If your husband is abusive it can be really, really difficult to get him into therapy for help. And yet, this leaves the wife in a very difficult place — not only because of the abuse — but because usually the burden of mending the relationship and the problems are placed on her. That’s part of the abusive dynamic. So how do you get past the control and manipulation?
How do you convince an abusive husband they need to get help? How do you approach them about the issue when any confrontation could get dangerous very quickly? The trick here is that in these kinds of situations the blame has been laid for too long at the feet of the abuse survivor. So it is really challenging to safely and effectively motivate the abuser to seek help.
Before we get into this, remember that our episodes should be considered a self-help tool and do not replace individual counseling or direct support from professionals, or even law enforcement in your area as may be required in a situation like this. If your situation is severe you should be pursuing emergency help and establishing safety before you consider trying to intervene on your spouse at all.
Barriers to Confronting Abusive Husbands
I want to start by acknowledging why it can be so hard to confront an abusive husband. I’m going to speak directly to wives in this situation but also want to acknowledge that there can be husbands out there too, and their wives are abusive, and this is also a very challenging and complex situation for you.
The first issue is the most obvious and that is that your physical safety could be at risk or even the safety of your children. In extreme cases your life may be at risk. If that’s your situation you need a safety and escape plan.
Another possibility is that the constant cycle of abuse in your marriage has worn you down to the point where your self-esteem is completely eroded. The humiliation, the lack of control and the isolation — those can lead to feelings of worthlessness and even that you should just accept the abuse since you won’t ever be able to make it stop[i].
Control is also an issue here. If there’s been isolation, or loss of identity, or fear of violence, or financial control or other kinds of restrictions it can make it very hard for you to take action.
Of course there is also the manipulative thinking imposed by abusers so that you may even believe the abuse is your own fault (Chang et al, 2006)
And then there’s trauma bonding. Abusive marriages often create a sense of dependency in you where your low self esteem and sense of powerlessness makes you feel that you need your abusive husband in order to survive[ii]. In this situation you may not confront your husband or try to convince him to get help for fear that he may leave. Or, you may have no power to actually convince him since he believes you will never actually leave him. This is really tough stuff.
Finally, hopelessness comes into play. Long-term abuse can lead to a tangible sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Many abused wives experience symptoms of depression and mental illness. You may therefore believe that there is no hope that your situation will improve, and so make no effort to seek help.
What Can You Do?
There are a few options to consider here.
In the case of physical abuse, police intervention can act as a strong deterrent and also provide motivation for future change.
A study in 1995[iii] looked at police intervention into domestic abuse, and found that being arrested and prosecuted after committing domestic violence significantly reduced the likelihood of future events. This is likely because after arrest, the abuser is often required to undergo mandatory therapy, court-ordered counseling or some other form of intervention[iv].
So as a way of getting your husband into treatment, police action is a drastic but effective strategy.
I get that this is a tough decision to make — it really exposes what is happening in your marriage to the public but it’s also worth considering that him getting caught can be a gift of grace to help him face issues that he may not otherwise find the space to face.
When To Move Forward
As you can imagine, a lot of this comes back to evaluating your own readiness to confront him. We have a bonus resource for wives in this situation, to help them figure out when the right time to start this process is. Normally we only supply the bonus content to our patrons, but as we’ve done in past episodes related to abuse, we want anyone who needs this to be able to access it freely on our Patreon page.
Abuse has a cycle to it: typically, a honeymoon phase, then walking on eggshells, then the outburst, then reconciliation and then the honeymoon again.
It seems that possibly the best time to motivate an abusive husband to seek help and engage in it is during reconciliation. That’s a good time to try and hopefully he will engage in a program where he will stay committed to it and stick with hit.
Another way to motivate your husband into treatment is to consider a therapeutic separation. If you had any concern for your safety or the safety of your kids at all you would want to initiate this through an escape plan.
What I see in abusive marriages is that the husband is often most motivated to seek help and to engage in therapy when the wife is separated from him. Then there’s no covering up what’s going on, there’s nobody to manipulate, just the obvious truth that a problem is there and hopefully he can see that he is the one who needs help.
It’s really critical for people supporting a situation like this — be they friends or family or church members — you may want to see the marriage healed, but the abusive mindset has to be corrected before any marriage counselling should even begin to happen. Don’t rush that part — the wife needs time and space to regroup and then if the husband is in therapy she also needs as much time as she requires to gather evidence through slowly increasing levels of interaction to see if he truly has had a change of mind and is safe to be with again.
So what kind of therapeutic interventions are available, and what are they like at getting abusive husbands to change? There are a couple psychotherapy models that are used in this case.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one approach where abusive husbands can learn better ways of coping with their anger and healthier ways of relating to others. CBT for barterers also teaches them empathy and challenges them to change either underlying beliefs about women or themselves. This is an especially critical component of recovery.
There’s also the Duluth Model. I’m not familiar with this but I understand it is an educational intervention based on feminist principles. This method teaches respect for women and challenges the ideas that men have the right to exert power and control over their wives. It also aims to reduce the behaviors that focus on power, control and dominance and increases the behaviors which relate to equality and fairness.
Are they Effective?
A pretty important question to ask before you try and get your husband into therapy is, “does it work?” To answer this, a study in 2004[v] conducted a meta-review (a study of other research studies) to determine if these treatment methods were effective in motivating abusive husbands to change.
It was found that both intervention types reliably produced “small but significant” reductions in abuse. Both therapy types were relatively similar in their effect, and both produced effect sizes which were only slightly better than the effect of being arrested and prosecuted without getting treatment.
So unfortunately therapy isn’t the magic cure-all you might hope it was: it can help but probably won’t be the slam-dunk you want. Despite the overall modest effect of these interventions, some specific factors have been identified which motivate a man to enter, and stay in, treatment. These include:
- Creating a supportive and collaborative alliance within the couple: you want to encourage your husband into help, rather than forcing him. Confrontational and hostile tactics reduce the abusive husband’s motivation to change. Being aggressive with him also reinforces his belief that relationships are built on anger and forcing people to do what you want. But showing support for him and viewing him as in need of help rather than deserving of punishment enhances the outcome of interventions[vi]. Obviously this is a very hard perspective to take of the man who is abusing you, but if you can separate the man you love from the abuse he is carrying out, he has a better chance of permanently stopping.
- The content of the first introductory session in the intervention was also important in convincing abusers to actually want to seek help. A study in 2008[vii] found that programs which have a day-long “orientation” session which teaches practical skills as well as developing the husband’s feelings of compassion were more successful in motivating the husbands to stay in the program. So if you’re looking into different interventions and therapy options, that’s something to ask about.
Is Your Husband Ready to Change?
Choosing your moment carefully is very important when you’re trying to get your husband the help he needs. According to the trans-theoretical model of behavior[viii], any major change to your lifestyle or actions happens in a cycle of five stages. For an abusive husband it would look like this:
- Pre-contemplation stage: the husband not believing he has any need to change, or that he is not capable of change
- Contemplation: husband recognizes the need to change but doesn’t yet take any action
- Preparation: husband decides to change and begins making a plan to do so
- Action: your husband gets help and begins to change his behavior
- Maintenance: after treatment your husband attempts to maintain his new behavior
Which stage the abusive husband is at determines how motivated they will be to attend therapy, and how successful they will be in different therapy types. A study in 2003[ix] found that men in the contemplation stage show little change in levels of empathy, communication skills and levels of abuse as a result of treatment, but men in the preparation stage and action stage showed positive improvement in all these areas.
So talking to your husband about going into therapy is best done at a time when he recognizes the problem and expresses a desire to change. Given that abuse often happens in cycles of abuse and reconciliation, confronting him during the reconciliation phase when he is promising to change might be the most effective time.
Moreover, a study in 2010[x] found that different types of intervention are appropriate to men at different stages of the cycle of change. Men who are already on board with the idea of changing (preparation and action stages) benefit more from CBT style interventions. Men who don’t yet see the need to change are better off in counseling and motivational interventions which can move them through the change process until they are motivated to change.
When the right intervention was matched to the husband’s stage of change readiness, wives reported a reduction in physical aggression as a result[xi]. So there’s a lot to think about here. You need to try and watch your husband and see what stage he’s at regarding his willingness to change, and have a plan of action to bring out when he’s ready.
Are You Ready for Change?
Here’s the final piece of the puzzle. The cycle of change also applies to wives as they move from thinking that the abuse is unavoidable or that it is their own fault through to deciding to take action[xii]. Wives do not necessarily go through the steps linearly but can jump backwards and forwards along the process.
So as well as making sure your husband is ready, you need to make sure you’re ready. We take a deeper look at this in the bonus content, but you need to be real with yourself about whether you’re mentally and emotionally ready to start this process. Are you ready to follow through on your actions? Could you face the prospect of living without your husband for a time, if it was needed? Can you handle the difficult conversations, and are you ready to admit your situation to those around you? Obviously we don’t want you to live in an abusive situation for a second longer than you have to, but to give yourself the best chance of success you may need to do some personal work first.
[i] Catherine Kirkwood, Leaving Abusive Partners: From the Scars of Survival to the Wisdom for Change (SAGE, 1993).
[ii] Vera George, ‘Traumatic Bonding and Intimate Partner Violence’, 2015 <http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/4398> [accessed 29 August 2017].
[iii] Richard M. Tolman and Arlene Weisz, ‘Coordinated Community Intervention for Domestic Violence: The Effects of Arrest and Prosecution on Recidivism of Woman Abuse Perpetrators’, Crime & Delinquency, 41.4 (1995), 481–95 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128795041004007>.
[iv] Julia C. Babcock, Charles E. Green, and Chet Robie, ‘Does Batterers’ Treatment Work? A Meta-Analytic Review of Domestic Violence Treatment’, Clinical Psychology Review, 23.8 (2004), 1023–53.
[v] Babcock, Green, and Robie.
[vi] CHRISTOPHER M. MURPHY and VICTORIA A. BAXTER, ‘Motivating Batterers to Change in the Treatment Context’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 12.4 (1997), 607–19 <https://doi.org/10.1177/088626097012004009>.
[vii] Laura Sanders, ‘Still Love-Struck after 20 Years: Some Long-Married Couples Are as Giddy as Teenagers’, Science News, 174.12 (2008), 17–17.
[viii] Judy C. Chang and others, ‘Understanding Behavior Change for Women Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: Mapping the Ups and Downs Using the Stages of Change’, Patient Education and Counseling, 62.3 (2006), 330–39 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2006.06.009>.
[ix] Katreena L. Scott and David A. Wolfe, ‘Readiness to Change as a Predictor of Outcome in Batterer Treatment’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71.5 (2003), 879–89 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.71.5.879>.
[x] Pamela C. Alexander and others, ‘Stages of Change and the Group Treatment of Batterers: A Randomized Clinical Trial’, Violence and Victims, 25.5 (2010), 571–87.
[xi] Alexander and others.
[xii] Chang and others.