Growing up in the ’90s, I loved scrunchies, wore oversized denim, and spent many afternoons blasting rock music from a clunky boom box.
Some days, I felt normal; other days, I knew something was off about my life at home. Back then, there was no social media to teach me about trauma, and as a young, middle-class, white girl from a two-parent household, I flew under the radar of my school’s social workers.
In college, when I decided to pursue a career in psychotherapy, I was interested in better understanding myself and making sense of my family trauma, using the knowledge I gained to help other people. Since then, I’ve published two books on intimate partner violence (IPV), contributed to several others on abuse, and provided trainings nationwide for clinicians, law enforcement, and legal personnel on family trauma and domestic violence.
When I conduct trainings, clinicians often tell me they don’t think they have any clients who’ve experienced IPV. But it may be that these clinicians just haven’t picked up on it because their clients don’t have the understanding or language to articulate their experience. In fact, many people unknowingly accept common stereotypes about domestic violence, such as the belief that it’s mostly physical, or that it happens only to women. Often, therapists fail to recognize that what their clients are describing meets the criteria for domestic violence. This oversight can even happen to seasoned clinicians who’ve spent years working with IPV survivors. I know this from personal experience because it happened to me.
Jake and his wife, Susan, came to me to work on their relationship so they could “get along better.” But from the very first session, Susan was adamant that she really didn’t need to change much at all. “We’re here because of Jake,” she began. “He took a job that’s beneath him, and it’s really affected our relationship.”
Jake was a social studies teacher at a local middle school and carried a messenger bag he called his Hogwarts bag, named after the Harry Potter series. He was quirky, intellectual, and easygoing. Susan just thought he was immature. “Jake doesn’t dress like an adult,” she said. “He has a graduate degree, but for some reason he refuses to use it.”
As Susan spoke, Jake sat silently on the couch beside her, his eyes downcast, burning a hole into my rug. The only reason Susan had agreed to therapy, I learned, was because my office was near hers, while Jake had commuted nearly an hour to be here. In hindsight, this unwillingness to compromise should’ve been the first red flag—if not her insistence that Jake was the problem. But we therapists are taught to meet clients nonjudgmentally where they are without always being educated on the exceptions to this rule—the situations when we might be better served by skepticism and concern about the tragically violent reality that sometimes lies behind a client’s words. I noticed some of the signs of IPV early, but I worried that if I addressed my concerns too soon and lost Susan, it could hurt Jake, who was happy that Susan had agreed to come to therapy at all.
At first, we discussed ways for them to prioritize their relationship more: by going out on date nights and asking questions about each other’s day. But after a while, Susan would always lose interest in these practices and proclaim she didn’t have time for such “inane activities.” Another red flag.
As we continued to hunt for strategies that might bring them closer together, I’d sometimes notice Susan rolling her eyes when Jake spoke. “Jake, how does Susan’s reaction here make you feel?” I asked, hoping he’d acknowledge feeling dismissed or ignored, giving me somewhere to take the session. “It’s fine,” he’d say. Jake was constantly excusing her behavior. Red flag number three.
A few weeks into our work, Jake and Susan started a session at opposite ends of the couch. Jake eased into the seat slowly, while Susan sat rigid, arms crossed. Even though this wasn’t unlike how they usually began our sessions, I could tell something was different.
“We’re thinking of getting a divorce,” Jake announced, more to the room than to me. He looked away from Susan, eyes locked on my bookshelf. Why didn’t I notice earlier how nervous he gets in front of Susan? I wondered.
“Go on,” I replied, unsure exactly how to proceed.
“It’s fine,” Jake replied. “It needs to happen.” He explained that he was confident in their decision to part ways, but Susan looked angry.
“You feel differently?” I asked her.
“Whatever,” she hissed. “Jake’s obviously cheating on me. I mean, clearly there’s someone else, although I have no idea who.” She laughed. “Maybe he did me a favor!”
I began to wonder whether it was easier for Susan to assume Jake was cheating and become defensive than to accept that she’d been driving him away with her contempt, criticism, and chronic disrespect. I attempted to discuss their thoughts and plans for uncoupling, but it was a stilted, unproductive conversation, and they never came back for another session.
Part of me wanted to give Jake the opportunity to come in alone, since I could tell he’d left a lot unsaid. But I was torn between the blurred ethics of seeing partners individually and following my gut, which told me Jake needed more support. Ultimately, I decided against it. I couldn’t offer Jake individual therapy without offering the same to Susan, and her behavior made me uncomfortable to the point where I didn’t want to be alone with her. Red flag number four.
Then There Was One
Two months later, Jake called to schedule an emergency session, saying Susan’s behavior had worsened. When I mentioned I was hesitant to see him individually because it would compromise my ability to see him together with Susan as a couple in the future, Jake confirmed what I already suspected. “Susan doesn’t want to continue couples therapy,” he said. “When I told her I was planning to call you, she said I was wasting my money, but she didn’t stand in my way.” I agreed to see him after hearing the desperation in his voice.
“I don’t know what to do,” he began once he was settled into a chair in my office. “Susan’s punishing me for ending this relationship.”
Jake described how, after he’d asked Susan to sign their divorce papers, she threw all of his valuables in the pool—college trophies, family photos, books, anything that had sentimental value. Despite her open aggression, Jake still excused her behavior. “I guess it’s understandable,” he said at one point. “She was upset.”
“Do you feel safe, Jake?” I asked. “With everything going on, I worry about your safety.”
“Yeah, I’ll be okay,” he replied. “I just need someone to process it with until things blow over.”
I was still wary about seeing Jake as an individual client, given that I’d originally taken him on as part of a couple, but I was also concerned about his well-being. “Jake, would you like to meet again next week?” I asked. “I can also give you a referral.”
“I wouldn’t want to see anyone besides you,” he said. “You know Susan, and you understand our history. But I’ll be fine. The worst is over, I’m sure.”
But Jake called me a week later, requesting another urgent session. “Susan is out of control,” he said, his voice shaking. “Now she’s spreading lies about me to our families and friends. I don’t know what to do!” We scheduled an emergency phone session for later that week, where he explained the escalation in Susan’s behavior and how she’d become openly hostile and vengeful.
I was finally seeing what had been right in front of me all along: Susan was abusive, and my biases had blinded me from recognizing what I’d sensed from the start. Now, I was worried about Jake’s safety. I was also concerned that if Susan sabotaged his relationships with family and friends, he wouldn’t get the community support he desperately needed.
Therapists have to tread carefully when pointing out IPV. If we do it before a client is ready to hear the truth, it can push them further into denial or put them on the defensive. But in Jake’s case, I felt that he was ready and needed someone he trusted to name what was happening. “Jake,”
I said, “Susan’s behavior is abusive.”
He paused. Even over the phone, I could feel the wheels turning in his head as he chewed over this new information. “No,” he began slowly, “she’s just angry.”
“Abusive people can also be angry,” I said. “Her behavior is dangerous, and it’s continuing to escalate.”
The silence on the other end of the phone lasted so long that I began to wonder if Jake’s phone battery had died or if we’d lost our wireless connection. “I don’t know,” he said finally, seeming unconvinced.
“Jake, just to cover our bases, I’d like us to create a safety plan for you. Let’s write down the names and phone numbers of friends and family you know you can reach out to and rely on, if you need them. I’m also going to send you the contact information for a few domestic violence hotlines and legal support options in your area,” I said. In addition, we discussed hiding things that Susan could use against him, such as legal documents, housing and mortgage information, and items with sentimental value. I suspected that the next several months, if not years, would be difficult for Jake, and I wanted to leave him with emergency support. We scheduled a session for the following week. I was determined to support Jake, but I still felt like I’d failed him by letting the situation get this bad.
Most cases I can put on the therapeutic backburner after hours and pick up again later. But not Jake’s. As I drove home that night, I tried to figure out what I’d missed. When did his relationship tip into abuse? Was there a definitive moment, or had he been experiencing IPV all along?
I called a colleague to consult. As we discussed the case, it became clear that, yes, there were warning signs, like Susan’s unwillingness to compromise or see things from Jake’s point of view, and her lack of empathy. But my colleague assured me that it’s often difficult to tell from the outside when bad behavior will turn into abuse. All we can do is address what we see. Susan’s vengefulness wasn’t obvious to me. It may not have even been obvious to Jake.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one out of nine men have reported experiencing IPV. But the number is likely much higher, given men’s tendency to underreport domestic violence. Gender roles and a society that prizes men for strength makes many too embarrassed to admit they’ve experienced it. It’s one reason why Jake might have felt uncomfortable describing Susan’s behavior as scary or intimidating. Even if I had called out her stonewalling, passive aggressiveness, or threatening body language, it could still have been something Jake wasn’t ready to address—which could’ve pushed him further into denial. Due to the private and tight-lipped nature of many in our culture when it comes to domestic violence, it’s normal for survivors of all genders to feel isolated, but being a man in our culture adds another layer of shame.
Most therapists agree that couples therapy is contraindicated in cases where abuse is present, due to the perpetrator’s tendency to manipulate tools, interventions, and practices intended to help, and to blame or punish the survivor for what they reveal in session. And if the survivor isn’t ready to acknowledge their partner’s abusive behavior for what it is, the therapist calling it out too early can cause further damage. I’ve heard of many cases where a therapist addressing unhealthy or abusive behavior in session evokes protectiveness in the survivor, leading them to defend their partner, either by becoming critical of the therapist, or worse, by quitting therapy altogether. If a survivor is in a state of denial or fears what will happen if the abuser’s behavior comes to light, they might side with the abuser, as the alternative could be worse for them.
Still, in the following days, I replayed Jake and Susan’s case in my head. Did I cause Jake harm by failing to address the negative behaviors taking place in session when I saw him together with Susan as a couple? Did I put him in danger? Had Susan always been abusive, or were her behaviors only now crossing the line into abuse as a no-holds-barred protest over failing to get her way with Jake, or as an attempt to control him through outright aggression, since the relationship was ending? Sure, she had a difficult personality, but many people do. A difficult personality doesn’t automatically mean a person is capable of abuse.
That night, as I sat down to dinner, these concerns cycled through my head as I stirred my spaghetti. Had I done enough? What could I—or should I—have done differently? I was glad that Jake had felt comfortable enough with me to schedule a follow-up individual session, but what if openly calling out Susan’s abuse had been too much too soon?
When we grow up absorbing stereotypes about domestic and intimate partner violence, we develop predetermined expectations of what it will look like when we encounter it. Had the situation been reversed, and had Jake been the one exhibiting the red flags, would I have been more likely to notice them for what they were? I couldn’t go back in time and change what I’d done, but I knew I could do better moving forward. After a lot of thinking, I created a list of several ways to assess for and approach IPV.
Validate experiences. Often, people will tell survivors of domestic violence, particularly men, things like, “Don’t worry; they won’t do anything else,” or “Don’t be afraid of a woman.” Avoid these phrases, as they perpetuate stereotypes around domestic violence and harm the client. When working with clients of all genders, validate their experiences. If they say they feel pushed aside by their partner, or that they worry what the partner might be capable of, validate it and believe them. It’s not our job to find out whether they’re exaggerating, being dramatic, or projecting. Validating and believing them will also encourage openness and help you better understand if they’re misinterpreting their partner’s actions or even contributing to the dynamic. Most importantly, starting with their frame of reference will provide the empathetic space they need to reveal whether abuse is taking place, and, if so, allow them to begin considering the most productive next step for them.
Don’t be afraid to initiate a discussion. Had I asked more about Jake and Susan’s relationship—particularly, how they’d handled disagreements in the past—it might’ve opened up a discussion about what Jake was experiencing, or revealed red flags that we could’ve explored further. Had I been more comfortable with the possibility that IPV was present in this couple’s relationship, perhaps I’d have asked Susan the difficult questions, rather than let Jake’s discomfort confirm my hesitation. In hindsight, I’d have liked to address Susan’s stonewalling and defensiveness, as well as her unwillingness to compromise. Maybe this would’ve made her defensive and risked alienating her, but it’s a risk I wish I’d taken.
Notice when one partner is controlling the narrative. Jake kept making excuses for Susan, yet she never apologized or took ownership of the ways she was overstepping boundaries or being contemptuous and critical. This was more than just a personality flaw. In subsequent cases, I’ve been more likely to address this behavior and the potential for unhealthy dynamics that it causes. In hindsight, I realize I should’ve named what I was seeing when Susan dominated the story and refused to take ownership. If one or both partners are not ready or able to take ownership for their behaviors, then couples therapy might not be their best option. Had I insisted on meeting with Jake and Susan individually, I might’ve had a chance to listen to Jake’s thoughts and feelings without Susan’s overbearing presence in the room. Now, I make sure to meet with each partner individually for at least one session to get their perspective without pressure or interference from the other partner.
Ask questions and keep learning. If a client says their partner makes them uncomfortable, give them private, one-on-one time with you to ask them about this. If they say their partner can be vengeful, ask what their concerns are. We often overlook people who are capable of IPV, particularly after separation, because we don’t want to think about what they might be capable of. This would’ve been tough with Jake and Susan, as Jake seemed to be in denial about Susan’s behavior. He didn’t say that Susan made him uncomfortable, but I could’ve inferred this based on his body language and what he was not saying. Had I asked more questions about Susan’s behavior, I might’ve obtained information I could’ve used to tailor my interventions. Instead, I was so worried about provoking Susan that she controlled much of our sessions.
In hindsight, I would’ve addressed Susan’s behavior, cared less about whether it seemed like I was aligning with Jake, and acknowledged Jake’s experience of being dismissed and degraded.
This might not have prevented Susan’s retaliatory behaviors, but it might have given me the best chance at helping Jake see the experience for what it was—abuse—and might have empowered him to make changes to protect or distance himself from Susan’s unchecked anger and abusive behavior. When it comes to domestic violence, the work often becomes more about taking steps to protect the survivor than trying to change the abuser.
My hope for therapists is that they’ll approach IPV with more awareness. Many therapists are quick to dismiss relationship conflict as inevitable without taking time to look at the way the conflict manifests. Domestic violence is often portrayed in the media as extreme behaviors and physical violence—raised fists and bruised eyes—but what about the invisible, less obvious forms of domestic violence? Do we ignore our own intuition and discomfort in situations like Jake and Susan’s, minimizing forms of IPV that don’t fit stereotypes but still devastate clients’ lives?
When working with couples, we can’t simply take what’s happening in the room at face value and hope for the best. Not only do we need training in the types of power dynamics that can erupt between partners, but we also need to be aware of the different ways we may find ourselves colluding with our clients’ denial. It’s not easy to face IPV, but when one partner dominates the narrative in the room, fails to take ownership of their part in problems, or weaponizes their partner’s vulnerability, it’s critical for us to intervene. If we can’t do this, we need to get ongoing training and consultation so that we can find and use our voice in the service of our clients’ well-being and safety, trusting our clinical intuition even in tricky, high-stakes situations.
If a client comes in reporting that their partner is destroying property or threatening to take children or pets away or harm their reputation, these are all warning signs. Don’t take threats like these lightly or dismiss them as normal breakup behaviors. Work with the client to develop a thorough safety plan. It’s better to overplan in these situations than to dismiss these behaviors as normal and helplessly watch aggression escalate, wishing we’d acted sooner.
I never heard from Jake—or Susan—after that last session. My hope and expectation was they divorced, and Jake was able to put the resources I’d given him to good use. But the experience was a teaching moment for me, one that’s informed my work with partners experiencing IPV ever since.
By Erica Turner
I appreciated Kaytee Gillis’s story highlighting how therapists can miss abuse in relationships, particularly when the abuse doesn’t match culturally mediated expectations. Even as trained professionals, we can buy into the overly simplified stereotype of intimate partner violence we see in the media—a large, imposing, cisgender man physically harming a cowering cisgender woman. But as Gillis rightly points out, this image leaves much out of the IPV conversation, including women perpetuating violence against men, psychological and emotional abuse, common couple violence, and abuse in LGBTQ+ relationships. Her piece foregrounds questions about what constitutes abuse in intimate partnerships, how we can recognize it, and what we can do once we’ve spotted it.
With a case like this, where Susan is clearly dominating the relationship and demeaning her partner, I find it helpful to ask myself, What is the function of her behavior? or What role does it play in the relationship dynamic? To find out, I’d ask her in an individual session why she was drawn to Jake in the first place, and what makes her stay in the relationship. I’d reflect what I’m noticing: that she appears to have a fundamental conflict with him as a person. She isn’t naming her needs she’d like him to meet or relationship behaviors she’d like him to change, but rather, airing grievances against who he is. I’d invite her to be curious about this. For my part, I’m less interested in her answers to my questions and more in her thinking. Her responses would allow me to assess her capacity to reflect on her internal processes and take ownership of her part in their dynamic. This would provide data for me about whether she can actually do the work of couples therapy.
Unfortunately, once you know abuse is present in a relationship, there’s no easy path forward. As Gillis mentions, when abuse is clear, we’re trained to refer both partners to do their work individually until safety has been reestablished. This is a protocol I agree with, but it can also be fraught. A few years ago, I supervised a case where a couple—who’d been seeing their therapist for months—disclosed that one partner was physically abusive. This was an important moment in the therapy: their vulnerability and willingness to address this part of their relationship indicated a deepening of the work, but we made the decision to put the couples work on hold and refer them to individual therapists.
Years later, this case still haunts me. The clients shared the most shameful part of their relationship and we may have inadvertently shamed them further by stopping the couples work. Part of the reason we had to do so was because the therapist on the case was in training. If it had been my own case, I might have wrestled with this choice. Even though there was physical abuse, the abusive partner did not demonstrate the same pattern of control we see with Susan in Gillis’s case. Also, despite being deeply ashamed, the abusive partner in the case I supervised admitted to their behaviors and was motivated to change. I might have insisted on individual therapy for each partner, establishing a safety plan and check-ins with their individual therapists, but continued to see them as a couple as long as violence was not active in the relationship.
Abuse, on its face, seems simple—one partner harms another—and we have a responsibility to protect the victim. The reality is far more complicated. Abuse does not conform to a singular pattern or presentation; it doesn’t always look the way we expect. Ultimately, we are wise to follow Gillis’s advice to remain curious, engaged, and aware in our work with people caught in painful relationship dynamics.
ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, is a psychotherapist, writer, and author with a passion for working with survivors of family trauma and IPV. Her work focuses on assisting survivors of psychological abuse, stalking, and other non-physical forms of domestic violence and family trauma. Her recent book, Invisible Bruises: How a Better Understanding of the Patterns of Domestic Violence Can Help Survivors Navigate the Legal System, sheds light on the ways that the legal system perpetuates the cycle of domestic violence by failing to recognize patterns that hold perpetrators accountable.
Erica R. Turner, LMFT, is the owner of Rosewater Therapy, as well as an Adjunct Faculty member in the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She’s the cofounder of Therapy is Not a Dirty Word, an events and advocacy program that works to bridge the gap between therapists and the public. Visit www.rosewatertherapy.com.