjoy.
* Names have been changed
Andy Cook and Tony Flynn work in the multi-disciplinary setting of the Clermont Child Protection Unit. Cook is a co-facilitator of the Living Without Violence Programme, which is a 36-week group work programme for men who are violent in heterosexual relationships. She also works in the Solutions Focused Team at the Clermont, which is co-ordinated by Tony Flynn.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtland individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
(1) J Lachkar, The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple, Brunner-Routledge, 2004
(2) B O’Hanlon, T Rowan, Solution-Oriented Therapy for Chronic and Severe Mental Illness, Wiley, 1998
(3) B O’Hanlon, P Hudson, Stop Blaming, Start Loving, WW Norton, 1996
This article appeared in the 1 March issue of the magazine, under the headline “Together therapy”