Working with High Conflict Couples: Assessing for Abusive Elements

Working with High Conflict Couples: Assessing for Abusive Elements

Categories: AACC BLOG

by Leslie Vernick, MSW

Working with high conflict couples presents unique challenges that frustrate and confuse even experienced counselors. We can work for months, even years, without seeing improvement. And, we can miss some crucial diagnostic components if we are not mindful of what to look for. 

            High conflict couples experience frequent fighting that may threaten their connection and happiness. In a destructive/abusive marriage, fighting threatens the sanity and safety of the people within the marriage. 

What’s Going On?

Our diagnosis shapes our treatment plan. For example, when working with a high conflict couple, if we diagnose the primary problem as an attachment issue, then that’s where treatment will begin. Attachment issues may be part of a couple’s overall diagnostic picture, just as a person having a heart attack may also have a sprained ankle or arthritis. However, when working with a high conflict couple, safety always comes first. We must assess for the possibility of domestic abuse and subsequent safety concerns because, if present, marital counseling is contraindicated. 

Make a Proper Assessment

For obvious reasons, fear of one’s partner and/or abusive behavior is rarely voluntarily disclosed during a joint session. Therefore, early in the assessment stage, let the couple know that for at least one session you would like to see each person individually. In this individual session, you want to get an overall picture of a person’s relationship history, personal strengths, coping strategies, and family of origin issues. To assess for safety concerns, ask these closed questions. 

  1. Have you ever been threatened or physically hurt in this relationship?
  2. Have you ever been an unwilling participant in a sexual act?
  3. Do you ever feel fearful around your partner?

4.   Are there times you don’t trust your partner?

5.   Do you have the freedom to make decisions, give your input, and say no to things?

6.    Can you respectfully challenge and confront the attitudes, decisions, and behaviors of your partner? If not, what happens when you try?

            If the answer is yes to any of the first four questions or no to the last two questions, you need to dig deeper. The first four questions give you insight into physical or emotional abuse, as well as problems with deceit. Questions three, five, and six reveal coercive control in the marriage. An imbalance of power and control is one of the primary diagnostic indicators for an abusive relationship. 

            A healthy marriage is one where both people in the relationship give and receive. There is a safe and open exchange of ideas, feelings, and thoughts, and all perspectives are considered and valued. There is also the freedom to respectfully disagree, challenge, confront, and strengthen one another. 

Dig Deeper

Lenore Walker, the author of Survivor Therapy, suggests four additional queries to examine during the individual assessment session that will help you determine if abusive patterns are present in the marriage.

  1. Describe the first time this happened (or you felt this way).
  2. Describe the last time this happened (or you felt this way).
  3. Describe the worst time this happened (or you felt this way).
  4. Describe what a typical time is like.

            For example, a much clearer marital picture emerges when a woman who has been married for 20 years tells you the first time she felt scared was on her honeymoon. Her husband screamed at her because she felt shy and told her something was wrong with her because she was frigid. The last time she felt scared was last week when, during an argument, he threw a can of beer at her in front of the children and it hit her in the chest. The worst time was when she was pregnant with their first child and he slapped her and threw her against a wall… and a typical time is on weekends when he drinks too much and becomes verbally demeaning and cruel.

            In a different case, you find the first time there was physical abuse was last week when he pushed her during an argument. His behavior scared them both and that’s why they made an appointment for counseling. In taking a careful history of the marriage, you are looking for patterns of healthy behaviors, as well as patterns of controlling and abusive behavior often escalating in frequency, intensity, duration, and variability. 

            Don’t minimize the second example because the client admitted the abuse. In both cases, safety should be our primary treatment goal… if clients do not have safety, they cannot do effective therapy. One person cannot speak honestly about what is going on at home if disclosing in a couple’s setting is not safe.

Safety Comes First

Once you have completed the individual interview and find there is a pattern of abuse that is present and escalating, your next steps are to determine the risk for harm and help develop a safety plan. The Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-SAFE) can give some guidance, as well as resources provided at the end of this article.

            If there is no history of physical abuse, but you observe patterns of emotional and verbal abuse, or mild coercive control, the first therapeutic goal is to create greater safety so you can assess whether marital work can be accomplished.

            These safety goals help high conflict couples learn to: 

  • Honor timeouts
  • Respect stated boundaries
  • Identify personal triggers
  • Give their partners the freedom to say no without retaliation
  • Tolerate personal negative emotions or those of a spouse without resorting to abusive or controlling behavior

            If either the husband or wife is unwilling or unsuccessful at implementing these goals at home, marital counseling is contraindicated. Instead, suggest individual therapy so clients can be safe before executing joint work. 

Watch Out for This Critical Mistake

A common mistake counselors and church leaders make in working with high conflict couples is seeing both individuals as mutually abusive. The Apostle Paul addresses this pattern when he writes, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15). These kinds of couples consistently attack one another instead of mutually attacking their problem(s). 

            However, there is a subtle difference we must watch for called reactive abuse. Reactive abuse can be seen when one person in the marriage resists his or her partner’s coercive control. For example, Bill believes that as the head of his home he is entitled to make the rules for his wife, Teresa, to live by. Bill told Teresa that she was not allowed to talk on her cell phone when he is home. He reasoned that she has plenty of time to talk during the day. When he is home, he desires it to be their time.

            Initially, trying to be a godly, submissive, Christian wife, Teresa acquiesced to Bill’s encroaching rules. Nevertheless, his control over her life escalated. Bill wanted to decide how much time she should spend visiting her family, what friends she should have, what groceries she could buy, and what books she was allowed read. Teresa felt like a child instead of an adult woman. Talking to Bill about her feelings did not help, and Teresa began reacting negatively to Bill’s control. She would not always tell him where she went or would openly defy him in disrespectful tones. One time, when he firmly grabbed her arm to keep her from leaving the house, she slapped him.

            To the untrained eye, Teresa would get labeled as the abusive one. Bill may even tell you during your individual assessment that he is “scared” of her. However, if we look at Teresa’s behavior as abusive without seeing how Bill’s conduct is fueling her resistance, we have failed to address Bill’s coercive control that is present in the relationship. Teresa’s behavior is sinful and she needs help to set better boundaries and learn how to be assertive, but if Bill does not see the abusive nature of his control, their marriage will not get better.   

            The following are some factors to watch for if you are currently working with high conflict couples that reveal abusive elements:

  • Imbalance of power and control in the relationship
  • Consistent lack of mutuality (the sharing of a feeling, action, or relationship)
  • A pattern of dismissive and invalidating responses
  • Attacking a person rather than solving a problem
  • Lack of freedom to speak up, have an opinion that is different, disagree, or make choices on his/her own
  • Blame-shifting, minimizing, and lack of responsibility for wrongs committed in the marriage 
  • Consistent indifference to his/her partner’s needs, feelings, desires, and thoughts

Be Sure You Have Two Willing Clients 

Last, when doing marital counseling with any couple, especially a high conflict couple, make sure you have two willing clients.

      For example, when I asked Teresa what she wanted to work on, she said, “I know I’ve been horrible to Bill lately. I need to show him more respect and communicate without calling him names. But I don’t know how to talk to him in a way he will hear me.” When I asked Bill that same question, he said, “I want Teresa to respect me as the leader of our home.”

      When I asked Bill if there was anything he needed to change, he drew a blank. He said, “If Teresa just submitted, things would be fine.” In his mind, the problem was Teresa. Bill was not in therapy to work on himself, but to make sure Teresa got the help she needed. 

      Attempting marital counseling by working with only one willing client is a mistake. It sends the wrong message. First, it reinforces Bill’s belief that Teresa is the problem. Second, it reinforces his belief that the therapist agrees there is nothing wrong either with him or the way he functions as the head of his home. Third, it leads Teresa to believe the therapist agrees with Bill that she is the problem and needs to change to make their marriage better.

      Instead, tell Bill that he is free to leave if he has nothing to work on for himself. That way, you can help Teresa learn to stand up to Bill’s control in a healthier manner without reinforcing that she is the sole problem or he does not have one. 

      While working with high conflict couples is challenging, it is also rewarding when each person is willing to make the necessary effort needed to make real changes. Be sure to begin with an actual assessment, remembering that effective therapy is not possible until each individual feels safe in the relationship.

Leslie Vernick, MSW, is a popular speaker, author, and relationship coach. She has more than 35 years of experience helping individuals and couples heal, rebuild, and grow in their relationships. Leslie is the author of seven books, including the best-selling, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, and her most recent, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.Contact Leslie at

Resources for Developing a Safety Plan: